Open Letter to Boris Johnson – Channel Crossing Deaths

3 December 2021

December 2021

The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister and Minister for the Union

Cc: The Rt Hon Priti Patel MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office Department

Dear Prime Minister,

Channel Crossings Deaths

We are writing as representatives of civil society, refugee and homelessness organisations, lawyers, social housing providers, trade unions, teachers unions, educational institutions and of faith and belief communities across the United Kingdom, who share common values of care, compassion and fairness.

We wish to express our grave concerns about the way this Government is handling its responsibilities under the International Refugee Convention of 1951, and how it has responded to last week’s tragedy in the English Channel, where seventeen men, seven women - one of whom was pregnant - and three young children from Kurdistan drowned while trying to cross to Dover. What is happening now is a choice made by people.

The Refugee Convention enshrines the right to seek protection in a third country. The UK - like most other countries - has willingly undertaken a moral and legal commitment to help those in greatest need, in flight from persecution and abuse, in order that they can be safe and rebuild their lives.

But in contrast to the UK’s proud history in refugee protection, this Government’s response to recent tragedies has made clear that it is now prepared to stoke and pander to the xenophobia and anti-immigrant hatred of a small section of the population with extreme opposition to refugees, even to the point of leaving human beings to drown in the freezing waters of the Channel.

Your Home Secretary seeks to undermine sympathy for refugees by claiming 70% of Channel crossers are “economic migrants not genuine asylum seekers.” That is false. Her own Department’s data shows that virtually all seek asylum. And looking at the figures for the top ten nationalities arriving in small boats, 61% of asylum seekers are granted it at the initial stage, and 59% of the rest on appeal. That means that well over 70% of those coming across the Channel in small boats are indeed genuine asylum seekers, and not ‘economic migrants’.

That is hardly surprising. Figures from the Refugee Council show that over 90% of people who arrive on boats are from refugee-producing countries, like Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen. These people are fleeing persecution and destitution, and the sea route from France is the only one open to them. The UK schemes in practice no longer exist. We have closed the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, scrapped the Dubs child refugee scheme, and do not have an Afghan scheme up and running.

In the last 18 months, 3,187 Iranians crossed the Channel - the largest group by nationality. In that same period, just one arrived by the official route. How many came from Yemen, which is riven by civil war and famine, during these 18 months? None by the official route. Not one.

To quote Lord Kerr in the recent Housing of Lords Debate on Channel Crossing Drownings:

“Mourning the dead has not stopped the UK Government from planning to break with the Refugee Convention. The Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to criminalise those who survive the peril of the seas and those at Dover who try to help them, and is in danger of wreaking murderous consequences for the relatively few who seek sanctuary here. This Anti-Refugee Bill does nothing to increase safe routes. With limited resettlement options, dangerous crossings are the only route for most people claiming asylum in the UK. Further, there is no evidence to support the Government’s claims that the changes proposed in the bill will undermine smuggling networks. Of course we can go down that road, and abandon our international reputation and responsibilities. But if we do, let us at least admit that what drives us is prejudice, and not the facts. Because the facts do not support a case for cruelty.

The facts are that 90% of the world's refugees remain in their own region. Europe does not take its fair share of the world’s refugees, and nor does the UK. We are not the preferred destination in Europe. We are well down on the list.

Furthermore, overall UK refugee numbers are currently half of where they were 20 years ago. The reason that boat numbers are up is that people are being driven more and more to these dangerous sea crossings. Our failure to provide a safe route makes us complicit with the people smugglers. They may make a profit, but our failure to intervene has led to innocent people drowning.

And let us not forget that it was above all UK Government policy that took human smuggling from being a little-known activity to a profitable criminal enterprise. In 1987, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd introduced legislation to fine airlines carrying undocumented passengers. This meant refugees could no longer take flights, because there is no such thing as a refugee visa. People began arriving via ships, lorries, caravans and people carriers. A series of tragedies scarred the next few years, in particular, that of 58 Vietnamese people who suffocated in an airless shipping container.

In 2000, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw and his Prime Minister Tony Blair extended Hurd’s legislation to cover every means of transport. The owners of lorries, cars, vans, and trains carrying asylum seekers or migrants - wittingly or unwittingly - would be fined and risk confiscation of their vehicles. Blair’s legislation closed the last legitimate escape routes for tens of thousands of vulnerable people, bringing huge profits to criminals, and murderous consequences for those now forced to use traffickers to reach the UK.

Neither of these government measures stopped desperate people fleeing persecution and death. All that happened is that more people died.

And today the people smugglers are again rubbing their hands in glee as Western governments demand the sealing of borders. We understand that these criminals have no compassion for the plight of refugees, and do not care how many lose their lives. But surely we can expect more from the UK Government? Is it really the policy of this country to deny all responsibility, and stand by while human beings, men, women and children, drown in our seas?

Supporting people who need help is the right thing to do. Wherever we come from, we all have a right to feel safe.

As Prime Minister and Minister for the Union, we urge you to reconsider your approach. We call on you to withdraw the deeply flawed Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through Parliament, and instead introduce a humanitarian visa alongside safe routes to asylum in this country and allow refugees to safely rebuild their lives as part of our communities.

We look forward to your response.


Robina Qureshi
Positive Action in Housing

Sabir Zazai
Scottish Refugee Council

Eric and Phillipa Kempson          
Hope Centre, Greece


Jelina Berlow Rahman            
Berlow Rahman Solicitors

Tam Dean Burn

Felix Kupay

Deborah Rea
Ind. vol. For disabled asylum seekers
partners with British Red Cross, Community care and immigration lawyers.

Amanda Sebestyen
Independent supporter
Central African Refugee Centre

Maria Wilby
Senior Caseworker
Refugee Action - Colchester

Matthew Johnstone
Independent volunteer
Positive Action in Housing

Jude Lancet
Haringey Migrant Support Centre

Polly McNamara
Homeless Caseworker
St Mungo’s

Jennifer Lindo
Homeless caseworker
St. Mungo’s

Durga Sivasathiaseelan
Outreach Lead
Doctors of the World

Anita Holmes
Homeless caseworker
St. Mungos

Grace Burgess
Safeguarding Lead

Kirsty McKee
Independent volunteer
Positive Action in Housing

Clare Moseley

Isobel Cairns
NRPF Specialist Caseworker
Solace Women’s Aid

Sherri Wong Hearing
Caseworker volunteer
Leicester City of Sanctuary

Favour Herbeet
CREEM Glasgow

Helen C Mitchell
PPE Sales Manager
Promotional Warehouse

Pat Joyce
Team Leader
Devon & Cornwall Refugee Support, Plymouth

Michael Shaw
Central Asylum Yorkshire

Eleanor Brown

Andrea Cleaver
Welsh Refugee Council

Nicky Woods
Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

Rosario Guimba-Stewart
Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network

Sarah Grahame
Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

Eleanor Hitchman
Yarl’s Wood Befriender

Sheila Melzak
Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile

Dr Razia Shari
Kent Refugee Action Network

Debbie Royle
Deputy Director
Nottingham & Notts Refugee Forum

Abil Amir
Casework Coordinator
British Red Cross, Refugee Services

Nicola Lawton
Freelance Producer

Caroline O’Connor
Migrant Help

Amanda Church-Mcfarlane
Abigail Housing

Suzanne Fletcher
Housing stream convenor
Tees Valley of Sanctuary

Stephen Smellie
Depute Convenor
UNISON Scotland

Ian Doig
Unison South Lanarkshire Branch

Development Manager
SOLA Arts, Liverpool

Craig Sanderson
Edinburgh Poverty Commission

Magdalena Szlenkier
Lewisham Donation Hub, Host and Home Visitor for Rooms for Refugees and Refugees at Home

Kiven Emmanuel
Operations and Strategy Officer
Plymouth Hope

Dr Janet Gilbert
General Manager
The Cotton Tree Trust

Kate Ramsden
Branch co-chair,
Aberdeenshire UNISON

Dr Rachel Smith

Lynn McCulloch FCIH
Social Housing Consultant
Lynn McCulloch Ltd

Stella Shyanguya
Yarl's Wood Befrienders

Josh Treacher
Homeless Caseworker
St Mungo’s

Catherine Kirk
Yarl's Wood Befrienders

Angela Huddart
Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

Adam Baker
Refugee Roots

Holly Donald
Homeless Caseworker
St Mungo’s

Aaron Leung
TEDx Coach, Corporate Trainer & Advocate for Refugees Worldwide
Global (Once part of Trinity Church)

Jessica Anslow
Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

David Brannan
Crisis intervention worker
The Marie Trust

Tom Ballantyne

Robert Swinfen
The Iona Community Migration Network

Ashley More
Social Worker
Local Authority

Kirsten Hey
Occupational Therapist
City of Edinburgh Council

Jane Gibson
Social Worker
City of Edinburgh Council

Trishna Singh OBE
Sikh Sanjog

Arthur Nicoll
Dundee City UNISON

Karen Phillips
Service Coordinator
Amma Birth Companions

Roddy Hutchison
Community Care Assistant
Edinburgh City Council

Carolyn Housman
Children and Families Across Borders

Fraser Sutherland
Humanist Society Scotland

Sheza Afzal
Partnership Manager

Anne Sanderson

Ciara Shouldice
Allied Health

Abi Kingstone
Case worker
Community Cook Up, Haringey

Brian Smith
Branch Secretary
UNISON Glasgow

Michael Carberry
Blochairn Housing Association

Najimee Parveen
PATH (Scotland)

Naomi Webb
Executive Director
Good Chance Theatre

Callum Loughrie

Beth Wilson
Bristol Refugee Rights

Victoria Stelikou
Victims of Slavery Client Adviser
Migrant Help

Karen Pearse
Positive Action For Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Alison Summers
Torture ID and Freedom from Torture

John McFadden
Stand up to racism Scotland

Emma Baillie
Positive Action in Housing

Eunice Duthie
Social worker

Elli Free
Room to Heal

Miriam Richardson

Margaret Gallacher
South Lanarkshire Unison branch

Paul Stuart
Branch Secretary
Unison Housing & Care Scotland Branch

Shirley Buchanan
Dep Welfare Officer
Glasgow City Unison

Danielle Gruerty
PTS Coach
Mayday Trust

Brian Cunningham
Bedfordshire Refugee & Asylum Seeker support

Ingrid Bain
Job Analyst

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