We are not Vulcans. Logic takes us only so far. At times of stress, we become visceral rather than cerebral. A single photograph can affect us more than the abstract suffering of millions.
Four thousand migrants have drowned this year attempting to reach Europe, several children among them. But no cameras were present. Hundreds of thousands more have keen killed in Syria – again, unseen and so largely unmourned. The image of a drowned infant touches us as cold facts can’t.
The desire to succour children is encoded deep in our DNA. When we see a dead toddler, we feel that we have to do something. What that something is becomes almost secondary. Anything must be better than inaction.
We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel a spasm of disgust – and perhaps, also, a sense of vicarious responsibility, as though the death of a Syrian child in Turkey were our fault rather than that of Assad or ISIS.
In truth, children are drowning because their parents believe that reaching the EU by water is the surest way of being allowed to stay there. If we want to stop the horrors, we need to stop the boats.
There may be a separate argument for taking migrants from the refugee camps contiguous to Syria; but that argument is only tangentially related to the immediate challenge of preventing the drownings.
The idea that you can want stricter controls while at the same time weeping for the folk crossing the sea seems, for some reason, to throw a lot of people.
Last week, for example, a BBC researcher called me, wanting to discuss the migration crisis. Would I talk by phone to her programme? Yes, I told her. In fact, I was at that moment volunteering in a hostel for underage migrants in Italy, so it would have a certain aptness. The moment I mentioned the hostel, I sensed the interest draining from her voice. She was after someone who would be, as it were, uncomplicatedly anti-immigrant. She wanted no nuance, no dash of humanity.
I suppose broadcasters have to simplify everything for the listeners. But the trouble with treating immigration policy as a test of decency is that it quickly becomes all about you. The welfare of the migrants is pushed aside by your determination to flaunt your kindness.
When people say, “the migrants have been through hell, and we should welcome them,” what they’re actually saying, if you think about it, is that we should contract out our immigration policy to people smugglers. They’re saying that, instead of taking those who have queued patiently, or those in the camps who have been classified by the UN as refugees, we should allow a lucky few to jump the queue by breaking the law.
We see here the habitual error of the Left: the elevation of motive over outcome. Never mind the consequences, provided we mean well. But there is a converse error on the Right, namely the tendency to say, “the whole thing is hopeless, so there’s no point in getting involved at all.”
In fact, we don’t have the option of non-involvement. I want to stop people being loaded into these hellish craft. But even if this were magically to happen tomorrow, we’d still be left with more than half a million emigrants who have already made the journey, some of them kids.
That’s why I helped organise a social action project in Catania last week through the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists. Thirty-eight centre-right politicians participated, from as far afield as Finland, Poland, Croatia, Montenegro, Romania, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. Three British Conservative MPs came – Charlotte Leslie, Andrew Bingham and Stephen Metcalfe – as well as Yorkshire’s MEP Amjad Bashir. We did up a hostel for unaccompanied minors and restored a school which had closed through depopulation, but is now reopening because of the number of migrant children. We also distributed shoes and hats to those disembarking without them (it was in the high thirties in Sicily, far too hot to stand barefoot on concrete or exposed in the sun).
At first, the boys in the centre hung back shyly, watching as we worked; but they were soon rushing to join in, slathering paint delightedly. I found myself chatting as we worked to youngsters from Gambia, Ghana and Senegal. All had had good reasons to come. Some had faced Odyssean journeys, in one case taking years to cross the Sahara. The more we talked, the more convinced I became that I’d have done the same in their position. But I’m pretty sure that few of them were, in the legal sense, refugees.
While we were in Messina, an Italian coastguard vessel put in with 693 boat people on board, mainly Eritreans. I have seen refugee columns before, and they tend to be made up disproportionately of women and children. But more than 80 per cent of the people disembarking here were young men – the classic indicator of economic migration.
Of course, those fleeing squalor deserve our fellow-feeling no less than those fleeing persecution. These young men are guilty of nothing worse than courage, resourcefulness and optimism. But if we plan to open our doors to anyone who wants to get away from a hardscrabble life, we are inviting hundreds of millions of people to settle here.
What, then, is the solution? Well, one of the first acts of Tony Abbott’s government in Australia was to have illegal boats towed to an offshore centre, where migrants could make an asylum application. Those whose claims are rejected are free to return home, but not to enter Australia. Only one boat has reached that country illicitly since 2013; and not a single migrant has perished over that period. Indeed, it’s partly because of Tony Abbott’s success that migrants from as far afield as Bangladesh and Burma are now taking the long overland route to Europe instead.
The belief that Germany is relaxing its policy is bound to lead to a level of migration that surpasses anything seen so far. Refugees and economic migrants will be thrown together in a rush. Some will be trampled, and some boats will be overturned. But many more will reach Italy and Greece. Eventually, the front-line EU states will stop trying to enforce the rules, and will simply wave new arrivals across their territory, tempting even more into attempting the crossing.
I’m not sure we’re prepared for any of this. Perhaps logic should have its place after all.