The media narrative, as so often, has portrayed the story as toughness versus tenderness. Those who are idealistic and caring are on the side of welcoming the beleaguered refugees crossing the Channel to Dover in precarious dinghies. They are cheered on by the BBC and The Guardian. Then we have those who sternly declare that the law must be upheld, our borders protected, national interest upheld. Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, was ahead of the “mainstream media” in highlighting the sharp increase in the numbers coming over this summer. Thus he is a convenient stage villain.
The reality is a bit more complicated. There is an important debate to be had about how many refugees we could and should take in. Of course, this is a moral issue. But it is also a practical one. One of the arguments for ending free movement with the EU is that it should be easier to accept more refugees. It would also help ease the financial costs if the ban on asylum seekers was lifted and they could live in spare bedrooms rather than only self contained accommodation.
Some fail to back up “virtue signalling” rhetoric with action. David Cameron announced, in September 2015, the Syrian Vulnerable People’s Resettlement Scheme, with a target of 20,000. The Labour Party immediately complained it was too low – yet Labour (and Lib Dem) councils had a poor record of offering places for them.
Once we have decided how many to help, there is the question of which ones. The monitoring group Open Doors estimates 260 million Christians around the world face persecution. I would like to see us offer more of them sanctuary. Our special responsibility to Hong Kong is another priority that has been highlighted.
So far as the Syrians are concerned, should we be taking them from the overcrowded UN refugee camps – in a legal and (relatively safe) manner? Or should we just fill up the allocation by allowing those to stay who have jumped the queue and managed to make it here illegally? In the case of Syrians, for example, should we take them from the camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon? Or from Calais?
Last year it is estimated that at least 1,885 migrants died in the Mediterranean. Of course, it is impossible to know the full number. The UNHCR have put it at six a day. The greater the chance of being able to stay, the higher the numbers that will pay whatever they can to the criminal gangs of “people traffickers” and risk drowning to get to Europe.
Much the most effective method is to prevent the asylum seekers arriving in England in the first place. The Times reports:
“Ministers are considering using 42m-long Border Force cutters to stop boats from reaching Britain’s territorial waters. The French authorities would then be contacted to intercept them, with a focus on intelligence sharing.
“The government has moved away from a more aggressive Australian-style “push-back” approach, which would have involved Royal Navy and Border Force vessels intercepting boats as they left French waters.”
Critics of the proposal include Jack Straw who warns that amidst the confrontation the dinghies could capsize and its occupants drown. Then we have unnamed sources suggesting that it is impractical or disproportionate. Logistical considerations are important. If Border Force boats can do an effective job of escorting the asylum seekers back to France then I can see that might well be safer (and a lower cost to the taxpayer) than bringing in the vessels of the Royal Navy. It is also reasonable to note that the Channel is smaller that the Indian Ocean and so rather than duplicating Australian arrangements it would be sensible to have our bespoke version.
But whatever the operational details, the broad thrust of the Australian approach has been completely vindicated and it would be right for us to follow it. In 2013, Tony Abbott, the new Australian Prime Minister, ensured that illegal boats heading for his country were towed to an offshore centre. From there they were able to make a claim for asylum. But if it was rejected they could return home but not to Australia. Between 2008 to 2013 there were 877 asylum seekers who drowned en route to Australia. Since then none have.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, says:
“The number of illegal small boat crossings is appalling. We are working to make this route unviable and arresting the criminals facilitating these crossings and making sure they are brought to justice.”
Naturally many on the Left will vilify her for taking a strong line – while most people will recognise that controlling who comes into our country is pretty basic to national security. So taking the necessary action is a patriotic duty. But it is also a moral duty. Allowing illegal crossings and rewarding those who survive them with residency is false compassion. By firmly putting a halt to the practice, Patel can save many lives and ensure that whatever sanctuary we can offer, is granted fairly to genuine cases in the greatest need.