How a refugee dinghy became a divisive symbol for hope vs hate

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By Laura McCartan

Channel crossings continue being reported almost daily in British news outlets since the start of the summer, and it is impossible not to draw parallels between the rhetoric and situation on the Channel and another migration route, the Aegean Sea. I have spent the last year working as part of a search and rescue team on the North Shore of Lesvos, 7km from Turkey and a major route for those fleeing violence and persecution, who must make terrifying journeys on dinghies which are not fit to be at sea. This summer, while many of us have been trapped in our homes, the channel crossings have become a recurring news article, and in some shocking stories, journalists have filmed from boats sailing alongside dinghies without offering rescue.

The death of a Sudanese man in mid-August, whose body was found washed away onto a French beach near Calais, reminds us of the viral image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the coast of Turkey, together with his mother and brother, shortly after boarding an unseaworthy dinghy to reach Europe. That tragedy sparked continent-wide outrage and mobilization to support and welcome refugees to Europe. One would think that five years later, European policymakers would have stepped up and followed through the extensive existing legislation to offer protection and a safe haven to refugees. However, as we can see from the humanitarian situation at the English Channel, this is far from true.

With right wing governments in both Greece and the UK, the pride in pushing boats back and refusing entry to those most in need has become commonplace in media strategies designed to demonise refugees. While articles surface in the New York Times and countless other outlets showing examples of violent pushbacks, in a Trump-like denial of fact, Kyriakos Mitsotakis claimed all push back evidence is simply ‘Turkish propaganda.’ At the same time, the UK Home Office chose to release a video blaming ‘activist lawyers’ for allowing refugees to uphold their right to claim asylum and promising to deport all sea arrivals as quickly as possible. It is little surprise then, that on the beaches of both Lesvos and Kent, armed groups greet new arrivals and those there to support them. On social media we see armed fascists in both countries saying things that could never have been imagined five years ago as Europe grieved the loss of a young life who should never have been lost in this way. 

It is also five years on that we see most rescue boats firmly docked or impounded, the will to save lives at sea still remains, but with serious criminal charges facing those who rescue. As we write this, the crew of Mare Liberum have been harassed, arrested and had mobile devices seized, the Maersk Etienne remains afloat with 27 refugees, several of whom have tried to commit suicide, and even the hope brought by the Louise Michel is hard to grasp due to the death toll on their first mission. This week, a list of ‘criminal NGOS’, most of whom are not present on Lesvos have been announced by the Greek government, and a facing serious threat of violence for their lifesaving work. The situation seems bleak.

What remains is the hope that groups can monitor the situation on both shores and record human rights violations, used to hold governments to account. While the UK government attempts to deport as many asylum seekers as possible before they leave the EU, small charities work even harder to support them with access to their basic rights. Fascists on the beaches continue to be met with protests by those who do not want a hostile environment, and who see a future for the United Kingdom as a safe and welcoming country for those forced to flee their own.

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