One of Keith Vaz's constituents found an asylum seeker in his horse trailer. Photo: Flickr/James
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What a horse, Keith Vaz and a French policeman tell us about Britain's neglect of refugees

When it comes to taking in asylum seekers, the UK government is shifting blame and responsibility.

This story begins with a horse and ends in Eritrea.

The horse was introduced by Keith Vaz MP last week – while questioning the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The horse belonged to a constituent of Vaz, and had been stowed in the back of a trailer, being driven from Calais to Dover. He had discovered a “clandestine” (an illegal migrant attempting to enter the UK) crouched behind the horse. The man drove the trailer, with the horse in it, with the man still hiding behind it to a French police station. He hoped they might assist. The French policeman, with a shrug of the shoulders, refused.

So the task fell to Vaz's constituent. Beckoning the man out from behind the horse, he convinced him it was safe to come out. It was – the policeman remained nonplussed as the “clandestine” legged it into the distance. The man and his horse continued on their journey.

Vaz was so taken by this anecdote that he told it twice, first to Brokenshire, who was flanked by civil servants from the Immigration Directorate, and then in a separate session later that afternoon, to Sir Charles Montgomery, head of UK Border Force.

Watch Keith Vaz's anecdote here, from 15.52:

This behaviour from the French police, as other members of the parliamentary committee insisted, was demonstrative of lackadaisical Paris, which refuses to assist beleaguered Britain with preventing some of the 10,000 illegal crossing attempts from Calais each year.

Both men conceded more could be done, but that responsibility for our borders must at least be shared with the French. Stopping immigration to Europe was a European problem, the Minister insisted. So Brussels should be blamed too.

And further south we went, via the “Kharthoum process” – a deal signed between the European Union and the African Union to prevent migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe. Finally, Sir Charles told how he had visited Eritrea to convince migrants not to come to the UK. His argument: “Life here isn't as rosy as you think.” You can only imagine the response.

The UK's refugee policy, particularly regarding the Middle East and Africa, comes in three parts. First: throw money at the problem. Syria is most frequently cited as an example; the UK is the largest humanitarian donor maintaining the refugee camps, and this is the largest humanitarian endeavour ever undertaken by a British government.

Second, this funding is used to cover up a truly terrible record on taking refugees in. Of the 4m Syrian refugees looking for new homes, the UK has taken in just 90. When civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, around a million Libyans fled the country. Most have now returned, but the UK refused to host any of them while they were refugees.

Thirdly, the government shifts culpability to others. Whether it's France, Brussels, Italy or Turkey, down to the North African nations or the war-ravaged Middle East, or even to Eritrea – our borders are now beyond our borders.

The government recently withdrew from one of these foreign collaborations, controversially cutting funding for the rescue boats which pick up drowning refugees in the Mediterranean. Brokenshire and Montgomery boasted to Vaz's Committee that this decision had born fruit. Fewer refugees were now making the trips, the men claimed.

That same day, another boat sank. Over 300 died. The numbers, contrary to what the Minister and his Deputy claimed, are increasing.

I would have got on that boat. So would Brokenshire, so would Montgomery and so would you. I would get on that boat because my family were in danger, because my house had been destroyed in Syria or Iraq or Libya. Getting on that boat would make sense – even with the risks. So would living in the forest outside Calais, covered in sweat and mud. waiting to be folded into a fridge and packed in the back of a lorry to London.

We can deploy ever more advanced systems to stop people entering the UK – but when it comes to refugees, they will not stop until the wars stop. Until then, our moral duty is to accept those who need our help. In the same breath as this government lectures us about “British values,” or, as Brokenshire himself put it, “our proud history of granting protection to those who need it”, they let hundreds of refugees drown, live impoverished half lives in flimsy refugee camps, or fall into the hands of people traffickers.

Brokenshire was right: the UK does have a proud history of helping refugees. At present, that's just history. People need our help now.

Alastair Sloan, unequalmeasures.com

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era