Brian Milne looks at the situation of people attempting to seek safety by crossing the English Channel, who have become a tool for those attempting to force the UK government to stop foreigners arriving and settling in ‘their’ country.
A few thousand dishevelled, distressed human beings have crossed the English Channel to find refuge in a country they have probably been led to believe is democratic and humane. They are going there in peace; their own countries often rent by civil war, persons also suffering drought and famine, not infrequently both. They are quite simply countries all but destroyed. Not uncommonly, those fleeing wars are doing so because their homes are being bombed by the UK and its allies. Not a few of those countries were part of the vast British Empire that carved some of those countries out of empires that had existed for many centuries, often modestly surviving rather than thriving, but ultimately rummaged through, turned upside down then pillaged of their most valuable assets before they were ‘granted’ independence.
Ninety per cent
Close to 90% of nations have at different times in history been taken over by the English, according to Stuart Laycock in All the countries we’ve ever invaded: and the few we never got round to (2012, The History Press). Those invasions, then occupations, were seldom done in peace, but most commonly to divest other nations of their wealth and, as we know and is much discussed at present, take millions of people as goods for sale in the slave trade. As Laycock puts it, only twenty-two countries remain untouched by an invasion that involved ‘… force, the threat of force, negotiation or payment’.
Out of 193 countries that are currently UN member states, and thus diplomatically and politically recognised nation states, British forces have invaded or fought in conflicts in the territory of 171 of them. Without splitting hairs, we can call that close to 90 per cent of all present nation states. They are not all ‘half way’ round the world like Australia or New Zealand, but sometimes relatively close in Europe. People laugh knowingly, but not without a hint of nervousness, when talking of the hordes of tourists who at present are probably still occupying Corfu and the other Ionian islands.
Every summer, considerable numbers of British tourists effectively occupy Corfu and other Ionian islands. They had a long and often changing colonial history of which the UK’s part was the culmination of centuries of change. They had been part of the Republic of Venice until that was dissolved by the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797 and then annexed as part of the French Republic. Between 1798 and 1799, they were driven out by a joint Russo-Ottoman force that founded the Septinsular Republic, which enjoyed relative independence under nominal Ottoman suzerainty and Russian control from 1800 until 1807. In 1807, the Ionian Islands were ceded again to the French in the Treaty of Tilsit, thus occupied by the French Empire. In 1809, the UK defeated the French fleet off Zakynthos then captured Kefalonia, Kythiraand Zakynthos, later Lefkada in 1810, although Corfu remained occupied by the French until 1814. Under the Treaty between Great Britain and Russia, with Austria, Prussia, respecting the Ionian Islands signed in Paris in 1815, as one of the treaties signed during the Peace of Paris that year, the UK gained protectorate over the Ionian Islands.
They became the United States of the Ionian Islands, a Greek state and amicable protectorate of Great Britain between 1815 and 1864, the successor state of the Septinsular Republic. Given it was a period of continual wars, those lovely little Greek islands did not fare well for many years. Even if the UK never fired a shot in anger at Ionians, they faced the cannon rather than the daunting prospect of the drunken tourist today. Neither is to be proud of, but both assume some kind of superiority over ‘foreigners’. They, in this setting, are treated as the foreigners on their own islands. However, it is not those people seeking refuge in the UK today, nor people fleeing Australia or New Zealand. Whilst not always, it is often other places that occupy less well known spots in English history.
Long and notorious history
The UK has a long and notorious history in many of the places it colonised. Take India. In fact the die was cast in 1600 when the East India Company was founded. The EIC acquired its first territory in 1608 when the Mughal empire allowed them to establish a trading post at Surat, now in Gujarat, then Bengal in 1612, later in what was called Bombay in 1665, the company became more and more powerful, in fact governing India until 1858 when the Crown took over. During that period the three Carnatic Wars were fought between 1746 and 1763, later there were rebellions, mutinies and massacres, perhaps none better known than Amritsar in 1919 when at least 1100 Indians died. Even the independence and partition of the subcontinent in 1947 led to an enormous loss of life when perhaps as many as two million people were killed or wounded. There was a massive massacre of Sikhs and Hindus by Muslims in West Punjab and Muslims by Sikhs and Hindus in East Punjab. Communal violence resulted in the murder of between 20,000 and 25,000 Muslims in Delhi by Hindus. The UNHCR estimated around 14 million people were displaced by the violence. It is sometimes their descendants who left India for safety elsewhere in the world who are being moved on again who try to cross the Channel.
There are numerous other events that are rarely touched in history such as the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1868. It was a rescue mission and punitive invasion by the armed forces of the British Empire against the Ethiopian Empire whose ruler, Emperor Tewodros II, had imprisoned a number of missionaries and two representatives of the UK government in an attempt to force them to comply with requests for military assistance. The expedition required the transportation of a considerable military force hundreds of miles across mountainous terrain lacking any road system. To that end the Indian Army arrived with elephants. General Sir Robert Napier led the Empire forces to victory in every battle against the troops of Tewodros, captured the Ethiopian capital, and rescued all the hostages. For a number of years a battle for succession ensued, supported by the UK who had also supplied the weapons used to win that conflict. The stories of African invasions and conquest abound, the UK has been the main implementer of the division of Africa into the majority of contemporary political states, at least as many were before their only post independence division in which case the UK inevitably chose sides and made lucrative weapons deals.
Almost the entirety of the Near and Middle East countries as they stand were carved out by the UK. How many people in the UK know that they invaded Iran with the Soviets during WW2? The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, in August 1941, codenamed Operation Countenance, was for the most part unopposed by the numerically and technically inferior Iranian forces. One may be reasonably certain a lot more Iranians do than people in the UK. The examples are many and varied, but one thing the English left in their wake was an impression that they had some kind of almost maternal duty of care for people who had once been protected by the ‘blanket’ of empire.
So now there are hundreds of people attempting to cross the Straits of Dover to find a new and safe life. Those people are homeless, sometimes stateless and poor to the point of entirely without possessions and their lives devastated. For them there are no actual ‘legal’ routes to reach the UK. However, once they reach land, almost all of them are officially accepted by the authorities as asylum seekers. Under international law, they cannot be considered ‘illegal’. Humanitarian law recognises that refugees must often use ostensibly ‘illegal’ or ‘irregular’ means of finding appropriate sanctuary; in many cases they may have to cross numerous borders to do so. They are seeking little more than shelter and a fresh start, therefore the genuinely destitute are provided with shelter which is sometimes only temporary, in a hotel or hostel, sometimes longer term in so called ‘hard to let’ accommodation which council and lower budget end tenants do not want. They also get the princely sum of £5.39 per day to cover all living costs. The majority do not have the right to work in the UK, therefore the going will never be easy. Having been officially recognised as refugees, they can generally stay for up to five years. Those with specialised skills such as doctors and nurses more than repay any debt they owe the UK, as we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Conservative estimates tell us there are around 26 million refugees in the world, of which the UK accommodates less than 0.5 percent, a tiny proportion of the many. Most refugees have no intention of going to the UK, although the relatively minute number that does, normally have persuasive and compelling reasons, such as having family already there, they were simply unwelcome in other supposedly ‘safe’ countries, or simply that they can speak English.
It would be justifiable to say the British have been the most numerous and enduring illegal immigrants in other people’s countries in the history of our planet, well and truly surpassing all the Mongol hordes and other vast armies of invasion. The world order itself in the present day is imbalanced and constantly instable, due in part to the past colonialism of the UK – without forgetting the same done by other European nations. The UK national wealth and relative high standard of living is largely based the plunder of other countries in the past and of which many remain poor precisely because of colonialism, therefore no real wonder that many of those countries today that have the greatest numbers of displaced people and refugees. Much of UK media and numerous politicians describe them as ‘illegals’ or ‘invaders’. If one objectively and meaningfully compared those few thousand expatriate, unhappy people arriving on an English shore after risking their life to reach a safe refuge, with good intent and in peace, with the hundreds of thousands of people from the UK who invaded other countries, perhaps those the refugees are coming from, with malign intent and an eye toward profit before giving the people any lasting benefits, then do they in all honesty have any right to complain about a small number of distressed and often dispossessed people arriving on their shores? If one considers who not that long ago arrived in their countries and in far too many cases sowed the seeds of instability and conflict, indeed may still arming or financing the wars raging now, that have led to their flight from their homes today, how can they morally continue to do so?
Block them out!
Recent protests have blocked Dover. Various right wing, anti more or less anything not English have blocked traffic in and out of the port. In fact, the intent of the protests is simply one of their ways of attacking asylum seekers crossing the Channel by boat, which they considered they had accomplished by shutting down entry into Europe’s busiest ferry port. There were 400 or so who had assembled on the A20 to stop traffic in both directions could believe they had achieved what they did. As one of them said, “We did it. We shut Dover. No more illegal immigrants!” The fact that they were also blocking legitimate trade and the freedom of travellers in both directions seems not to disturb them. These are not people who believe in democracy.
That now they have extended that wish to shun all ‘foreigners’, if not politically and overtly as such but through the words and actions of a loud and often frightening right wing whose nationalist message appears to repeat words heard and seen until 75 years ago that we had hoped were expunged for all time, we must live in hope that sooner or later people of vision and justice will once again walk among us. If those of us who see our continent as a union in which there is enduring peace, at least a modicum of prosperity, thus a safe haven for those who need shelter in our midst are not careful then malevolent forces among us will drive some people in the direction of the isolation the UK is now creating for itself. The potential is, as ever, there, but we must resolutely stand up for peace and stability without hatred and division, including giving people who come in peace asking humbly for help, offer our hands. Some people may be nostalgic for empires they are almost uncertain to be able to remember, whilst others simply follow who shouts loudest. Nostalgia and volume have led our continent to disaster too often.
There is an important lesson to be learned from UK history, one that probably most western European nations can consider, learning from their neighbours if not from their own colonial history. At present the spotlight is on the UK. That does not exonerate other countries whose policies are ethically no better, if not their histories morally obliging them to be generous toward those who need shelter.