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  1. International Politics
30 November 2021

The suppression of people-smuggling is as perilous and futile as the war on drugs

We fail to grasp that stepping up sanctions will not impact those already resigned to risking their lives.

By Rowan Williams

People die, hideously. Criminals make profits from their deaths. Innocents are caught up in the business, to be killed or corrupted by it. Public sentiment is outraged. Politicians promise uncompromising punitive action. Things get worse. More people die.

This is the familiar narrative of the “war on drugs”; but it could also be the narrative of the “war on migrants”. The tragedy in the Channel on 24 November shocked us, but that has not prevented some in government and the media from seeking political capital. And the rhetoric that has been generated reflects exactly the confused and dangerous thinking that has made the war on drugs, here and in the US, so ineffectual.

We shall deter people from dangerous courses of action – so the thinking goes – if we make the consequences for them more threatening in terms of legal sanctions. We look to legislate as if every person caught up in the problem was weighing risks dispassionately – and as if those who profit from the suffering of others would not exert all their ingenuity to secure and increase those profits. But this ignores the root problem of what motivates people to take such risks in the first place; we fail to grasp that stepping up sanctions will not impact those already resigned to risking their lives.

Of course, it is an imperfect parallel. But there is just enough here that ought to make us think hard about the satisfying trumpet-calls for “pushing back” and creating more severe sanctions to secure our borders.

This ought not to be a battle about levels of migration as such. The challenge is not that we are being swamped by migrants who casually choose to knock at our doors. It is dishonest to suggest that it is – especially given, for example, the painfully small number of unaccompanied minors who were admitted to the UK under the celebrated “Dubs Amendment” of 2016, a programme that ended in 2020 when the agreed number had been settled. Any defensible political morality must recognise that the securities and opportunities guaranteed to the citizens of any one nation are a mark of inalienable human dignity, not just privileges for those who happen to be born in the country. We have an obligation to regard anyone forced into migration as worthy in principle of the same level of protection as anyone else. Not to start from this premise (whatever the difficulty of working out the details) is to abandon one of the foundational commitments of ethical democracy, the belief in a moral status for human beings that does not depend on accidents of birth. It is embarrassing to hear those whose language automatically dehumanises and delegitimises refugees.

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The problem is the lack of safe legal routes for people at the end of their resources, who are easy prey for the highly organised criminal gangs that oversee the people-smuggling trade. International cooperation (which has included the UK’s police) has made some inroads into tackling the smuggling issue. But simply making life more difficult for desperate and vulnerable people will push up the profits of the trade: more restrictions to circumvent, higher charges; higher charges, more income. There is always an incentive to cut corners as regards safety in a business like this, and as the process becomes more complex the easiest corners to cut concern the safety of the travellers. Once again, the parallel with the drug trade is not hard to see.

On top of all this, the UK’s exit from the EU has taken us outside the Dublin Convention. This has sent the message that we no longer accept that refugees should settle in the first country where they seek asylum, and so has encouraged people’s hopes of admission to the UK. Some have argued that on top of this it is dangerously easy for undocumented migrants to slip quietly into the UK workforce in the absence of fully developed and transparent protocols about labour movement accepted jointly by the UK and the EU. This is disputed in some quarters, but even this perception further encourage the hopes of migrants and sweetens the promises of people-smugglers.

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As so often, we end up punishing victims instead of stepping back to ask what internationally shared procedures can reduce the levels of desperation that lie at the heart of the problem. The unwelcome truth is that levels of migration will not reduce in the next decade; quite the opposite, given the continuing violent civil unrest in so many African and West Asian contexts (not to mention the situation in Afghanistan), and the spiralling pressures of crises driven by climate change. Creating “hostile environments” is pointless; people undertaking the almost unimaginable risks of emergency migration know a lot about hostile environments. We can safely assume that we should have to make ourselves spectacularly more barbarous than most of us could countenance if we wanted to appear a less attractive option than the contexts from which so many come.

And if this is not the answer, solutions must be worked out by international cooperation in the management of migrant populations at a minimal level of dignity and security across Europe, and a humane, secure and effective means of transit and scrutiny. It will need realism about the scale of the challenge in a context where the mortal risks of journeys like the one that ended so appallingly in the Channel seem to be reasonable choices – because the alternatives look worse. It will need – and we so seldom hear about this – some processes of consultation with the people most directly involved: what are their hopes? What do they think would be a fair and manageable system?

It will need more than alarmism and sabre-rattling. Remember the war on drugs: incentivising suppliers, ignoring motivation, directing sanctions at those already exploited and abused – these are not methods to be proud of. And they are not methods that work.

This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back