STOP THE TRAFFIK Statement on Channel Crossing Deaths November 2021

STOP THE TRAFFIK shares in the sorrow felt across Europe at the death of 27 people, who drowned crossing the English Channel on the 24 November 2021. Our thoughts go out to the victims – whose names we may never know – and to their families, who have had loved ones taken from them too soon.

This incident was an avoidable tragedy. At this crucial time, we need collaboration across sectors so we can best understand peoples journeys and experiences and shape our response accordingly. It is important that this information is made transparent and accessible if we are to shape a global response that places the reality of those with lived experience at its core and makes inaction infeasible.

The current narrative sits within the context of a highly politicised divide that, at times, misuses the term “trafficking” and can lead to the vilification of vulnerable people.

Illicit channel crossings are inherently dangerous. Access to safe legal alternatives is the way forward. Seeking asylum and refuge is not illegal, and the European Refugee Convention (1951) states that the process can sometimes require refugees to breach immigration rules.

“…subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules.” –  European Refugee Convention, 1951

We see in our work that harsher immigration policies limit the options available to people seeking asylum. Our overriding principle should be to never endanger lives.  

Why do refugees leave other countries they can take asylum in?

We know that a primary motivator for people seeking refuge and asylum is safety and security. With English being a popular global language, and the United Kingdom being a multicultural place, family ties and a familiarity with language and culture make it a natural choice for someone considering where to set up and build a new life.

Importantly, the European Refugee Convention (1951) states that “ensuring the unity of the refugee’s family [should be] maintained” and that “considering…the unity of the family, the natural and fundamental group unit of society, is an essential right of the refugee”.

Yet the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers at the hands of European law enforcement often contradicts this. With camps being disbanded and states seeking to deter people from putting down roots, the chances of smuggling and human trafficking increase – and vulnerable people become more desperate.

While the number of asylum claims in European nations such as Germany, France, Spain and Greece is far higher than in the UK, those with family ties or familiarity with the language will often see the UK as their best option.

What is the difference between smuggling and trafficking, and what does that mean for this case?

Smuggling and trafficking both involve the movement of people, and while there is overlap between the two, there are three crucial differences.

1. Location

Smuggling crosses international borders.

Trafficking can happen across international borders or within one country. It can involve movement between cities, towns, rural locations, or even from one street to the next.

2. Consent

Smuggling is a service a person asks for. It might be dangerous, but that person chooses to take on the journey.

Trafficking involves either forcing a person to travel or deceiving a person into taking on a journey under false promises of jobs, payment or safety at the end of that journey.

3. Exploitation

Smuggling is limited to one financial transaction in exchange for illegal entry to a country. Once the payment and border crossing is complete, the exchange ends, and the person is free to make other choices. Smugglers may suggest a ‘trusted contact’ for the person to call on arrival; if this person is a trafficker, the nature of the exploitation changes.

Trafficking uses threat, force, coercion or deception against a person for the purpose of exploitation. A trafficked person can be exploited at the final destination and/or during the journey. Agreed prices for travel can increase from previous agreements, and unpayable debts can bond people to traffickers who then exploit them in turn for “payment”.

We may never know the exact circumstances of those who died, but four suspected smugglers have been arrested. At this stage in the development of information surrounding the incident it is still unclear whether any of those who died were victims of trafficking, being smuggled, or simply making the dangerous journey themselves. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the differences between smuggling and trafficking so that incidents like these are not incorrectly framed in criminal terms and are instead seen firstly as humanitarian issues.

How does STOP THE TRAFFIK work to help refugees and asylum seekers?

Launched in 2020, our Comic Relief funded Aman Safety campaign seeks to provide vulnerable people on the move with up-to-date safety information designed to limit their chances of being exploited.

A 2021 phase of this campaign found that 52% of our target audience had experienced at least one type of exploitation or abuse. 82% thought that no help or support was available for them or were unsure where to find it or who they could trust.

Following our campaign, 88% of our target audience said they would act differently in the future and would take at least one preventative action including:

  • Discussing their own experiences with others
  • Seeking help and support from an organisation
  • Keeping their ID documentation safe and not giving it to anyone (potential traffickers)
  • Noting the contact details of support organisations in case needed in the future

Notably, this phase of the campaign led directly to the safe signposting of 79 young people to relevant on-the-ground support organisations. NGO support partners noted an increase in engagement, as well as an increase in suspected trafficking cases and activity being reported.

Our call across sectors

STOP THE TRAFFIK works closely with the Traffik Analysis Hub, the largest global data source on trafficking. The need for transparency is paramount and by sharing what we know we can change the narrative. Government, business and the third sector need to work together to understand the push and pull factors from the survivor experience and build our policy and response from those voices.

Where can I learn more?

Tacking Myths and Inaccuracies on Channel Crossings.

JCWI on the question “Why don’t asylum seekers claim asylum somewhere else?”

More links:


BBC Newsnight special programme

Guardian article (Diane Taylor and Angelique Chrisafis) on historical political context, on the ground realities, and how the tragedy ‘brings home our hostility to the world’s desperate’ 

Impact on policy:

The Independent analysis on whether this will change the government’s approach.

Guardian analysis on whether this tragedy will impact policy considering “deep political roots” of the current approach. 

Joanna Cherry QC put proposals for safe and legal passage to the Commons a few days ago.

Select voices from the sector:

Zoe Gardner from the JCWI speaking on the BBC about whether this will act as a catalyst or “turning point” in tackling the situation and that the UK must step up and play their part… 

Channel Rescue’s  legal challenge against Priti Patel’s plans to “push back” dinghies in the Channel, branding the policy “life-threatening, inhumane and unlawful”. 

Can you help support our work?

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