Enver Solomon is Chief Exective of the Refugee Council.
It’s more than a decade since David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, made a pledge to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. His promise shaped British politics for many years and dogged him until his last day in office.
Today, with Brexit done, net migration is no longer a hot political issue. A different migration challenge has replaced it that is equally complex and more visceral – small boats coming across the channel carrying people seeking asylum in the UK.
For a Government that has promised to take back control of the nation’s borders understandably it poses a major political challenge.
Like Cameron, Boris Johnson’s government has made a clear pledge – it is committed to make the channel ‘unviable’ for what are called ‘illegal crossings’.
However, again like Cameron, as the numbers coming across the channel are set to be far higher this year than anybody predicted, this latest pledge on migration looks as though it is also destined to end in failure. At the same time it risks poisoning British politics through yet more divisive rhetoric.
The Government has chosen to both talk and act tough, adopting an uncompromising stance. Expensive kit has been purchased to block the boats. Millions has been spent on increasing border controls, much of it handed to the French to deliver.
Anyone who travels through other countries before arriving in the UK has been immediately labelled an illegal immigrant. The Government says they will be sent them back to the safe European country they passed, through even though there is only one returns agreement in place with a European country. And it has introduced a new Nationality and Borders Bill designed to create an even more hostile environment, including provisions to offshore people to have their asylums claims processed overseas.
The rationale is that the more hostile and the tougher the policy the less likely men, women and children are to risk their lives at the hands of people smugglers to come to our shores. It’s a far too simplistic assumption that relies primarily on deterrence, control and enforcement. It will fail because the problem is more complex and nuanced. A more intelligent and humane response is required.
Every day, thousands of people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict, violence and persecution. In fact, every three seconds, a person is forced to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave everything they know behind.
The so called ‘illegal migrants’ on boats coming across the channel include many who are incredibly vulnerable. Children who have been abused and exploited in search of safety travelling alone. Women trapped in a world of modern slavery who have no legal recourse.
In fact despite the Government’s claims they are primarily economic migrants a new analysis by the Refugee Council shows that almost all arrivals in the 18 months to June this year were from ten countries (such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan) where persecution is not uncommon due to war, oppression, violence and terror. More than six out of ten people from these nations seeking asylum in the UK are granted refugee status or protection.
For the top five countries – Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam – it is even higher. For Syrians the grant rate is 88 per cent, for Eritreans 84 per cent, for Sudanese and those from Yemen 70 per cent, and for Iranians 67 per cent.This means on average at least seven out of ten would be granted refugee status or protection.
Of course, it also means that just under a third are refused. But of those initially refused asylum some will go on to get refugee status on appeal. For example, 59 per cent of appeals by Iranians are successful, 69 per cent by Sudanese asylum seekers and 73 per cent by Syrians.
The reality that many of those arriving in small boats are genuinely fleeing persecution needs to be acknowledged and a different approach should be taken to responding to channel crossings.
Firstly, the Government needs to accept that if there were more safe and regular routes in place for people – such as a wide ranging resettlement programme, humanitarian visas and reformed family reunion rules – fewer people would feel the need to make such dangerous journeys in the first place. An ambitious expansion in safe routes is urgently required.
Secondly, government must accept that many people seeking asylum will have no other option other than making an irregular journey as recognised in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the British government helped formulate. In the last seven decades since the convention was established many people have fled their home countries taking dangerous journeys to reach the UK and they have been granted a fair hearing on British soil when they arrive.
This principle, upheld by Prime Ministers of all colour since Winston Churchill, should continue today.
People seeking asylum have the right to choose to come to Britain and people do often because they have family or community connections or speak some English. Far more – three times more in the case of Germany and twice as many in the case of France – decide to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe. As a signatory to the Convention the UK should allow those who choose to make an asylum application here to do so.
People coming from overseas fleeing persecution in search of safety is not just an issue the Government is having to face up to – Europe and other western nations is facing too. Like the challenge of climate change it therefore requires a multilateral response, working collaboratively with other countries.
This includes working together to address the factors that force people to flee their homes. Mechanisms that will stabilise and enrich those parts of the world that people are fleeing are critical. Global Britain could seek to play a leading role in addressing this global challenge.
Cameron and his Government lived to regret their commitment on migration. The same is likely to happen to Johnson and his government unless they change course. Less harsh control, more human compassion, less meaningless rhetoric, more intelligent realism, less nationalist posturing, more global leadership – that’s what’s needed.