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A Greek Tragedy at Sea

16 Jun 2023

As 600 innocent people drown in the search for a better and safer life, will compassionate pragmatism ever replace hostility?

Our new Temple Takes feature offers the chance for those associated with the William Temple Foundation to reflect ethically and politically on those events that have made the news in a particular week.

This week’s news has been particularly grim: the report by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee into the deliberate misleading of Parliament by Mr Johnson over lockdown rules, and the subsequent undignified infighting amongst the Conservative party, makes me despair at how low the standards in our public life have become.

There was the tragic and senseless murder of three innocent citizens in Nottingham and the 6th anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Then there were the latest strikes by junior doctors, which however justified, nevertheless puts countless lives on anxious and potentially fatal hold. I have had two conversations with a close friend and family member this week. Both are living with cancer knowing that their treatment is facing constant delay and cancellation. It is a heartbreaking and unacceptable situation, and I am haunted by what they are having to face.

As ever in recent times, the global, national and personal seem interlaced in increasingly visceral ways.

But last night’s BBC 10 pm bulletin (June 15th) put even these harrowing events into a new perspective. The lead item was the coverage of the political fallout from the aforementioned Parliamentary Privileges Committee report involving Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. The item showed images of Mr Sunak accompanying a police raid on what was loosely described as a ‘crackdown on illegal immigration’. Dressed in heavy boots and stab vest, the Prime Minister looked somewhat self-conscious and out of place as he watched from the sidelines. Nevertheless, the visual narrative we were being invited to consume was that of a leader on top of the fight against illegal immigration and ‘stopping the boats’ in the wake of an admittance by the UK Government that it has no realistic chance of meeting its own targets.

The next item covered the unbearable tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea of the coastline of Greece. An old and overcrowded fishing boat carrying 750 refugees and migrants had capsized en route from Libya to Italy. The people on board where from Pakistan, Syria and Kurdistan and included over 20 women and up to 100 children, apparently quartered below deck.

Whilst 100 have been rescued, there is now a clear expectation that the rest will have perished on top of the 78 already pronounced dead. Apparently, no life jackets had been issued. The boat was dangerously overcrowded but for those who had already paid $5000 for the journey there could be no turning back. The vessel was heading towards Italy rather than Greece (a longer and more perilous journey) because Greece is surrounded by more ‘migrant-hostile’ Balkan states. There is speculation that the Greek coastguards should have intervened earlier in saving people within the 15 hours from when the boat entered Greek waters to when it capsized. The fear and terror experienced by those children and adults over that 15-hour period prior to their deaths is unbearable to imagine.

What links these two stories is they appear to show how a politically expedient hostility to refugees and migrants is deadening our collective compassion and sense of empathy.

One would hope that the awful scale of this tragedy might be the impetus for a strategic think on immigration in the UK and across Europe as a whole. The Prime Minister and some of the political and media establishment should at least feel queasy about the juxtaposition of these two events. If the PM chooses to express regret at the tragic loss of human life in the Mediterranean he needs to remember that, at the very same time this tragedy was unfolding, he was presiding over a media stunt purporting to show the toughness and efficacy of the ‘hostile environment’ towards so-called illegal migrants in this country.

Of course, immigration is a complex and global issue. The UK is clearly not alone in attempting to impose draconian laws that attempt to restrict migration. But the tone currently being set by our political leaders appears to be cruel, inaccurate and often baseless, and aimed primarily at covering up for the lack of political will to solve a global issue.

A change of government is looking increasingly inevitable, and potentially with may come some more pragmatic and compassionate responses. As others have argued we need to reopen safe routes to counteract the people traffickers and invest in a professional and efficient border control system and a well-equipped social infrastructure. We need to remove the rhetoric of hatred from the policy framework and recognise both the moral and economic arguments for welcoming those who wish to settle here and contribute to British life. The tides of human misery created by climate change, and wars over dwindling resources, are only set to increase.

Our best resilience in the face of these existential crises is not to draw up a drawbridge which cannot hope to withstand the overwhelming tide of human need. Rather it has to work with the flow of these changes, seeing people flocking to our shores as fellow human beings (a moral approach) and as a vital resource for own economic and social resilience and as a global contribution to problem solving (an economic and technical approach).

Not everyone who wants to settle in the UK will be allowed to do so. Exploitation or criminality need to be swiftly dealt with and provided that clear criteria for asylum seeking are transparently and fairly applied, then some people will not have a strong enough claim on the grounds of political or economic sanctuary.

But the current default culture of demonisation and othering must change. Our system is broken and needs radical re-imagination and investment. Its brokenness is not caused by those people seeking refuge or a better life. It is broken by a lack of political will, vision and up-stream thinking from those whose mindset can countenance no change, however much the evidence points to such a necessity.

We must not let these hundreds of children and adults, whose lives have been cut short in this horrific and tragic accident, die in vain for the sake of an outdated and inefficient ideology of managing global flows of human survival and need.

Dr. Chris Baker holds the post of William Temple Professor of Religion, Belief and Public Life at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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