The “Channel migrant crisis” is one of those strange political phrases where almost every part feels like it ought to come with an asterisk. Most of the people seeking to cross from France to the United Kingdom via a series of unreliable and makeshift boats are not migrants, but refugees. And just over 100 people seeking to come to a country of almost 70 million (with near full employment and the fifth biggest economy in the world) hardly constitutes a crisis. Perhaps we should be grateful that these crossings, are, at least, taking place in the stretch of water between France and the United Kingdom.
Part of the row is nakedly political. The Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who was criticised for not ending a safari holiday immediately to “manage the situation”, is generally considered to be one of the frontrunners for the Conservative leadership. Since Theresa May conceded before Christmas that she would not serve a full term, that race has intensified. The other leading contender to replace her, Jeremy Hunt, interrupted his festive break with an article in the Mail on Sunday talking up the benefits of Brexit and the joys of the Singapore model, a place many pro-Leave Tory MPs regard as the shining city in a swamp.
One of Javid’s fellow cabinet ministers mused to me shortly before the holidays that Javid and Hunt had “peaked too soon and have a target on their back”. Much of the blue-on-blue sniping at the Home Secretary is about hobbling a rival rather than a serious critique of his handling of the affair. However, anyone who has bought stock in Javid should note with alarm the lack of supportive voices from within the parliamentary party taking to the airwaves (or even Twitter) to stick up for him. Javid, like Hunt, has supporters but no real devotees. Both are therefore still vulnerable to an unexpected candidate who truly finds a way to animate Tory MPs.
Where Javid isn’t vulnerable to attack is from the opposition. His Labour shadow, Diane Abbott, has set out proposals that would radically change how refugees and migrants are treated by the British state: these include closing the women’s immigration detention centre at Yarl’s Wood, and scrapping the net migration target. However, Abbott knows the risks of making a pro-migration argument explicitly and has therefore dodged a full-blown confrontation with Javid here. Her criticisms have cleaved to Labour’s default setting on security and migration: complaining that the government isn’t spending more money on fences and guards.
Across Europe, there are high levels of concern about border security, even though the numbers of migrants are often derisory in comparison to the host country’s overall population. Italy, with a population of 60 million, never had to deal with annual inflows of more than 200,000 even at the peak of the crisis. Germany took in just over a million refugees between 2015 and 2016 – but has a population of more than 80 million and is the largest economy in the European Union. At the height of the crisis in 2015, Austria – which had more asylum claims per capita than any other European country – only received 90,000 in a nation of nine million: fewer migrants per head than London manages to absorb every year.
Yet even these comparatively small figures have triggered major political eruptions. In Italy, the far right Lega Nord has taken power and is now the dominant force on the political right. In Austria, the centre right People’s Party is in coalition with the far right and its leader, Sebastian Kurz, has aped much of the rhetoric and the policy programme of his governing partners.
Here in the United Kingdom, Vote Leave sought to tap into anxieties about migration during the 2016 referendum campaign by warning about the entirely illusory possibility that Turkey would soon join the European Union. The reality is that there is more chance of a successful Turkish mission to the moon by 2030 than there is of Turkish accession to the EU. As David Cameron pointed out during the campaign – to absolutely no effect – by staying in the EU, Britain would have had a veto on the issue.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has copied his attitude to the European migrant crisis. Their response was summarised by Ivan Rogers, who was Cameron’s top civil servant in Brussels, in a lecture to the University of Liverpool on 13 December, as “we have an opt-out from that one”. In other words: thanks to the Channel, refugees are the Continent’s problem, not ours. The British government has happily handed out cash to the parts of Europe where people have arrived, but that is basically it.
Yet the nations on the European border are becoming increasingly unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of dealing with mass migration alone. Brexit might see us leave the European Union, but it will not allow us to swerve the effects of global migration caused by political instability (such as the war in Syria) and climate change.
These are the two greatest drivers of movement, although neither of them are inevitable or unmanageable forces – an argument that Cameron made at the launch of a new pro-international development organisation, the Coalition for Global Prosperity, on 7 June. However, if the nations of the global south become uninhabitable due to poverty, war or a changing climate over the course of the century, its residents will have no alternative but to move into the developed world.
How can it be said that Britain is ready for this, if a few dozen refugees in the Channel prompt a political storm and require the personal attention of the Home Secretary? The real story of those rickety boats is not the Tory party’s endless in-fighting, but the way they predict our political future.
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions