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Be more Banksy: how the UK continues to fail refugees in need

Louise Michel was a French anarchist and revolutionary born in a commune in North East France in 1830. Deeply involved in feminist campaigns, Michel went on to play key roles in the Paris Commune and the anarchist movement, taking inspiration from her belief in a world based upon humanity and justice, one in which there would be no exploiters and no exploited.

Louise Michel died in 1905, yet over 100 years later her name is now the name stencilled onto the port side of the M.V. Louise Michel – a ship, as pink as the Japanese cherry blossoms in Spring, that has been funded and transformed by the street artist Banksy.

Born in Bristol in 1974, the anonymous British artist is famed for his political activism and works that have appeared across the world from Palestine to New York, addressing topics such as war, capitalism and greed. Yet his most recent project has been rather different – instead of painting on concrete or on the insides of underground carriages, Banksy has recently converted the old French patrol boat Suroît into the rescue ship the M.V. Louise Michel for use on the Mediterranean.

The mission of the M.V. Louise Michel and her crew is one of solidarity and resistance. The ship’s aim is to reach distressed parties crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe, before the Libyan Coastguard, in order to prevent unnecessary, pointless and callous loss of life and to obstruct the return of refugees to Libyan detention centres that are, in all but name, prisons, in which refugees may find themselves detained indefinitely.

Not to be outdone by Banksy, the British government have too launched new responses in reaction to refugees attempting to reach the UK, although in many ways these have been the antithesis of the work of the crew of the M.V. Louise Michel and other vessels often run by NGOs.

In 1950, the UK signed the European Convention on Human Rights, a document drafted by the newly created Council of Europe, holding that individuals have the right to life as well as the right to liberty and security. Yet on the 9th August 2020 the British government again demonstrated that the UK’s commitment to human rights is a wafer thin and precarious one at best, liable to be forgotten when the parties in question do not carry a passport with the Royal Arms emblazoned onto its front or hold British citizenship.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is not renowned for her open mindset or for her internationalist outlook, yet on the 9th August 2020 she exceeded herself by appointing former Royal Marine Dan O’Mahoney to the role of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, tasking him with the job of ‘making the Channel route unviable for small boat crossings’.

As of the 11th August 2020, 4343 migrants have arrived in Britain after crossing the channel from France. These refugees arrive having fled persecution and violence in their homelands in countries such as Yemen, Eritrea and Chad. Their journeys are usually long and gruelling, most commonly involving transit through war-torn and corrupt Libya before the perilous, often lethal journey across the Mediterranean to Italy can be attempted. If individuals arrive safely in Europe, they then face a punishing passage of thousands of miles to Calais, with the Channel acting as the final hurdle standing in the way of reaching Britain.

Despite what the government would have us believe; these refugees are not monsters. They are people. People who are coming to the UK not to invade Britain or to undermine our security or to, God forbid, waste the precious taxpayer’s money, and they’re also not coming here to steal our jobs, our healthcare or school places. Refugees attempt to come to countries such as Britain most often because they have no viable alternative. These people are brave and courageous and have often faced traumas and hardships that the vast majority of us would pale in the face of. Britain claims to hold that the rights to life, liberty and security are sacrosanct and yet when refugees attempt to realise these rights, we turn our back on them. Instead, our Government has the audacity to manufacture the role of a ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’, artificially and dangerously constructing an image of refugees as hostile, threatening aliens. 

These people are not hostile or a threat and still they continue to be grossly and inexcusably let down by Britain and Europe’s xenophobia, racism and nationalism. The treatment of refugees by Britain and the rest of Europe reveals the darkest parts of our political culture, scrubbing away any impression that we may have that our society is one of acceptance and justice as easily as one may scrub away the thin covering of a scratch card bought from a station kiosk.

In order to limit crossings across the channel, Patel recently called upon the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy for assistance, seemingly oblivious that the dangerous refugee crossings, usually undertaken in small, overcrowded boats and dinghies, will continue unless Britain implements safe and legal routes to allow individuals to reach the UK.

There are many possible courses of action that the UK could take in order to limit channel crossings and prevent refugees from unnecessarily risking their lives. For instance, in June 2019, Sajid Javid announced that a new resettlement scheme would commence in Britain in 2020, aiming to resettle 5000 vulnerable refugees in Britain during its first year of its operation. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the scheme was suspended in March 2020 and despite the government’s easing of restrictions, the opening of pubs, beauty salons and restaurants, no date has yet been given for the commencement of the resettlement scheme, spelling out in writing that is as bold as a Banksy stencil, just how little the government cares for those who risk their lives trying to reach Britain.

Our priorities, attention and efforts in the UK are severely misplaced and poorly directed. Rather than directing our attention towards making the Channel and our nation inhospitable towards refugees, we ought to be opening our doors, massively expanding programmes such as the resettlement programme, and offering a place of safety to refugees from across the world and supporting them in their resettlement. 

Britain is not alone in its culpability and neglect. Indeed, the other nations of Europe continue to turn a blind eye to their responsibilities and to allow, and therefore to facilitate, the futile suffering of those who need our protection the most. But just because we are not alone in our negligence towards refugees, does not in any way diminish our responsibilities towards them.

Birth is a lottery and we have done nothing to earn our privilege to live in a secure and predominantly safe country. In an alternative universe it quite easily could have been you or I fleeing war and turmoil, setting off across the sea with no more protection against the wind and waves than the strained canvas of an overcrowded boat, as the world turns its back and pretends that it cannot see.

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