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Sensemaker: Channel drownings

Sensemaker: Channel drownings

What just happened

Long stories short

  • All three white suspects in last year’s killing of the black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in the US state of Georgia were convicted of murder. 
  • Magdalena Andersson stood down within hours of her appointment as Sweden’s first female prime minister after her budget was defeated in parliament. 
  • Vladimir Putin said he’d had a Covid vaccine delivered as a nasal spray in each nostril and “felt nothing, simply nothing” (more below).

Channel drownings

The deaths of 27 people when their boat sank in the English Channel yesterday will force the UK government to consider pleas for new, safe, legal routes to Britain for asylum seekers, even if only to reject them.

The worst tragedy of its kind in Channel history prompted emergency meetings in London and Paris and a phone call last night between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. But there was little sign that France will warm to British requests for joint patrols of the French coast, and every indication that leaders on both sides will focus on blaming the other before taking concrete steps to end people-trafficking across the world’s busiest shipping lane. 

Tomorrow’s papers may reveal more about the dead, said by French officials to include 17 men, seven women (one of whom was pregnant) and three children. Today’s papers feature, among many haunting images, one of French police walking away as a long inflatable is carried by its crew of at least 18 towards the water.

It’s true that

  • more than 600 people survived the crossing in inflatables yesterday, despite French claims to be doing everything possible to close the route (among the arrivals was a former Afghan soldier who fought with British troops and waited in vain for British help to get out of Afghanistan in August);
  • more than 26,000 have made the crossing so far this year, which is three times more than last year and ten times more than in 2019; and
  • rough treatment of refugees by French police in camps on the north French coast has added to the “push” factors driving them towards the UK, and there are reports of French vessels “shepherding” inflatables into UK waters.

But it’s also true that

  • French police prevented 671 people from making the crossing yesterday;
  • they have more than 90 miles of coastline to patrol, and groups of refugees alerted by phone by their traffickers tend to embark at night; and
  • far more asylum-seekers make their applications in France, Germany and Spain, and have them granted, than in the UK. 

By the numbers. The UK processed 29,456 new asylum applications last year, down from 35,737 the year before and a peak of around 84,000 in 2002. Rounded to the nearest thousand, the 2020 figures for France, Germany and Spain are 82,000, 102,000 and 86,000 respectively. 

On average, 41 per cent of first asylum applications to EU countries are granted compared with 55 per cent in the year to June 2021 in the UK. Three quarters of those rejected in the UK are appealed, and about a third of those appeals are allowed. 

The reality is that the overall number of people seeking asylum in the UK is down this year on last (by 4 per cent), but Covid restrictions and new controls at Channel ports and the southern entrance to the Channel Tunnel have forced traffickers to resort to boats. 

That has proved a cause of terrible risk and suffering – and of a disaster that trawlermen and local officials on both sides of the Channel say was entirely predictable. 

The politics

  • In London, Conservative backbenchers committed to taking back control of Britain’s borders are so neuralgic about images of refugees wading ashore that they raised it as their most urgent concern in last week’s meeting of the 1922 Committee with Johnson – more urgent even than a corruption scandal that has virtually wiped out his poll lead over Labour’s Keir Starmer.
  • British voters are neuralgic too: 55 per cent across all parties think the government is being too soft on cross-Channel refugees.
  • Priti Patel, the UK’s home secretary, is in trouble for promising to get a grip on the problem and, in failing to do so, creating an opening for Nigel Farage – ex-UKIP, now often found reporting from Dover for GB News – to talk about returning to frontline politics.
  • In Paris, Macron faces re-election next year and won’t want to be outflanked on sovereignty by right-wingers pointing to pictures of British patrol boats in French waters or British boots on French soil. He is already under pressure to scrap the Le Touquet accords that allow UK officials to check passports on the French side of the Channel.

So. Expect more money from London to add to the £54 million already provided to help pay for French coastal patrols; more bluster from both sides; fewer boats as the worst of winter arrives; a moment of shared solemnity as the bodies winched ashore yesterday are buried or repatriated; and, absent an unlikely new entente cordiale, a resumption of lethal cross-Channel trafficking next spring. 

For more context please revisit this dataviz on the refugees’ reality that we produced last year.

For more on how mismanagement fuelled the Afghan refugee crisis, listen to this week’s Slow Newscast by Matt d’Ancona.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Red lines
This week in the perennial China v US chess game, the Biden administration has invited Taiwan to its forthcoming Summit for Democracy. China isn’t invited but is angry with the US for implicitly rejecting the One China policy that says Taiwan is overseen by Beijing. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters yesterday that “playing with the fire” of Taiwanese independence would mean “you will eventually get burned”. Xi Jinping voiced similar sentiments in his recent virtual summit with Biden, warning there of “drastic measures” if “red lines” were crossed. Team Biden justified the invite as reward for Taiwan’s role countering authoritarianism and advancing respect for human rights. It’ll be represented at the summit by its de facto ambassador in Washington and digital minister Audrey Tang, rather than by President Tsai Ing-wen. Still, your move, Xi.

New things technology, science, engineering

Gold rush
Rumours of gold in the Madeira River, a huge tributary of the Amazon, have prompted a rush of hundreds of prospectors to fan out across its muddy waters, vacuuming up the riverbed as they drift hundreds of miles downstream with the current. It’s all illegal and no one is doing anything to stop it. According to one report the dredgers are finding a gram of gold an hour, although it’s not clear if this is each or between them. The Madeira runs for 2,000 miles from Bolivia to its junction with the Amazon about 100 miles downstream of Manaus. The Incas and Spanish colonists found gold in the mountains that feed the Madeira, but drifting through the lowlands looks like easier work if you can get it. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Putin’s nose
Russia’s president is taking his new role as vaccinee-in-chief extremely seriously. On Sunday he announced he’d had a booster shot of the Sputnik V vaccine and yesterday he told cabinet colleagues he’d tried an experimental anti-Covid nasal spray in each nostril. He said it was a powder but his spokesman corrected him to say it was a liquid. Either way he felt nothing, he said, and did his usual exercises before heading to the office. New data shows protection from the Sputnik vaccine starts declining after three months, which bodes ill for Russia as it struggles with stubbornly high death rates (more than 1,000 a day since 19 October) even as infections start falling from a peak of nearly 40,000 a day. Only 37 per cent of Russians are fully-vaccinated.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Early warming
Silt on the seabed in the Fram Strait east of Greenland suggests the Atlantic was warming at least half a century earlier than previously thought. Geographers from Cambridge and elsewhere say water flowing from the Atlantic into the Arctic Ocean through the wide gap between Greenland and Iceland suddenly started warming – and getting saltier – around the start of last century. This could mean the Atlantic is more responsive to rising atmospheric carbon levels than we knew, or that other factors are involved, or both. Those other factors could include a weakening or unstable AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation), a system of currents that distributes warm water northwards from the tropics. Although how a weakening AMOC could mean more warmth to the Arctic is unclear to Team Sensemaker. Explanations welcome.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Tit for splat
Russia and Saudi Arabia have responded in the cooperative spirit for which they are well known to international efforts to take the edge off oil prices. They’ve hit the pause button on planned production increases, and prices have gone up. As reported yesterday, the US, UK and other big oil users plan to release tens of millions of barrels from their reserves to juice supply and lower prices. Meanwhile Russia, Saudi and the rest of Opec + were going to increase output by 400,000 barrels a month. Now they’re having second thoughts, the WSJ reports ($). Margins are good and Moscow and Riyadh like it that way. The mere rumour that they’d pause production increases sent Brent Crude up 0.4 per cent and West Texas Intermediate up 0.7 per cent. And to think we’re supposed to be kicking the habit altogether. 

Tweet of the day: WE DID IT, WE BLOODY DID IT! (Emma Jacobs, journalist, on news that UK sales at the Pret a Manger coffee and sandwich chain have returned to pre-pandemic levels for the first time.)

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images