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How will Brexit affect the refugee crisis?

Whatever the UK decided to do if it left the EU, the Channel would remain 350 miles long, and still practically impossible to police.

In autumn last year Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy from Syria, drowned in the Mediterranean. His body washed up on the Turkish coast on 2 September. A photograph of the boy, lying lifeless and face down on the beach near Bodrum, immediately went viral.

The picture told Europe that it could no longer shield itself from the refugee crisis. In 2015, more than a million migrants reached the EU via the Mediterranean Sea. Aylan Kurdi and over 3,700 others died or went missing attempting the hazardous journey. Another 2,510 died or went missing in the first five months of 2016, against 1,855 for the same period last year.

Overall, 1.25 million people applied for asylum in the 28 EU member states in 2015: more than double the asylum applications recorded the previous year. In raw numbers it is easily the biggest refugee crisis that Europe has experienced since the Second World War. Less than a quarter of those applications – just under 300,000 – were successful in 2015, though it can take years to process many of the claims.

The political impact of the refugee surge has been huge. Yet the EU’s intake is very small in comparison with that of some relatively poor countries. An estimated one million refugees displaced by the war in Syria are now living in Europe, spread out over a continent of 750 million people. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jordan, which have a combined population of 11 million, are hosting two million Syrian refugees.

European countries are legally obliged to help refugees who make it to their countries – a legacy of the Second World War. In 1951 the UN’s Refugee Convention laid out the process of claiming and granting asylum. This was followed by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The most critical aspect of these treaties is the duty of “non-refoulement” – a country can’t return refugees to a nation where they could be at risk. Every single European country, in or out of the EU, is a signatory to both accords.

The EU does impose extra obligations on its members, but these are seldom properly enforced. Last year it agreed to redistribute 160,000 migrants around the continent; so far, only a few thousand have been relocated, and many member states, especially those in eastern Europe, refuse to co-operate. The European Commission is considering introducing fines on non-compliant countries. It is also discussing a revision of the Dublin regulation, under which members can deport asylum-seekers to the nation through which they first entered the EU. The UK has used this to deport over 12,000 people since 2003, and is lobbying against reform.

Despite the tabloid scaremongering, there are far fewer asylum applications per head to the UK than to other countries in the EU. Britain received 60 asylum applications per 100,000 people in 2015, well under the EU-wide average of 260. Perhaps more surprisingly, the UK was also far less generous in hosting refugees than Norway and Switzerland, European countries outside the EU. Norway had ten times more asylum applications per head of population than the UK, and Switzerland eight.

In total, net migration to the UK in 2015 was an estimated 333,000; the number of long-term migrants was split almost evenly between EU and non-EU citizens. Of the 531,000 visas issued in the year to March 2016, granted to nationals from beyond the European Economic Area, 271,000 were for reasons of study – either short or long term – and 164,000 for work, of which 97,000 were in high-value or skilled jobs. (The rest came to be with their family or for other reasons.) As many as 407,000 Irish-born individuals live in the UK, according to the 2011 census, and they would have no automatic right to stay here in the event of a Leave vote.

Overall, immigrants are younger and significantly more educated than people born inside the UK. Most studies suggest that migration is a boost to the British economy rather than a drain on it. This implies that much public anger about immigration is a proxy for broader concerns – about housing, unemployment, the health service, a sense of alienation and loss of identity.

We just don’t know precisely how Brexit would affect the UK’s obligations to refugees, as a report from the Migration Observatory at Oxford noted recently. It is also unclear which policies on free movement – and, by implication, refugees – the UK would adopt if it did vote to leave the EU. If we followed the model of Norway, as many in the Leave camp advocate, free movement essentially would be unaffected. Indeed, if the UK left the EU it would cease to be able to use the Dublin regulation to transfer refugees to other European nations.

There is one other consideration: whatever the UK decided to do if it left the EU, the Channel would remain 350 miles long, and still practically impossible to police.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.