The Other Shore
A fifteen-month-old Kurdish baby floated from France to Norway over the course of two months. Artin Irannezhad died along with his mother, father, sister and brother when their boat sank off Dunkirk last October. Their bodies were recovered near the scene of the disaster. His, so much smaller, was carried by the currents for hundreds of miles. The remains were discovered on a beach in Karmøy on New Year’s Day, and his identity was verified last month. Norwegian police released pictures of a blue, fleece-lined snowsuit. Best not to imagine his father or mother zipping it up, hoping it would keep the cold out until they reached the other shore.
When I heard about Artin Irannezhad, I thought of a tweet that went viral in January 2017: ‘Remember sitting in history, thinking “If I was alive then, I would’ve…” You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.’ The post alluded most obviously to the Holocaust. It is routine to denounce the lack of meaningful intervention, the ease with which ordinary people acting within the law led to genocide. An implausible proportion of us insist that it could not have happened on our watch.
There were of course notable pockets of resistance. In 1943, Hitler gave orders that the eight thousand or so Danish Jews be rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Fishermen mobilised by the Danish resistance secretly ferried most of them to safety in neutral Sweden, charging for the passage. Half of the cost was met by the passengers themselves, but many were too poor to cover the fees, and the resistance raised the remaining sum. More than seven thousand Danish Jews made it to safety, but some were intercepted by the Nazis and deported, and 23 people drowned.
I draw on this case study when I teach moral philosophy to undergraduates. It is an example of civil disobedience as well as a challenge to the ethics of Kant, who deemed it immoral to lie under any circumstances. I ask students whether the fishermen were right to flout Nazi law, and how they ought to have responded if officials intercepted the boats and asked about their cargo. Students unanimously agree that it was right to break the law and lie about it. When I ask them what that view might commit us to in the present day, they’re quieter.
Every day, smugglers in northern France are packing desperate migrants into boats and pocketing their life savings. The Channel crossing is the last leg of the long journey northward, so there’s no further incentive to deliver their clients alive. The boats are necessarily single-use – they will be impounded by the authorities or thrashed to splinters by the sea – so they’re often worn, flimsy vessels, cheap and ready to be retired. Fuel is minimised for the purposes of weight and economy. The same goes for food, water and anything that might be used for shelter. The boats are most often steered by migrants themselves so the smugglers can avoid arrest. All this is a recipe for the kind of disaster that befell the Irannezhad family last year. They would have known the risks, but as Warsan Shire writes in her poem Home:
you have to understand
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
Without smugglers, how are people supposed to get to the UK to claim asylum? The law currently states that the offence of helping an asylum seeker consists in facilitating a person’s arrival ‘knowingly and for gain’. (The Danish fishermen also took a fee.) This week, Priti Patel introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill in the Commons. Among its proposals are to remove ‘for gain’ from the legislation and bump up the maximum sentence from 14 years to life. In other words, anyone who rescues a would-be asylum seeker from drowning and brings them to safety in the UK, even without any personal benefit (by some lights a clear case of acting morally), will have broken the law.
As ever, government policy dovetails with the tabloid press. Last week, the Daily Mail complained that ‘it is clear that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the registered charity so many of us help fund through donations, garden fetes and collection boxes – is regularly sending its vessels into French waters to bring in migrants.’ In response, the RNLI issued a patient statement reminding Britons that a lifeboat institution really does have to save people from drowning:
Our charity exists to save lives at sea. Our mission is to save every one. Our lifesavers are compelled to help those in need without judgment of how they came to be in the water. They have done so since the RNLI was founded in 1824 and this will always be our ethos.
The new bill appears not only to outlaw the current operations of the RNLI but to contravene international maritime law, which recognises a duty to attempt to rescue those in danger at sea. The government, in an ambiguously punctuated sentence, says its aim is to ‘deter illegal entry into the UK breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and saving lives’. That means asylum seekers must instead wait to be selected by resettlement schemes, which assist fewer than 1 per cent of those who eventually qualify for protection (and in any case have been paused for much of the pandemic). Or it means they should travel as the rest of us do – board a plane or a ferry, passport and visa in hand – and then apply for asylum on reaching British soil. But the UK government doesn’t grant visas to people if
the political, economic and security situation in the applicant’s country of residence, including whether it is politically unstable, a conflict zone or at risk of becoming one, leads to doubts about their intention to leave the UK at the end of their visit.
In other words, the vast majority of those who may need asylum cannot arrive by any ‘legal’ route precisely because they might apply for asylum. As so often, people are criminalised for being in need. And the government will do everything it can to avoid meeting that need. Hence the small boats and the need for rescue.
According to a report from the Institute of Race Relations, three hundred migrants have died in the Channel since 1999. Hundreds of people attempt the crossing every week in the summer months. Why aren’t people of good conscience out there with boats and lifejackets, ready to break the law in the interest of saving lives? Speaking in counterfactuals is easy; so is portraying the people of the past as morally deficient. Better to admit that we would not have helped the Danish Jews. And we shouldn’t flinch at drawing inferences as to what that makes Patel, Johnson and the media that keep them afloat.