Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Let’s take back control of our borders from people smugglers, not refugees
The images of overcrowded inflatable dinghies equipped with shovels for oars in front of Dover’s white cliffs have been as poignant and divisive as any to emerge recently. It represents a moral conundrum which is emblematic of one of the deepest divides within British politics today.
People on the left are outraged these migrants are being left to drown, and there are some people on the right outraged they aren’t being left to drown. Somewhere in between is a Conservative government which has employed fierce anti-immigration rhetoric whilst simultaneously finding itself embarrassed by their own inaction during a migrant crisis and a toleration of a situation which has clearly spiralled beyond their control.
The pictures have commonly been captioned with dehumanising labels which depict an ‘invasion’ of migrants ‘swarming’ into the country to ‘threaten’ your way of life. To summarise, they want to take your job, whilst also (counter-intuitively) taking your unemployment benefits, and most of all – they want to change your culture.
Looking at the trend practically, so far this year there has been just shy of 5,000 known crossings of peoples in dinghies, which is already believed to be double the figure for the whole of last year. To put this into context though, the commonly preferred methods of people smuggling in lorries have been scuppered by Covid and the consequent reduced activity on the border. For many now, the dinghies are a last and desperate hope of making the journey.
But, this figure of illegal channel crossings is a drop in the ocean compared to the 677,000 official total figures for UK immigration last year. In relation to cultural/ethnic tensions immigration, which the right argues immigration causes, it has to be asked what is ‘destabilising communities’ more, 5,000 asylum seekers, or the gross immigration figure which is over one hundred times as much. Much like the last night at the proms debacle or how many genders Piers Morgan believes there are, this debate has become an ‘empty signify’ topic, which is purposefully divisive and blown beyond all proportions, and only serves to fan the flames of a culture war.
Economic equity and disintegrating social net
What exacerbates the issues surrounding the migrant crossings is the existing damaged safety net in British society, there is already a feeling that the pie is not being equitably distributed. The reason the argument that ‘they’re stealing our welfare system’ has become so effective is because of the scarcity of resources within said system, that people feel they need to fight over them.
One of the most common grievances towards asylum seekers is that they receive better treatment than many UK citizens. This is inconveniently true in some cases. But it doesn’t mean that people coming here shouldn’t be offered assistance, it is further evidence that the government needs to do more for our country’s homeless and impoverished and work harder to repair the safety net of the state. Covid has shown the overwhelming power of the state to house homeless people and produce eye-watering expenditure to combat crises, showing that the government have had the power to tackle poverty and house those most vulnerable for years, but have simply chosen not to.
It is now the accepted paradigm that migrants exploit our benefit system and take our jobs. When in fact, the ignored truism is that migrants pay more tax than they take in benefits and often, do the jobs that local people won’t.
What’s more, there is a need for Britain to take in refugees fleeing war and persecution, but the current system is inadequate and has led to people smugglers charging 5000 EUR a head to desperate people to make this crossing. The result has been only the richest refugees are making it to Calais and across the border, and commonly only young men are strong enough to make the journey, so often women, the elderly and children are being barred from crossing.
There is also work that needs to be done on what happens when these people get here and are granted asylum. Unfortunately, many fall into virtual slave labourer within the British economy, forced to work in terrible conditions for well-under the minimum wage in sweat shops, such as those recently brought to the public attention in Leicester.
The situation is admittedly out of control and needing reforming, but this reform doesn’t just happen, by ‘sending in the navy’ or ‘blowing them out of the water’. It is a crisis which needs solving, no side of the debate is currently suggesting that the arrangement is a safe one or a favourable one. But, a less restrictive migration and asylum policy which allows asylum to be granted not on British soil could be a preventative measure to people making the crossing, enable a broader demographic of people to claim asylum, and would take power away from people smugglers.
Why they come here
Additionally, there exists a certain irony in the construction of these people as ‘invaders’, a common right-wing tactic echoed in many segments of the mainstream media. As it was often their country of origin which was invaded by us. When we look at the places these refugees are coming from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen, we very clearly share the blame with our coalition allies for either invading, colonising, and/or arming their displacers.
There is also the common arguments that refugees should stay in the first country they reach, and that all migrants see the UK as a soft touch filled with benefits and housing galore. Neither of which is the case. The UN Refugee Convention does not require refugees to do this, otherwise none would get beyond Greece or Italy. The majority of people who leave France for the UK do so because France already has a huge migrant population, and due to our colonial legacy in many of these places, some feel more a cultural affinity with the UK and already know the language. For most refugees, the simple reason they attempt the crossing is that they already know people or have family here.
According to Eurostat, last year there was 165,615 asylum applications in Germany, 151,070 in France, 117,800 in Spain and 77,275 in Greece. Statistics published by the Home Office shows that there were 36,000 asylum applications made in the UK last year. We accept a drastically lower number of migrants than every other major EU country, despite the fact we are one of the richest countries and we often shoulder considerable blame for their original displacement.
Wir shaffen das
When Germany opened its borders to migrants in 2015, Angela Merkel coined the phrase “Wir schaffen das”, or rather, “we will manage it”, referring to record number of migrants seeking reference in Europe, and committed to working proactively to solve the humanitarian crisis. The response of our government to the situation has been one of burying our heads in the sand and pandering to the far-right. Creating a ‘hostile environment’, sending vans round neighbourhoods telling illegal migrants to go home, tweeting on Valentine’s Day: “roses are red, violets are blue, if your marriage is a sham, we’ll be onto you”.
Crucially, a smaller population doesn’t make for a more prosperous one, and overpopulation does not cause poverty. Overpopulation has been peddled by generation after generation of political leaders dating back hundreds of years, attempting to shift the blame for their own failures. After the Great Famine in Ireland in the 19th century, the country lost around 25% of its population to starvation, disease and emigration. Did this serve as a silver bullet to poverty and hardship? History teaches not.
To concede, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were correct in saying we need to take back control of our borders. But we need to take them back from the hold of dangerous people smugglers whose business is booming due to our regressive approach to asylum applications. Priti Patel and the Home Office can talk about getting tough and introducing new harsher measures until they’re blue in the face. But, as with almost anything in life, tougher restrictions very rarely deter, rather they force people to more extreme and dangerous lengths to achieve the same end.