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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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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum