The Other Shore

Arianne Shahvisi

A fifteen-month-old Kurdish baby floated from France to Norway over the course of two months. Artin Irannezhad died along with his mother, father, sister and brother when their boat sank off Dunkirk last October. Their bodies were recovered near the scene of the disaster. His, so much smaller, was carried by the currents for hundreds of miles. The remains were discovered on a beach in Karmøy on New Year’s Day, and his identity was verified last month. Norwegian police released pictures of a blue, fleece-lined snowsuit. Best not to imagine his father or mother zipping it up, hoping it would keep the cold out until they reached the other shore.

When I heard about Artin Irannezhad, I thought of a tweet that went viral in January 2017: ‘Remember sitting in history, thinking “If I was alive then, I would’ve…” You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.’ The post alluded most obviously to the Holocaust. It is routine to denounce the lack of meaningful intervention, the ease with which ordinary people acting within the law led to genocide. An implausible proportion of us insist that it could not have happened on our watch.

There were of course notable pockets of resistance. In 1943, Hitler gave orders that the eight thousand or so Danish Jews be rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Fishermen mobilised by the Danish resistance secretly ferried most of them to safety in neutral Sweden, charging for the passage. Half of the cost was met by the passengers themselves, but many were too poor to cover the fees, and the resistance raised the remaining sum. More than seven thousand Danish Jews made it to safety, but some were intercepted by the Nazis and deported, and 23 people drowned.

I draw on this case study when I teach moral philosophy to undergraduates. It is an example of civil disobedience as well as a challenge to the ethics of Kant, who deemed it immoral to lie under any circumstances. I ask students whether the fishermen were right to flout Nazi law, and how they ought to have responded if officials intercepted the boats and asked about their cargo. Students unanimously agree that it was right to break the law and lie about it. When I ask them what that view might commit us to in the present day, they’re quieter.

Every day, smugglers in northern France are packing desperate migrants into boats and pocketing their life savings. The Channel crossing is the last leg of the long journey northward, so there’s no further incentive to deliver their clients alive. The boats are necessarily single-use – they will be impounded by the authorities or thrashed to splinters by the sea – so they’re often worn, flimsy vessels, cheap and ready to be retired. Fuel is minimised for the purposes of weight and economy. The same goes for food, water and anything that might be used for shelter. The boats are most often steered by migrants themselves so the smugglers can avoid arrest. All this is a recipe for the kind of disaster that befell the Irannezhad family last year. They would have known the risks, but as Warsan Shire writes in her poem Home:

you have to understand
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

Without smugglers, how are people supposed to get to the UK to claim asylum? The law currently states that the offence of helping an asylum seeker consists in facilitating a person’s arrival ‘knowingly and for gain’. (The Danish fishermen also took a fee.) This week, Priti Patel introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill in the Commons. Among its proposals are to remove ‘for gain’ from the legislation and bump up the maximum sentence from 14 years to life. In other words, anyone who rescues a would-be asylum seeker from drowning and brings them to safety in the UK, even without any personal benefit (by some lights a clear case of acting morally), will have broken the law.

As ever, government policy dovetails with the tabloid press. Last week, the Daily Mail complained that ‘it is clear that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the registered charity so many of us help fund through donations, garden fetes and collection boxes – is regularly sending its vessels into French waters to bring in migrants.’ In response, the RNLI issued a patient statement reminding Britons that a lifeboat institution really does have to save people from drowning:

Our charity exists to save lives at sea. Our mission is to save every one. Our lifesavers are compelled to help those in need without judgment of how they came to be in the water. They have done so since the RNLI was founded in 1824 and this will always be our ethos.

The new bill appears not only to outlaw the current operations of the RNLI but to contravene international maritime law, which recognises a duty to attempt to rescue those in danger at sea. The government, in an ambiguously punctuated sentence, says its aim is to ‘deter illegal entry into the UK breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and saving lives’. That means asylum seekers must instead wait to be selected by resettlement schemes, which assist fewer than 1 per cent of those who eventually qualify for protection (and in any case have been paused for much of the pandemic). Or it means they should travel as the rest of us do – board a plane or a ferry, passport and visa in hand – and then apply for asylum on reaching British soil. But the UK government doesn’t grant visas to people if

the political, economic and security situation in the applicant’s country of residence, including whether it is politically unstable, a conflict zone or at risk of becoming one, leads to doubts about their intention to leave the UK at the end of their visit.

In other words, the vast majority of those who may need asylum cannot arrive by any ‘legal’ route precisely because they might apply for asylum. As so often, people are criminalised for being in need. And the government will do everything it can to avoid meeting that need. Hence the small boats and the need for rescue.

According to a report from the Institute of Race Relations, three hundred migrants have died in the Channel since 1999. Hundreds of people attempt the crossing every week in the summer months. Why aren’t people of good conscience out there with boats and lifejackets, ready to break the law in the interest of saving lives? Speaking in counterfactuals is easy; so is portraying the people of the past as morally deficient. Better to admit that we would not have helped the Danish Jews. And we shouldn’t flinch at drawing inferences as to what that makes Patel, Johnson and the media that keep them afloat.


  • 10 July 2021 at 7:08pm
    Dan says:
    I think this is known as a false equivalency. As far as I'm aware migrants aren't being loaded onto boats by nazi stormtroopers to be executed by order of the government. Thanks for the guilt trip though.

    • 11 July 2021 at 12:22pm
      Christopher Greenwood says: @ Dan
      Pretty cold comment, old thing.

    • 11 July 2021 at 2:37pm
      Dan says: @ Christopher Greenwood
      I'd rather be rude than a liar.

    • 12 July 2021 at 2:59am
      neddy says: @ Dan
      I agree with your comment . My own family enjoyed German hospitality at Dachau in the closing months of World War Two. The Nazis intended to exterminate all Jewish persons; all of them - regardless of their place of residence. No-one in Britain , France, Italy, Australia, the USA or from anywhere else in the world harbors such intentions towards any other peoples or cultures. The Danish fishermen were paid. They did it for a few pieces of silver. Better they did it than not. But being paid compromises their moral purity. Ms Shahvisi is a trenchant and implacable critic of British and Western societies and their histories. And yet untold numbers of persons from elsewhere in the world seek to join these societies, and take great risks to do so. Ms Shahvisi is an academic. Other persons feed and clothe her, and provide her with housing, energy and medical care. What does she give back? Even the LRB, the vehicle for her diatribes, is the product of a society she appears to despise.

    • 13 July 2021 at 8:08pm
      MLS says: @ Dan
      Jews weren't being loaded onto boats by Nazi stormtroopers in WWII either - quite the contrary. In that analogy, the Nazis are the dictators and militias and ethnic cleansers that refugees are fleeing; the UK is Sweden. Did WWII-era Sweden ever criminalize helping refugees to cross its borders, I wonder?

      That said, Britain is more comparable to the pre-Pearl Harbour US, comfortably isolated from the fray; WWII-era Sweden was as close to the front lines as places like Lebanon or Bangladesh today, and even more outmatched.

  • 12 July 2021 at 1:58am
    Graucho says:
    I am curious. Do any of the migrants apply for asylum in France? If not, why not? Are the French refusing to grant asylum? Is getting asylum in France a more dreadful prospect than drowning in the channel? I am genuinely perplexed.

    • 12 July 2021 at 3:26pm
      Delaide says: @ Graucho
      Good question; I was thinking the same. And for what it may be worth, I share Ms Shahvisi’s concern that anyone could be faced with the choice of saving a life or breaking a law.

    • 13 July 2021 at 1:14am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      That's not a choice. The person would save the life and I doubt he or she would pause to mull over the legal implications. To deliberately, and with pre-meditation (that's what weighing pros and cons amounts to), not save a life is murder.

    • 19 July 2021 at 5:42pm
      Kathleen Lee says: @ Graucho
      It really would be helpful - even to those that generally accept that the UK has international obligations to accept refugees/asylum seekers, if this issue was addressed rather than haranguing readers with poor analogies. Tell us why people make the crossing from France? And whether it is true that some asylim seekers in any case are not true refugees under the law. Address the objections rather than pretending they don’t exist or have no legitimacy. With explanation clarification and enlightmenr can come.

  • 13 July 2021 at 8:20pm
    Katherine Hibbert says:
    The situations are in no way comparable. The Jews in Denmark were facing certain persecution and death. Those "refugees" coming from France are coming from a safe country. They have no need to make the journey but could claim "refugee" status in any of the safe countries through which they pass. If they choose to cross the channel that is their own decision.

    As for this sentimental nonsense about putting children in boats, the "refugees" are overwhelmingly fit, young men, well able to get into a boat without being put in it.

    "When I ask them what that view might commit us to in the present day, they’re quieter."

    Perhaps they are reeling at the silliness of the question.

  • 13 July 2021 at 8:22pm
    Katherine Hibbert says:
    Spot on.

  • 16 July 2021 at 2:37pm
    Dr says:
    The nastiness and sheer defensiveness of most of the comments here rather illustrates why we are where we are in this country.

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