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16 February 2015

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.

By Alastair Sloan Alastair Sloan

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.

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Watch Keith Vaz’s anecdote here, from 15.52:

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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