The news that a British helicopter may have been involved in the ‘left-to-die’ boat on which 63 refugees drowned and starved to death fleeing Libya for Lampedusa last year is shameful, but not at all surprising.
In May last year William Hague rejected calls from the Italian government to ‘share the burden’ of refugees fleeing the Libyan war. Hague insisted that European governments were right to be ‘tough’ toward refugees and migrants from the Arab Spring, on the grounds that
‘We need proper controls. We can’t just accept a flow of hundreds of thousands or millions of people into southern Europe and then coming beyond that.’
British involvement in the ‘left-to-die’ incident has yet to be definitively proven, but whatever the immediate circumstances and orders that may have been led to this shocking episode, it is entirely in keeping with a more general philosophy that has dominated UK politics for decades.
On the one hand both Labour and Conservative governments have promoted a universalist doctrine of humanitarianism that supposedly overrides national borders as a justification for wars, invasions and covert operations aimed at ‘saving lives’ on the Libyan model.
At the same time both governments have progressively reinforced the UK border in an attempt to prevent unwanted foreigners from crossing or even reaching it, even when these restrictions have directly or indirectly resulted in death. Only two days ago, an African migrant trying to reach the UK was found beaten to death outside a Calais squat which I personally visited last month.
The French police have suggested that he was killed in a dispute between smugglers and migrants. This death follows another incident last Christmas, when an Eritrean migrant fell off a bridge in unclear circumstances.
Neither incident was reported in the UK press, but both of them are products of an immigration enforcement agenda that has transformed Calais into a migrant trap over the last decade.
This agenda is equally implacable towards those who have succeeded in crossing the UK borders illegally or have slipped into illegality by overstaying their visas. On Monday the Guardian reported on the impending deportation of the Nigerian student Roseline Akhalu for overstaying her visa.
The 48-year-old Akhalu originally came to the UK in 2004 on a Ford Foundation scholarship to do a masters degree in development studies at Leeds University. Shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with renal failure. In 2009 she had a successful kidney transplant but needs regular hospital check-ups and immunosuppressant drugs.
Since last month Akhalu has been held at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, even though consultants at St James hospital in Leeds have warned that she could die within a month if she is returned to Nigeria, where there is no guarantee of similar drugs and treatment.
UKBA’s decision echoes the case of Ama Sumani the Ghanaian ‘overstayer’ deported by UKBA officers from a Cardiff hospital in a wheelchair in 2008, despite the fact that she was receiving kidney treatment that was not available in her own country.
Sumani’s deportation was denounced by the Lancet journal as an act of ‘atrocious barbarism’ and became the object of a major campaign to try and prevent it, which the Home Office ignored.
Sumani died less than two months after returning to Accra. At the time, Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, declared that ‘ her death is on the conscience of this nation because we deported her when it was against every humanitarian instinct to do so.’
To UKBA and the Home Office however, humanitarian instincts are generally secondary considerations in its attempts to demonstrate the ‘credibility’ of its immigration restrictions.
Terrified by the fantasy of an immigrant ‘invasion’ and determined to cow tow to the lowest instincts of the tabloid press, successive UK governments have transformed the ‘toughness’ that Hague advocated last year into a badge of merit. In doing so they have too often drifted into a kind of institutionalised callousness and indifference that ought to be a mark of shame.
The ‘left-to-die’ incident may have been one more expression of the same bleak tendency.