Simon Fell is the MP for Barrow and Furness.
I recently joined the Furness Multicultural Forum, a small volunteer group in my constituency, for a very affecting meeting. Alongside the great team from the FMF, we were joined by about 20 of the 70-odd asylum seekers residing in The Majestic Hotel in Barrow-in-Furness. I listened to their stories and was left very moved.
One of my jobs in Parliament is to sit on the Home Affairs Committee. We’ve just completed an enquiry into the asylum system and its many failings, looking at everything from the small boats problems, to current Home Office backlogs. It’s a woeful situation. People are right to be sick of it. But it’s very easy to forget the people caught in the system.
Some facts. Not a single person crosses the channel without the aid of a criminal gang. Some of the people that do so have been sold into slavery long before they reach the UK. Others after paying their fare, see the boats’ flimsy nature, and try to turn around, but are marched aboard by those same gangs at knifepoint.
Others are more cavalier and are making a choice about their future and where they want to spend their lives. Some are economic migrants. And others – a very slim minority – are people of concern, who may want to harm us, identified by Border Force and other agencies quickly. Clearly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ asylum seeker arriving.
One of the gentlemen I met in Barrow worked for more than a decade with the UK and the US in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. When the Taliban seized back Afghanistan, he knew he was a target, left his wife and children, fled for their safety, and travelled here. I am no expert, but to me he ticks every box to be granted asylum. Had he been in Kabul instead of Helmand, there is every chance we would have directly airlifted him to the UK during those desperate last days of Operation PITTING.
Many others have similar stories, fleeing war, persecution, and genocide. They’ve come here and asked for asylum. Much to their surprise, they’ve ended up in Barrow, or similar towns.
Amongst the group I met were people skilled in aircraft maintenance, chemical engineers, chefs, a gentleman with a succession of qualifications in sustainable energy, folk holding multiple doctorates, and an IT consultant. They are hungry to work, earn, and give back. But they can’t because of the rules they live under. Nor can they claim benefits. So groups like the Multicultural Forum find them volunteering opportunities, doing gardening and working on small projects.
One gentleman came to the UK optimistic. He speaks good English and has excellent qualifications. Yet he told me that he now doesn’t care if the Home Office orders him to leave. He has spent 18 months in limbo and will happily claim asylum in another country. He wants to work, rather than sit on his hands with his body and mind atrophying. Some may say good riddance. But others will see the opportunity lost with this gentleman, and others like him.
There are two issues at play here – the enormous backlog of cases that the Home Office is impotent to process, and the age decisions appear to take. You can hate the system, and how the people I spoke to got to the UK. I have every sympathy. But it seems ridiculous that we can’t harness the talents of people who have high skills, want to come here and work, earn and pay tax.
It is not fair to have parallel immigration systems – with those applying fairly sitting in a long queue that never moves forward, while others arrive under the steam of criminal gangs. The illegal route breaks the legal one. Backlogs have gummed up the whole system, and so we end up with folk from Syria and Afghanistan spending their time in Barrow.
Stopping the illegal routes, getting through the backlog, and allowing people to make claims for asylum and have them judged – yes or no – in good speed should be the hallmarks of a good asylum system. This isn’t happening, and it is not good enough.
This broken system has other consequences too. One gentleman I met was sporting a cast on his arm – he had been jumped and beaten up one night, resulting in a broken wrist. Others reported being threatened, or having received racist comments. I tried to convince them that my community was welcoming. But many are now too afraid to leave the hotels they are housed in.
It is clear that this situation is creating a powder-keg. Import a few dozen dark-skinned people into a community that is about as far away from anywhere else in the UK as possible (Furness is a peninsula on the Cumbrian coast, with its main road often described as ‘the longest cul-de-sac in England’), and that is 98 per cent White British, and you can see where problems might arise.
This manifests in both the challenges I listed above, and in far-right activism. Patriotic Alternative, one group, is now active in my community, putting leaflets through doors which employ vile language.
The North West Evening Mail – my local paper – uncovered the racist chats being used by members of this group in local protests. They claim to be speaking for ordinary people, but yet their avatars on social media feature swastikas, their founder is a Nazi sympathiser, and the Home Office is reportedly considering proscribing their organisation. But our broken asylum system has allowed them to take root.
Any immigration system should be predicated on control. That was what Brexit was about. We must be able to choose who we want to accept here – whether on compassionate grounds, or for economic reasons. We’re not going to achieve that without closing down illegal routes.
And we’re not going to achieve that simply by ramping up the rhetoric. There’s no easy solution here, and anyone who tells you there is lying.
Working with countries who sometimes have diametrically opposing views to you on the solution is tough, but it’s only way to do it. We need a proper partnership with France, and the EU, on managing these migrant flows and stopping the small boats. Achieving this shouldn’t just a matter for the Home Office, but should utilise the diplomatic bon viveur of our new Foreign Secretary too. It will require compromise.
It’s not too much to ask for a fair, working system that makes quick decisions and allows us, as a host country, to be generous to the needy, but discerning as to who we let in. One that doesn’t stoke up anger.
Getting to that point will be tough, but worth it: for gentlemen like those I met in Barrow last Tuesday, for our economy and public services, by taking away the only stick the far right has, and by proving the Conservative approach to migration is the right one.