Twenty-seven dead in the icy Channel. This must be the spur for change | Gaby Hinsliff

It was the kind of boat, a French politician said, that you blow up like a paddling pool.

Not much more than a toy, of the kind many families will have bought this summer for their children to play in on the beach. But this winter, flimsy inflatables may be all that stand between other people’s children and a watery grave. Smugglers charge a small fortune for places in boats so dangerously overloaded that some begin to sink while still in sight of land, while others drift in darkness through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Refugee charities had long warned of a tragedy waiting to happen, and so it has proved. At least 27 human beings, including a pregnant woman and three children, lost their lives in the freezing November sea this week, in the worst such incident since human traffickers began using this route three years ago.

Yet within hours, other boats were setting forth, a reminder of just how fiercely desire burns. After all, those on board have nothing much left to lose. They may have already sold everything they had, or left loved ones behind; many will have endured life-threatening journeys to reach the French coast, only to end up shivering in makeshift roadside camps, repeatedly moved on by police who confiscate their tents and sleeping bags to leave them at the mercy of the elements. Some young men are carrying the hopes of families left behind, who have sacrificed everything to get one child to the west. They’re not going to stop when the end is so tantalisingly in sight; not after all they have been through, let alone all they may have fled. (Research suggests two-thirds of those crossing the Channel are ultimately judged to have been genuine refugees, escaping conflict and persecution.) As charities must be tired of saying, nobody would do this if they had a better option. Now our job is to provide them with one.

This tragedy forces everyone in British politics once again to confront an issue that most find visibly uncomfortable. The government plainly doesn’t know what to do about the flow of people across the Channel, and the opposition often struggles with what to say about it; Labour members lean towards a much more open and generous offer to refugees, but their party’s most likely path to Downing Street lies through an electorate that instinctively doesn’t. It is, however, time for a few home truths.

If nothing else, this must spell an end to Home Office talk of forcibly “pushing back” boats as they enter British waters, which had prompted widespread concerns about the risk of capsizing them. The only way in which this week’s tragedy could have been more awful is if British border officials had physically been responsible for tipping people into the sea themselves.

It should also shock Britain and France into working more closely together, although the omens are not good; within hours Boris Johnson was accusing the French of supposedly failing to do enough to stop small boats crossing, while French politicians retorted that it was the supposed ease of finding jobs in Britain’s black market that incentivised people to keep trying. President Macron is however pushing for an emergency meeting of European ministers, recognising that half of Europe is wrestling with similar dilemmas. The next step is recognising that enforcement alone isn’t enough.

Britain used to mock Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall, not just for its inhumanity but because it sounded so dumb and crude. Anyone can make it physically harder to cross a border but you can’t build a wall against hopes and dreams, or contain the universal desire for a better life behind a fence. But if Priti Patel could work out how to build a wall on the water she would doubtless do it tomorrow, and demands for more beach patrols and more enforcement are effectively the nearest equivalent. A strategy built solely on keeping people out does nothing to tackle either the push factors driving people to leave – conflict, political repression, and perhaps increasingly in future climate crisis-fuelled natural disasters – or the pull factors drawing them here, with many migrants insisting they don’t want to stay in France and claim asylum there because they have relatives in Britain or speak English. And that leaves a difficult conversation to be had with the electorate.

British politicians are long past the point of having the courage to challenge assumptions on this most electorally toxic of issues. But if they were honest they would admit that the “crisis” we have supposedly experienced pales by comparison with what Greece or Italy, whose shores form Europe’s most southerly border, have seen in recent years. Although asylum claims are at their highest annual level since 2004, that’s likely to reflect a fall during the pandemic when travel was restricted and a surge after it. Far from being an irresistible magnet, in the year to this March, Britain received the fourth highest number of asylum claims compared with EU countries and only the 17th highest when measured by head of population. Yet much of Britain still behaves – and votes – as if it was overwhelmed with people who are in fact mostly going somewhere else. Five years ago, leave campaigners exploited these exaggerated fears to help secure a Brexit that, if anything, has made illegal movement harder to control, ending a longstanding right to return asylum seekers arriving from another EU country and poisoning relations between Britain and France just as goodwill was needed. The gall of Brexiters now in government is breathtaking, but saying so doesn’t help stop people drowning at sea.

For that we need safe, legal routes out for asylum seekers, agreed in concert with other countries to ensure that accidents of geography don’t leave some struggling to absorb an unfair share. That solidarity is even more critical now that Russia, always alert for opportunities to destabilise and divide Europe, is suspected of weaponising tensions by funnelling people through Belarus into Poland and perhaps its neighbours beyond. Tackling such complex, intractable issues requires a political maturity currently lacking, and a willingness to recognise tragedy as the spur to change.

Migrants are all too often painted as a threat to Britain, but events such as this should remind us that the real danger is to those crossing the Channel. In death we can see them for who they are; victims both of the regimes they are escaping and of traffickers exploiting their desperation, but sometimes also of kneejerk hostility in the countries that they long to reach. In the immediate haunting aftermath of tragedy, that hostility may sometimes be replaced, if only briefly, by pangs of conscience and by compassion. Blink now, and we will miss the moment.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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