It has been widely reported that so far this year almost 26,000 people have taken the dangerous journey across the channel trying to flee danger and reach UK soil. This is more than three times the number of crossings in 2020. Tragically, instances of people losing their lives whilst making the journey on small, overcrowded dinghies in the freezing cold, are too regularly hitting our news cycle. But this week’s news that at least 27 men, women and children died on the channel marks the largest single loss of life so far.
One can hardly imagine the level of desperation and hopelessness that must drive someone to make such a dangerous journey. Yet, as a Jewish community we need only look decades back, to our own parents and grandparents’ stories of crossing Europe’s borders in the middle of the night, hopping into the bottom of RAF planes, or pretending to be someone else to escape on the Kindertransport, to help us to empathise with this impossible decision.
At a moment like this, our focus must be on the people seeking sanctuary, and not on the gangs that are smuggling them, a narrative too often used to detract from the human cost of this tragedy. This narrative, and the political blame games being played out, distract from the most pressing issue, the human cost of the status quo. Jewish tradition teaches us to be uncompromising in our commitment to pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, which overrides almost every other Jewish law, and the same unyielding commitment should guide our country’s approach to these men, women, and children in limbo.
As an organisation founded to rescue Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, we know well the importance of safe routes for those seeking sanctuary from war and danger. Official UN resettlement routes are the safest way for refugees to reach the UK, but their scale does not come close to meeting the need. For context, of the 13 million Syrians who have fled their homes over 10 years of conflict, only 0.6% have been referred for resettlement and able to reach countries such as the UK via official, legal routes. A wider-ranging resettlement programme would enable more people to reach our shores without having to risk such a dangerous journey.
Meanwhile, there will always be people who reach the UK by ‘irregular’ routes. We desperately need a better system for processing, welcoming and integrating those who arrive this way, including people who have journeyed across the channel, and enter the asylum system. We know that employment is one of the most important factors aiding the integration process for new arrivals, so the ban on people working whilst they await the result of their asylum claim needs reconsidering. With over 1 million job vacancies needing to be filled in this country, and almost 40,000 people seeking asylum and living, sometimes in hotels and detention centres and on only £5 a day, employment would benefit not only the individuals wanting to work and build a life here but would also have a wider positive impact on our economy.
Our Jewish values, organisation’s history, and expertise in refugee employment, all uniquely position us to support asylum seekers and refugees from the moment they arrive in the UK, assisting the Government and those arriving with the integration and employment process. We hope that yesterday’s tragedy reminds our Government of the need to reconsider the current asylum system, and work together towards a kinder and more compassionate approach.