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London
Monday, November 29, 2021

Britain’s asylum policy needs radical reform

The death of 27 men, women and children, who were drowned when their flimsy inflatable capsized in the English Channel this week, is more than just a personal tragedy. It is a blot, an indelible stain, on the character of a supposedly civilised society that ruthless people smugglers have been allowed to continue with their evil business for so long.

These highly organised international criminals have been rightly described as “murderers” by Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron and their activities must now be the subject of the most rigorous investigation by the British and French authorities. The Prime Minister and the French President must signal to the world that they will not rest until they find and punish the men and women who profit from sending migrants on the perilous journey across the English Channel.

Mr Macron must also reflect on the fact that it is the failure of his government to prevent migrants from putting to sea in the first place that has been a contributory factor in this tragedy. The world witnessed, and probably will not forget, the sight of French police officers watching, and doing nothing, as migrants took to the sea earlier this week. It is not as if France had no warning that Wednesday’s deaths were a tragedy waiting to happen. It is also perverse that Mr Macron has so far rejected Britain’s offers of police and troops to help patrol the beaches.

Nevertheless, the best way of resolving this crisis surely would be for Mr Johnson and Mr Macron to meet face-to-face – possibly on the beaches of the Pas de Calais – to work out how they plan to tackle this, thus far, intractable problem. Mr Johnson could insist, as he says, that the two countries need to “break the model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way” and declare that the whole migration issue is a continent-wide, if not world-wide, dilemma and must be treated in an international way.

The EU should certainly play its part in finding a remedy, too. There is a case for a new deal on migration with France, to replace the 2003 Le Touquet treaty.

Regrettably, however, it is unlikely that we will be able to depend on either the EU or France to rise to the challenges of this tragedy. The bloc’s approach to the issue has been hopeless, with the Schengen agreement not fit for purpose as it means that borders cannot be secured within Europe. The migrant question, meanwhile, has become a major issue in the French presidential election and Mr Macron clearly sees political gain in an antagonistic stance towards the British.

But the status quo is clearly not sustainable, either – morally or politically. If nothing is done, more people are likely to die on the dangerous crossing to the UK, while voters are likely to wonder if the Government is committed to its promises on migration.

A root and branch review of every aspect of the UK’s asylum policy is urgently required. The processing of asylum applications ought to be far swifter, as should the deportation of those whose claims are rejected. Asylum processing centres need to be tough, but humane.

It may be necessary to look again at the architecture of human rights laws that, some argue, make it far too difficult to either turn back the boats or remove people who have no legitimate right to remain in this country. The Nationality and Borders Bill, currently going through Parliament, introduces new restrictions and is a welcome start but is by no means enough.

The UK has many so-called “pull factors” – such as the English language, and the comparatively light touch nature of our labour market – that will always make this country a magnet for immigration. We are also a hospitable country that has a long history of taking in people who are in need.

Nonetheless, the voters backed Brexit and the Conservative Party at the last general election because they wanted to take back control of the borders. There is nothing callous about that – the current chaos on the Channel only incentivises people to put their lives at risk by attempting a crossing. 

The UK is one of the most diverse, tolerant countries in Europe and we should set the standard for what a 21st century immigration system looks like.

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