When 27 people in search of a better life drown in the English Channel it is impossible to argue that policy is working. When desperate people are boarding unseaworthy vessels on the French coast and the lucky ones are helped ashore by staff from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at Dungeness in Kent, then any humane government would accept it had a serious problem. Any intelligent government would have to accept that its policy orthodoxy is not working.
Instead, what followed the events in the Channel on Wednesday 24 November was hard rhetoric and political posturing. The Home Secretary Priti Patel blithely defined all those seeking sanctuary in Britain as economic migrants, as if to discredit their passage and absolve her of responsibility. The French refused a British request for joint patrols along the coast of France. Then, on 26 November, in a display of petulant diplomacy that did neither leader any credit, President Emmanuel Macron reacted to an intemperate letter from Boris Johnson by withdrawing Britain’s invitation to discuss the movement of people in the sea between Britain and France.
More than 26,000 people have made the treacherous crossing this year – three times more than last year and nearly 15 times as many as in 2019. Prevention at the last moment is the only policy that either government seems to have in place.
The policy environment of the British government is hostile. Anyone who arrives overland in Britain is immediately designated as “illegal” and the forthcoming Nationality and Borders Bill is designed to keep the door closed. Among its punitive clauses is one that seeks to deport assumed refugees if there is any evidence that they have passed through another safe country. The idea governing the new legislation is the same one that has conditioned policy on asylum and immigration since before the Conservative Party took office. Against all evidence to the contrary, successive governments have believed that tougher enforcement will work eventually. Never mind the material desperation of those who are travelling the face of the Earth in search of better circumstances.
There is some warrant for this hostility in public opinion. Polling for the Telegraph shows that more than half of British voters think the government is being too soft on cross-Channel refugees. Meanwhile, YouGov found that by a margin of 56 per cent to 19 per cent, Britons take a negative view of those arriving across the Channel, while half of voters think migrant numbers over the last decade have been too high. Though popular concern about immigration fell briefly after the Brexit vote in 2016, nearly a quarter of British people today think immigration and asylum are among the top three issues facing the country. Similarly in France, it is impossible to separate Macron’s stance on Channel crossings from the fact he is fighting a presidential election in April and is under pressure from the noxious far right.
The stretch of water between England and France is the end point, for the tragic few, of a global refugee problem. There are now more than 20 million refugees recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Three-quarters of them are hosted in the country neighbouring their own and 40 per cent of the global refugee population live not in a city or town but in a camp or settlement where conditions are routinely dreadful.
A tiny fraction of these cases finds their way to the boundaries of Europe and an even smaller fraction apply to live in the UK. According to Eurostat, France received 81,800 asylum applications last year, Germany 102,500 and Spain 86,400. At the peak in 2002 the UK processed 84,000 applications, but received around 30,000 last year. On average 41 per cent of those who apply in Europe are granted asylum. In the UK in 2020, just over a quarter of applicants were given asylum.
The flow of people into Europe has been greater and the European Union had the policy equivalent of a nervous breakdown. In November 2015 it published a Joint Action Plan with Turkey, which sought to regularise the flow of migrants to the EU, through Turkey, from Syria. It was a laudable attempt to fix a serious problem, but it didn’t work, and the plan is now falling apart to cries of bad faith coming from both sides.
In 2019 Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s Migration Commissioner, declared that the bloc lacked coherent policies either to manage migration within its borders or to discourage trafficking to them. In September 2020 the New Pact on Migration and Asylum was issued by the European Commission. This document is, sadly, little more than a restatement of the orthodoxy on border security. It also does nothing to resolve the Dublin Regulation, through which an asylum seeker must apply in their first EU country of arrival and which has done nothing to distribute migrants more equitably within member states. As with so many of the biggest issues of our time, the problem with the EU is not that it is the fabled super-state of Brexiteer fantasy. It is that it dissolves into national fiefdoms.
The real tragedy here is that the migrant crisis is not insoluble. There is a reasonable consensus about what needs to happen, but it is undermined by an absence of political will and an excess of national posturing. The solution to the migrant crisis has two locations. First, policies that must be put in place close to home and, second, policies needed in the countries that most of the world’s refugees are fleeing from. The solution here in Britain is obvious. We should create more safe passages into the country. That is the only way to cut off the people smugglers and reduce the incentive for dangerous travel.
It may be beyond their moral imagination, but it is not beyond the wit of policymakers to devise a humanitarian visa that permits applicants to travel safely and then make their case. We do not wish away either the people or their problems by castigating them as illegal. The far better option, at once more practical and more humane, is to open more legal channels and process applications quickly. We need, as we have done for decades, a much better system of checking people in and out of the UK. Then we need to speed up the process of integration and the supply of relevant services for new applicants. The facilities for carrying out such a plan – a court in which appeals can be heard, and accommodation for applicants while hearings are conducted – would need to be constructed. The numbers allowed into the country through the legal routes would have to conform to the space available. Others might still be tempted to take the illegal paths, but surely fewer.
This is the stuff of practical policy delivery not rhetorical gesture, and it would not even necessarily lead to a more liberal policy. The rules governing asylum are international, but the government could set the threshold for entry for the minority entering on dinghies and small boats in search of a better life or safety from war and persecution. If Patel wanted to be a restrictive Home Secretary she could be. The policy may or may not be more liberal than what came before, but it would be more efficient. And in this case, efficiency is a way of avoiding more deaths.
The UNHCR is responsible for overseas resettlement of refugees. In 2018 it reported that only 4.7 per cent of 1.2 million claimants were resettled. Trading with developing countries and increasing movement of workers is good immigration policy, as is generous aid spending. But there is plenty more we can do, as David Miliband at the International Rescue Committee has pointed out, that doesn’t take so long to yield results. Refugees should be permitted to work while they wait for an outcome on their asylum application. The children of asylum seekers should be entitled to elementary schooling in their settlement camp. Cash should be distributed among refugees in camps to stimulate a local economy. In Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World (2017), Alexander Betts and Paul Collier make a lot of the example of Uganda, where new arrivals are allowed to work, move freely and are allocated plots of land. They are given an incentive to stay that competes with the incentives they already have to leave for more prosperous places.
If we remain parochial in our response to the migrant crisis we can palliate it but never solve it. We cannot pander to perceived public opinion on the issue. Hostility to migrants is not ubiquitous and it is not a given. For example, half of Britons support the resettlement of at least “a few thousand” Afghan refugees and nearly half see the need for more immigration to fill labour shortages. With good leadership, this is an argument that can be joined and won. As with every crisis, there is an opportunity here for Boris Johnson. Any prime minister who is serious about defining Britain’s role in the world would make it his business to fix a problem on which the EU has had a series of conspicuous failures. It won’t happen, because the Prime Minister has neither the stamina nor the imagination to know where to start.
In 1939 WH Auden wrote a poem called “Refugee Blues” in which he imagined, prophetically, the state to which so many are now reduced: “The consul banged the table and said, ‘If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead’. But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.” The only solution to the migrant crisis is to allow people the opportunity to get hold of passports. The alternative, as we have seen, is they are soon enough officially dead.
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back