Among the many thousands of tragic and avoidable deaths in recent months, I want to single out just two. Abdulfatah Hamdallah was a young man from Sudan whose body was washed up on a French beach after he tried, with a friend, to cross the Channel in a small inflatable boat with makeshift oars. He had been refused asylum in France and saw the UK as the Promised Land – little did he know.
Mercy Baguma was a young Ugandan woman who was found in a Glasgow flat after starving to death in the presence of her (just about surviving) baby, after she had had all benefits withdrawn.
The Home Secretary, Priti Mrs Patel, fulminates against what she describes as “illegal migrants”. She is perhaps prepared – ‘nobly’ – to make an exception for her parents, who would have been illegal under the Immigration Bill she is currently steering through Parliament: when she tells you that it is made too easy for migrants to gain access to this country, think of Abdulfatah. When she tells you that they have too cushy a life after they arrive here, think of Mercy.
“The government needs to move on from soundbites and focus constructively on serious and long-term solutions. Britain is better than this. We have a proud history of welcoming people fleeing some of the most violent and oppressive regimes in the world and we can’t stop now.” Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action
“The only difference between you and us is luck. We did not choose for our countries to become so unsafe that even the deadly sea offered a better prospect. The past few months have proved that wherever we come from in the world, we are united by the love and concern we hold towards our loved ones. Just like you we want what’s best for us and our families.” Hassan, an asylum seeker and now NHS worker settled in the UK.
I have spent almost 30 years working as a GP in Cowley, Oxford, and at the last count our practice population represented 173 different nationalities. Many of these had come as asylum seekers, who made a new life in the UK and were contributing massively to their community and to the UK economy. I often think of a young man I came across as a taxi driver: he had come from Afghanistan with limited means and very little English at about the age of 10, and now here he was – 12 years on – driving a taxi to work his way through medical school.
These are the kind of people who are stigmatised by this “hostile environment” government as “spongers”, and by the appallingly smug Nigel Farage in his notorious poster of 2016; the latest appalling act by this Government is a Dad’s Army style video, published on the Home Office Twitter account and paid for by you and me, which pushed out a catalogue of lies about “illegal migrants” and the “activist lawyers” who are inconveniently blocking attempts to deport them.
The video claims that after the Brexit transition this kind of reprehensible behaviour will stop; it was subsequently withdrawn after an outcry from the press and the legal profession – but only after it had had 1.6 million viewings – many by people who will have never heard the retraction.
Sadly, there are members of the public who are swallowing the Government’s narrative on migration: in a recent YouGov survey it appears that 49% of respondents had little or no sympathy for migrants crossing the Channel, and 46% agreed with the statement that the UK had done more than its fair share to accommodate refugees who have arrived in Europe when compared to other European countries. (This may indeed reflect public opinion, although it is likely that there was some manipulation involved – there was a big swing against migrants in the closing hours of the survey.)
So what are the facts?
We keep hearing that some 5,000 people have successfully crossed the Channel into the UK so far this year. The Priti Patels of this world – together with the gutter press – try to make that sound like a big number. Is it?
Total net migration into the UK stands at well over 300,000. 80% of this figure comes from outside the EU, and this is of course a major change since the 2016 Referendum. Strikingly, total net migration has stayed almost stable but that from non-European countries has risen. Total asylum applications in the UK in 2019 numbered 35,566, and this figure itself – though dwarfing the number of boat people – is much smaller than that of comparable countries such as Germany (142,500) and France (123,900); the number of boat people crossing the Mediterranean annually to Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta is of the order of 40,000.
The world total of refugees is almost 30,000,000 and if you include people who are internally displaced it comes to 80,000,000. The UK takes a tiny proportion: just think of Lebanon, where about one-third of the population are people escaping the war in Syria. And along with civil unrest and a broken economy, Lebanon has had to cope in the past few weeks with the largest non-nuclear explosion in history at the centre of its capital city – so don’t let anyone tell you that the UK is creaking under the strain of illegal migration.
Rants against migrants have become a way of life for the gutter press, and those who buy such newspapers are only encouraging this behaviour.
And when Brexit hits?
So what about the claim that this country will have control of borders on 1 January 2021, when Brexit really starts to bite?
If you are the kind of person – and I am not, and I hope you are not – who believes, with Mrs Patel, that immigration is to be avoided at all costs, then I recommend you think very very hard.
Britain has the “advantage” of being an island (I exclude Northern Ireland from this). This means that people can arrive in the country only by air or by sea. If you are coming by sea and are self-propelled, you will be arriving from an EU country. While the UK remains governed by EU regulations, it is subject to the Dublin Convention, which dictates that asylum-seekers should be required to settle in the first safe country in which they arrive.
For those coming by sea this almost never means the UK. From the Patel perspective, the Dublin Convention is hugely advantageous to the UK, in that it makes it possible – at least in theory – to return migrants to another safe country. In practice this happens relatively rarely – under 7% of those arriving last year were sent back. However, it is a theoretical right which will end on 1 January 2021, unless alternative bilateral arrangements are in place by then.
Given the appalling state of relations Johnson and Frost have created with the EU, this currently seems highly unlikely. So, people crossing the sea will therefore know that once they arrive in the UK there will be no mechanism for returning them – and if this is not an encouragement, I cannot think what is.
Chris Philp, the Immigration Minister, chastises the French for not doing more to control British borders. Surely even he, in his befuddled way, must see the irony of this coming from a Government which pushed Brexit because it would allow Britain to ‘control its own borders’.
And what do you do if you really want to sour relations with your neighbours and forfeit their co-operation? You say that migrants have a fear of being tortured by the French. Which is just what Mrs Patel did. Similarly, the Home Office has just made an attempt to fly a planeload of migrants back to Spain: it had to be abandoned following a legal challenge; HMG had not done its homework. And just when we thought things could not get more absurd, Tory Brexiteer backbencher Edward Leigh suggested that the UK should take back control of Calais, on the grounds that it occupied it until 1558, in the reign of Queen Mary.
This is the kind of jingoistic ignorance we have to deal with.
Possibly foreseeing increasing difficulties, HMG is proposing – in the face of resistance from the Royal Navy – to put armed naval patrols in the Channel to look out for refugees. What will be their task? It looks to me as if – unless they propose to break international law – this too will have the opposite effect to that which is intended: let’s just assume that no naval captain will be prepared to attack or ram a rickety boat full of migrants, nor to enter French waters without permission, nor to attempt to return migrants to a French port. The only option open to them is to obey the law of the sea, pick up those in danger, and take them back to a British port. Once again, knowing that this will happen, more, not fewer, migrants will choose to come.
Media organisations and the Royal Navy have the same obligations when at sea
None of this is surprising. While I do not think that any reasonable person would accuse Priti Patel of being a genius, it does not take a genius to recognise these issues. Any fool could have done so as far back as 2016, including this fool. Here is an extract from a letter I wrote Boris Johnson (our former MP and then still a humble backbencher) back in spring of 2016:
‘Suppose Leave wins. Suppose on 24 June Mr Cameron resigns. Some unfortunate will have to step into his shoes and face the following challenges: … How to explain that, contrary to predictions, leaving the EU does not absolve us from the obligation to accept migrants from other parts of the world. It will make it much more difficult to negotiate with the French on security at Calais, and will also make it more difficult to achieve a united European stand on immigration, which at a time like this is more important than ever.’
I need hardly say – reply came there none.
The inhumanity of this Government’s policies is matched only by their stupidity; no wonder that even the Murdoch press is turning against them.
But perhaps it is even worse than that? Perhaps all these attempts to shift the debate onto migration and feed red meat to the xenophobes among us, are actually another dead cat. Perhaps what this Government is attempting to do is to stir up a bogus debate and distract attention from the catastrophic no-deal Brexit it is forcing upon us, from the fiasco of A-levels, the gradual dismantling of the civil service, the undermining and manipulation of planning laws, the opening up of the countryside to developers and speculators, the deliberate lowering of food standards, the barefaced collusion with Russian oligarchs, and the failure of ministers to accept responsibility for the most egregious behaviour?
Or am I being too cynical?
Meanwhile, let us remember the appalling conditions from which many of these asylum-seekers come. When you are talking about Syria in 2020, it is a nonsense to try to make a distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Those we see in Europe are no more than the tip of the iceberg. And let us also remember that travelling from one part of the world to another to escape oppression and misery goes back to the dawn of civilization.
Our society, like all others, consists of waves of migration which have come over many generations and will continue to do so. Let us do what enlightened people around the world have always done, and see them as something which enriches, not impoverishes, our communities.
Peter Burke is Chair of Oxford for Europe; he writes here in a personal capacity.
Peter’s blog can be read here: https://oxfordforeurope.org/letters/44-the-deadly-sea/