Earlier this month, I wrote about the challenge of spending Britain’s massively expanded overseas aid budget. In a recent column for the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson also explores the issue:

“Under the system Michael Howard unwisely signed the Tories up to 10 years ago, the British Prime Minister has no power to decide what counts as foreign aid. So there is no point arguing, for example, that HMS Bulwark rescuing immigrants from the Mediterranean should count. The decision about what is ‘odable’ [classifiable as overseas development assistance] is made in Paris, by accountants from the OECD.”

Nelson argues that this is distorting spending priorities:

“Austerity at home, profligacy abroad: this bizarre combination means that Britain takes in a pitifully small number of Syrian refugees. But when it comes to funding aid camps, we stump up more than the rest of Europe put together. Every time there is a natural disaster, the British government makes a stunningly generous pledge. But when it comes to honouring our obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, we seem not to have any money.”

But what if spending on refugee camps is precisely what we should be doing? With so many displaced people around the world, how can asylum and other forms migration to developed countries meet more than a fraction of the global need?

Consider the scale of just one part of the overall problem – illegal immigration by hazardous boat journey across the Mediterranean. The challenge is vividly illustrated by Nicholas Farrell in the Spectator:

“Let us suppose that along the coast of Normandy up to one million non-EU migrants are waiting to be packed like sardines in small unseaworthy vessels and to cross the English Channel.

“Let us suppose that first the Royal Navy, then the navies of a dozen other EU countries, start to search for all such vessels in the Channel right up to the French coast, out into the North Sea and the Atlantic even, and then ferry all the passengers on board to Dover, Folkestone, Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton in a surreal modern-day never-ending version of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Would the British government agree to take them all? What of the British people? And if they did agree, what would the British government and people do with all the migrants? How would they cope?”

Farrell’s point is that this is pretty much the situation faced by Italy right now – with the effective encouragement of the Italian government, which, he says, has “decriminalised illegal immigration”:

“…none of the boat people are arrested once on dry land. Instead, they are taken to ‘Centri di accoglienza’ (welcome centres)… 

“…they are given free board and lodging plus mobile phones, €3 a day in pocket money, and lessons – if they can be bothered – in such things as ice-cream-making or driving a car and (I nearly forgot) Italian. Their presence in these welcome centres is voluntary and they are free to come and go, though not to work, and each of them costs those Italians who do pay tax €35 a day (nearly €13,000 a year).”

In practice, many of the illegal immigrants move on, leaving the centres, and Italy, for the rest of Europe. From the terrible drownings in the Mediterranean to the growing voter backlash across the EU, it is an unsustainable situation. However, the only alternative to an open door immigration policy (or a massive military operation to stop the boats), is to move the incomers to aid camps beyond Europe’s shores.

Such camps already exist and host a much greater number of refugees and other migrants than those who attempt to reach Europe by boat. If we want to help the world’s displaced people then this is where our efforts should be concentrated.

We should have higher ambitions for such places. There was a time when great cities like New York, Singapore and Hong Kong were built by migrants given the chance to start anew, free from persecution and under the rule of law. Is it really beyond our ability to found modern-day equivalents?

Obviously, this would require major capital endowments – but that is exactly what the visionary use of western aid budgets could provide.