This article was written by Harry Sanders, a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration solicitors.

In the 4 years since the EU launched Operation Sophia to aid the influx of refugees seeking sanctuary, the number of refugees risking their lives to claim asylum has dropped significantly. Yet despite the depleting numbers, the death toll continues to rise at a disproportionate rate – rocketing from a historical average of 2% to 14% this August. 

This sharp rise in the number of fatalities can be attributed to the UK and EU’s joint ambition to crack down on the crisis.  By 2017, NGO rescue missions were criminalised and barbed wire decorated the EU’s external borders including the 13ft concrete barrier in Calais to prevent migrants from making the crossing. Now, the latest initiative has seen Operation Sophia cease all operations this March while rescue missions are replaced by unmanned aerial drones which crucially contain no rescue capabilities whatsoever. 

Consequently, the body count is rising – and will continue to spiral for as long as drones continue to scan the waters, including the Libyan coast where no rescue mission has been carried out in over a year. 1,073 of the 127,690 attempted crossings made so far this year have lost their lives in just the Mediterranean alone.

Meanwhile, Frontex, the company responsible for these drones, has been awarded a £95 million investment fund for the ramped-up surveillance and security. Yet research by the Returns Network have linked Frontex guards to scenes of violence and inhumane treatment towards displaced people, particularly at the borders of Balkan states such as Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary. Despite Frontex’s denial that its officers acted inhumanely, its own documents detail the use of nightsticks and pepper spray. In some cases, dogs were set upon asylum seekers and were allowed to chase them through forests and bite them, including lone children. But the problem has been swept under the rug, the Home Office eager to funnel millions more behind its already generous contributions of £6 million and £44.5 million towards surveillance and security across the pond. Another new plan tackling migrant crossings was only drawn up between the UK and France a few days ago.

The shift in the dynamic between the EU and asylum seekers illustrates the wider rise in hostility towards refugees, which has found expression in both restrictive immigration policies and physical acts of aggression across the continent. Gabriele Iacovino, director of Italy’s Centre for International Studies, said that the implementation of drones is “a way to spend money without having the responsibility to save lives” – a responsibility put upon all ships by international and EU law. Not only has this allowed European politicians to side-step the difficult yet serious discussions about what to do with migrants once they have been rescued, but it has allowed them to renege on their duty to save lives in the first place.

This ignorance of duty was captured by Boris Johnson’s insistence that asylum seekers fleeing to the UK would be doing so “illegally”. Johnson stated that “The UK should not be regarded as a place where you could automatically come and break the law by seeking to arrive illegally”. As with many of Boris Johnson’s statements, this is both inflammatory and incorrect. Not only is claiming asylum an internationally protected human right, but the means by which asylum seekers enter a country is irrelevant to their claim – in reality, international law protects refugees from punishment for this, since they are fleeing genuine persecution.

Just days after Johnson made these inaccurate remarks, a man attempting to swim from France to the UK was found dead off the coast of Belgium. Since then, the Channel has become the grave to three more asylum seekers, one woman who drowned saving children and two young men who were found washed up on a French beach. The sudden acceleration of Channel deaths is made all the more alarming by the fact that they’re believed to be the first people to have died making this journey from France. These are yet more avoidable deaths that have been made more likely by increasingly hostile immigration strategies. 

The future looks just as bleak for those seeking refuge in Britain with Brexit set to make immigration laws even more restrictive. Home Secretary Priti Patel recently announced that Freedom of Movement would end on 1st November, as well as plans to axe refugee funding and abandon family reunification  laws that unites lone asylum seeking children with family members. Combined with this are plans to invest in next-generation technology to detect and prevent the flow of people into the UK via lorries and boats.

X-ray technology is similarly used in the US and has been found successfully detecting migrants hiding in trucks, including a staggering 51 migrants (in which 21 were children) in one incident in Mexico.  Although this initiative may be designed to catch smugglers and traffickers, the eventual outcome is that the victims are tracked down and deported back into the same circumstances of slavery as they were found in – or kept in harrowing detention centres where, in the US, children and infants are segregated from their parents and in the UK they are kept indefinitely. 

The actions of both the UK and the EU since the inception of Operation Sophia have exhibited just how hostile immigration policies have become. Where once ships would patrol the Mediterranean looking to save the lives of the most desperate and afraid, now such rescue missions are outlawed. Instead, the suffering of these refugees is captured in real-time, and beamed to the screens of an unfeeling and irresponsible border management agency.

If the mission statement of ‘saving lives’ was given any real consideration, those seeking refuge in the UK would be able to make their asylum claims from across the Channel instead of being forced to make perilous and illegal journeys just to be heard. Border forces would also be employed to safely escort migrants rather than maim and degrade them. Surely, we do not yet live in such a reprehensible and hard-hearted age that the cost of these methods outweighs just one human life, let alone the thousands that will die, and the millions spent supporting it, under the neglectful watch of drones?

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