Professor Sir Keith Burnett – vice chancellor of the University of Sheffield – says Britain has an “irrefutable duty as civilised people to welcome and help these distressed brothers and sisters”.
His comments follow a visit to Ellis Island in New York, the gateway to the USA for 12 million immigrants, and coincide with a growing political storm after 18 Albanians – including two children – were dramatically rescued from the English Channel after their inflatable boat started to sink off the Kent coast. Two British men have been remanded in custody charged with immigration offences.
Coming days after 17 suspected Albanian migrants and a British man wanted on suspicion of murder were detained when a catamaran arrived at a West Sussex marina, both Lord West, the former head of the Royal Navy, and John Vine, who was the UK’s independent chief inspector of borders and immigration until 2014, warn that lives will be lost unless concerted action is taken to stop these sea crossings.
Lord West described the situation as “a complete mess” after it emerged that just three Border Force vessels are patrolling 7,700 miles of coastline.
Hundreds of refugees fleeing the bloodshed in war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have already drowned after their makeshift boats – invariably operated by people smuggling gangs – capsized in the Mediterranean because they were overloaded. Yet, with refugees now risking their lives in the English Channel, the growing crisis threatens to polarise the EU referendum debate still further.
In the latest developments David Cameron did share a platform yesterday with fellow Remain campaigner Sadiq Khan – their show of unity came four weeks after the Prime Minister questioned the new Mayor of London’s integrity in the House of Commons.
Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury, who made history in 2010 when she became the first Muslim to serve in the Cabinet, declined to comment on the tone of the referendum campaign. However the peer, who resigned in 2014, did confirm that she was supporting Britain’s exit from the European Union.
However Tory hostility grew further with party grandee Ken Clarke likening Boris Johnson – the leading Brexit campaigner – to a “nicer version of Donald Trump” as immigration becomes a defining theme of an increasingly bitter campaign. “It is no good turning the Leave campaign into a kind of leadership bid for Boris Johnson and anti-immigrant fears,” said the former Chancellor.
Writing exclusively in The Yorkshire Post, Sir Keith compares the facilities on hand at Ellis Island for migrants to the USA with increasingly hostile attitudes on this side of the Atlantic.
“Why is there no Ellis Island in the English Channel? Why do we let ‘them’ die in the sea?” he asks.
“Do we just feel justified because we presume the deaths will discourage others? Some Americans of that time would have believed this, no doubt. Anti-immigrant feeling is nothing new.
“Now we are seeing the same in England. The objections raised to migration were, of course, precisely those we hear today spoken in the UK. And I mean precisely the same. They were also stuff and nonsense. Try to imagine what the USA would be without the migration that made it strong. Let’s be clear...it is our irrefutable duty as civilised people to welcome and help these distressed brothers and sisters.”
Sir Keith says the higher education sector must lead by example to ensure refugees are given the life chances that they crave.
However Bernard Barron, president of the French coastguard, says refugees are being forced to reach Britain by boat after it became “virtually impossible” for them to enter the UK via the Channel Tunnel or on ferries.
“They operate across the length of both the French and Belgian coastlines, between Ostend and into Normandy, finding new positions from where they can send their clients - the migrants - towards England,” he said.
Mr Barron said that even though the smugglers are being given large sums of money, there are not providing suitable transport for a “sea filled with danger, with strong currents, storms and heavy traffic of larger vessels”.