No easy answers to Britain’s migrant mess

A political crisis is playing out on the coast of England not far from my Sussex home. Almost daily, flimsy boats carrying migrants attempt to cross the Channel to reach the Kent and Sussex coast; they are often picked up by Border Force or RNLI boats. The numbers are growing rapidly, with not even the autumnal weather putting them off. And these crossings have turned to human tragedy, with 27 migrants dying off the French coast last week when their boat capsized.

The political crisis arises because Conservative Party supporters feel that this situation is intolerable; they had voted for Brexit to keep migrants out, but they seem to be flooding in, with the government apparently helpless. Many of these supporters would rather the travellers drown pour encourager les autres; Conservative politicians, realising that such views are unacceptable in the mainstream, instead rail against the people smugglers profiting from the traffic, and the allegedly unhelpful French. Left and liberal politicians meanwhile suggest that safer alternatives be provided for the migrants, but mainly enjoy the schadenfreude of pointing out that Brexit has made this particular problem harder to deal with. Workable solutions are not offered.

To a large extent the government’s problem is one of success. It has implemented harsh policies to keep out those migrants it deems to be undesirable, meaning most refugees and anybody who is not highly educated, preferably at a British university. They have taken full advantage of Brexit to do this, and the overall flow has been reduced substantially. The country takes in many fewer refugees than comparable other European countries. Earlier efforts to cooperate with the French, predating Brexit, have stemmed the flow of migrants smuggled on lorries. The refugees and their people-smuggling agents have few alternatives to the use of boats. Unfortunately the trade is so lucrative that it has expanded – and it has proved very hard to police. Unlike Poland and Belarus, Britain can’t simply put up a fence patrolled by soldiers to keep them out.

Why are they coming? After all they are passing through countries, not least France, that many Britons feel are desirable places to live. But like in Britain, these refugees, many of who are Muslim, evoke a lot of public hostility, so their governments aren’t exactly welcoming. Many of the migrants want to join family or former neighbours already settled in Britain. There is also a suggestion that Britain has a rather lax attitude to things like identity papers that makes it easier for illegal migrants to get on. Most of the migrants seem to be genuine refugees from the world’s growing number of troublespots – Afghanistan in particular. A suggestion by some that they are mostly “economic migrants” from countries that are simply poor no longer seems to be true, though I don’t entirely trust my sources on this. At the bottom of this, Britain is indeed a highly desirable place to live, and one where migrants with the sort of get up and go needed to make the hazardous journey can do well. Racism and Islamophobia are rife, but I don’t think they are worse than anywhere else in Europe – and indeed attitudes are probably more liberal than in most.

What is to be done? Shrugging and letting it carry on is unattractive. The country could probably absorb the arrivals easily enough, but the trade is lucrative and expanding. Many more will doubtless die – and also the continued acceptance of the migrants makes the state look ineffective. Most of the migrants seem to be scooped up by the authorities (unlike the lorry-smuggling trade) and then have to be processed, rather than simply disappear into their communities, placing a strain on the civic authorities. Pushing the boats back (as apparently the Greeks do to boats from Turkey) looks unworkable. The Channel is too broad and its waters too unsafe, especially in the craft that the migrants use. The traffickers have no incentive to give them more seaworthy boats. Beyond that the authorities’ main idea is to remove them from British shores as fast as they can. This, it is argued, will “break the business model” of the smugglers by reducing the chances of a successful journey. This could be to offshore processing centres – Australia has used such a policy with some success – and then back to their home countries. The legal obstacles to such a policy are in the process of being dismantled by new legislation. But where to process? It is not an attractive prospect for the host nation, and British dependencies are too small and too far away (the Falklands has been suggested). And how to send people back to a war zone?

Or the migrants could simply be sent back to France (or Belgium, also used by the smugglers). That requires their agreement, though, and they have no incentive to cooperate. After Brexit the country has many fewer pathways to achieving a solution along these lines. Some form of quid pro quo would be needed, and that would mean accepting a greater number of refugees one way or another. Meanwhile the idea of beefing up the border patrols on the continental side of the water and arresting the traffickers seems to have little chance of doing much to stop such a lucrative trade.

Another idea from conservative types is to make life harder for refugees and illegal immigrants in the UK. This was tried out a number of years ago with a policy called “hostile environment”. Alas such policies in the hands of bureaucrats and enforcement agencies usually end up by punishing the wrong people – those that came in long ago, when paperwork was laxer, and who are now fully integrated. Such people are easier to find. That was the “Windrush Scandal” that proved to be politically very damaging. Besides the idea of Brexit was to celebrate Britain’s tradition of freedom and lack of bureaucratic interference in daily life – and not t turn us just another Euro-state regulated by busybodies.

So what do liberals suggest? Increase the flow of refugees through safe, legal routes. The idea seems to be that doing so would reduce the incentive for migrants to take such a risky route and pay the smugglers. But, of course, it cannot reduce the overall flow of migrants. Indeed it would surely increase it – reducing the cost of migration would increase the flow. There would also be an incentive for other countries to send their awkward refugees on to the UK. Another liberal idea is to try and head of the trouble that is causing people to flee with more aid. But the failure of Western military interventions, and the concomitant rise of countries starting or provoking wars makes this a pretty hopeless task.

So what to do? There is no good answer, but the best way forward surely requires multiple approaches. It starts with more generous policies for accepting refugees through safe, legal routes. It is ridiculous that the country has not done more to accept more Afghans, for example, as there was clear political cover for this in response to Taliban victory. This would give Britain a stronger bargaining position when trying to hammer out solutions with our European neighbours to get tougher on the smugglers and reduce the number of successful crossings.

And that is probably as good as it gets. The people trade is like the one in illegal drugs – too hard to stop, but one that multiple channels can alleviate.