In my column on Monday, I argued that the only answer to the migrant crisis currently taking place in the Channel is for the Government to adopt a “push back” policy, returning boats to the French coast. Unsurprisingly, Telegraph readers were quick to make their thoughts clear. Here, I respond to a few of them.
Richard Roberts wrote, “This article is a reflection of the Government’s approach to dealing with the Channel crisis: concern about wanting to look good, rather than acting to protect the country.”
Mr Roberts has hit the nail on the head and it is certainly true that, when it comes to migration, politicians are more concerned with what looks good than following the evidence and pursuing effective policies. But I think it is important to note that in this case there is more to it than ministers’ usual weakness for spin.
In essence, the political class long ago decided that the problem was unsolvable. Powerful factors – from demographics and technological advancement to the West’s reputation as an easy place to find work and money – are encouraging migrants from the developing world to leave their native countries for wealthier, more stable countries in huge numbers. These forces, so the logic on Whitehall goes, are ultimately beyond the power of countries like Britain to counteract. Performative policies – long on tough rhetoric, short on genuine ambition – are the result.
Yet the idea, as I argued in my piece, that nothing can be done is wrong. Countries such as Britain can police their borders. Yes, this is complicated (not least because it relies on high cooperation with neighbouring states and, if done properly, would likely spark a heavy Left-wing backlash). No, it is not a silver bullet for what is a global problem.
However, there are policies that experience shows would work (such as push backs) and there is no excuse for ignoring them in favour of ideas that look tough but make little difference, such as offshore processing. Mr Roberts is quite right to call out politicians for doing just that.
William Osborn raised the topic of Brexit (someone had to) and pointed out that “Johnson tried to get a clause inserted into his Brexit agreement, similar to the Dublin Agreement, which would allow us to return migrants to the EU country they came”.
Mr Osborn is, of course, quite right about the details of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – but the Dublin Agreement is, in practice, unfit for purpose. In 2013, for example, EU countries made 76,358 transfer requests through the agreement – although 56,466 were accepted by the reception countries, just 15,938 (20 per cent) of the relocations were actually carried out.
The existence of the Dublin Agreement did little to help Britain prevent illegal migration when we were EU members. It would be wrong to ascribe too much significance to the fact that it lapsed with Brexit.
Dwight Vandryver argued that bilateral cooperation with France is unfeasible given that Emmanuel Macron is out for “revenge” for both the Aukus defence deal (which cost the French a £45 billion submarine contract) and the fact that Britain has not given out as many fishing licences as France had expected.
I personally think that there is a lot of theatre around Macron’s behaviour. He has an election looming and finds himself under heavy challenge, in particular from the French Right.
Ultimately, I do not think he is above being bought. As I suggested in my article, finding a deal could involve more innovative offers, such as an agreement to take some of the asylum seekers currently in France (they process more than three times as many applications as does Britain). But it is needlessly defeatist to suggest that there is no way of ensuring that reception countries such as France have some incentive to cooperate.
Marcus Vaigncourt-Strallen suggested that one option would be to “completely change the way the migrants are processed once they get here”.
I feel that that is a bit of a red herring. Evidence suggests that migrants must go through so much to get here that toughening the processing system has little effect.
We need to bear in mind that a sizeable proportion of illegal migrants are not fleeing directly from their native countries, but have lived in other third countries, such as Iran or Turkey, sometimes for several years. In such places they will have faced violence and exploitation, and an endless wait for a decision on their asylum applications. I do not believe that any British-run offshore camps or attempts to make onshore processing more unpleasant could – or should – ever match this.
Perhaps there are cleverer ways to deter migrants through information campaigns but we need to understand better exactly why migrants would risk the journey from a country like France. It cannot be the generosity of the UK benefits system – in the UK, the weekly allowance for an adult asylum-seeker is £37.75; in France it is £42.84 per week. The English language and existing family networks in Britain seem to be bigger pull factors. How to counteract those is no small task.
Cori Celesti made an interesting point that processing migrants could be smoother if only we could “create a clear distinction between ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ and our treatment of them”.
This is the perfect example of something that appears as if it should be simple, but isn’t. Is a person who flees a chronically unstable country, such as Syria or Iraq, because their business has been destroyed, rather than because they are specifically targeted, a refugee or an economic migrant? How are we to know if somebody claiming persecution is telling the truth?
These are the sort of issues the lengthy asylum process is intended to pick through.
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