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Editorial: Greek tragedy: horrific revelations must prompt a new approach to the refugee crisis

ALLEGATIONS that the Greek coastguard has not only been involved in illegal “pushbacks” of refugees across borders, but has even thrown them into the sea to drown, should be a wake-up call.

It’s nearly eight years since the photograph of drowned two-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on the beach sent shockwaves round the world. But things have not got safer for refugees since: they have got worse, as a direct result of government policies across Europe.

Britain is no exception. Rishi Sunak made “stopping the boats” his headline policy and treats refugees with performative cruelty, herding them onto prison barges or listing them for deportation to Rwanda. Keir Starmer does not call out the inhumanity of these policies, instead accusing Sunak of being “liberal” on immigration.

Both big Westminster parties say refugee deaths are a tragedy, but the responsibility of human-trafficking gangs who dupe people onto unseaworthy boats and then abandon them. Making crossings harder is then perversely presented as a way to save lives, by deterring people from trying.

The global refugee crisis has truly spawned a ruthless human-trafficking industry. But the “stop the gangs” variant on the stop-the-boats theme is dishonest.

Gangs exploit the refugee crisis: they did not create it. Alan Kurdi’s family were fleeing the Syrian civil war. War fuelled by Western arms or directly launched by Western attack (as in Afghanistan or Libya) is a major driver of today’s refugee crisis. Climate breakdown, resulting in worsening droughts, floods and failed crops, is another. 

Worse, the gangs narrative is actively used to attack refugees rather than criminals. Last month a Greek court dismissed an attempt to charge nine survivors of one of the worst shipping disasters in history, the drowning of an estimated 600 people in full view of a Greek coastguard patrol boat last June, with having been the traffickers responsible for putting the victims on the boat that sank.

The Greek prosecution is not unusual, and nor are attempts to charge volunteers operating search-and-rescue missions with trafficking offences. 

Technically saving the life of anyone in distress at sea is a binding obligation under international law: yet doing so is now as likely to land you with a trafficking charge as a medal. The same perverse logic inspired Nigel Farage’s jibe that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a “migrant taxi service.”

Treating refugees as criminals permeates the culture of institutions: this explains the BBC’s harrowing discoveries about the Greek coastguard, a force supposedly designed to save lives now charged with deliberately ending them. It also empowers the criminal gangs, by forcing refugees into an illegal shadow world. Many of these invisible victims are then disappeared into modern slavery or sexual exploitation: journalists’ collective Lost in Europe found 51,433 unaccompanied child or young refugees vanished after arrival in Europe between 2021 and 2023, an average of 47 a day.

The left can be too timid on challenging anti-immigrant politics. The right claim to speak for ordinary people in opposing immigration. But attitudes can be changed.

Principled leadership and mass mobilisation can stop governments abusing refugees. Jeremy Corbyn showed this in 2016, when he challenged David Cameron’s attempt to ban unaccompanied child refugees from being given sanctuary in Britain. Labour forced a U-turn even though Cameron headed a majority Conservative government.

Two years later, Tory home secretary Amber Rudd had to resign over the mistreatment of black British citizens in the Windrush scandal, again because we had opposition figures like then shadow home secretary Diane Abbott who had the guts to confront racism.

Labour’s leaders today have neither the courage nor compassion of Corbyn or Abbott. But we should be in no doubt that there is a direct line from the criminalisation of asylum-seekers to the horrific crimes now reported of the Greek coastguard. It’s way past time we changed the debate.

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