Speculation has abounded in recent days that some Conservative voices might not have been wholly without vested interest in hyping up the ‘crisis’ of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel. After all, the Home Secretary has managed to position himself in second place in the next Tory leader stakes, and a headline-grabbing problem in UK border control while he is on holiday might, cynics suggest, threaten to take the shine off him to the gratification of some of his rivals.
Maybe those theories are true, maybe they aren’t. Either way, complaining about such under-hand tactics – or, worse, complaining about the media’s keen interest in the story, regardless of its source – would hardly be productive for Sajid Javid. Instead, he has sought to do what any successful politician would in the circumstances: get a lid on the issue as fast as possible, and try to turn it to his advantage.
So it was that yesterday found the Home Secretary on the waterfront at Dover, in front of a television camera:
He’s right, of course.
Those fleeing murderous tyrants in Iran or Syria take large risks for good reasons. We should do our best to help defend their lives and liberty. Indeed, the UK has rightly done a huge amount to aid refugees in the Middle East – including granting asylum to some of the most vulnerable people, transported to this country directly from camps in the region.
One has to question the motivation to flee for asylum from France to this country, however. For all the disruption of the gilets jaunes protests against Emmanuel Macron’s plans for punitive green taxes, our neighbour remains a prosperous and largely liberal country. There is no sign that those claiming asylum in the coastal towns of Kent are doing so because of their status as oppressed French diesel drivers.
Admittedly, it is not always so simple as insisting refugees must stop in the first country they reach. Someone leaving Iran to avoid persecution for their race, sexuality or political beliefs might well have good reason not to feel safe in various neighbouring countries. It isn’t hard to see why many Kurds are not keen on seeking asylum in Turkey, for example. But there are a lot of safe countries between here and Turkey.
The awkward truth is that there is not always a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants – and the two statuses can, and do, mingle as a journey progresses. Many people travel extremely long distances and take huge risks simply out of desperation, knowing that the alternative is death. Some aim to reach this country in particular for reasons consistent with their suffering in their land of origin – their religion, for example, or because they place particular faith in our rule of law.
But some who begin their journeys in search of refuge also choose their destinations with economic considerations in mind, rather than stop in the first safe country as Javid suggests. Why wouldn’t you try your best to go somewhere that you believe to offer a good chance of a decent job? Or where you already speak the language? In any circumstance, people will always aim for the best possible outcome for themselves. That’s human nature.
It’s also human nature that criminals are eternally ready to innovate in order to profit from the misery of others. The people-smuggling industry which flourished in the Mediterranean appears to have identified a new market opportunity in those seeking to cross the Channel.
Those Labour MPs and refugee campaigners who are frothing furiously at Javid’s comments are doubly wrong. For a start, if they think their comments are harming him they are mistaken – being under fire for a firm stance against illegal immigration across the Channel is not a bad place for a Conservative Home Secretary to find himself. If anything, their outrage aids him in reversing the reputational damage which the ‘crisis’ threatened in the first place.
More importantly, Javid’s critics seem to be speaking from a dangerous position of theory rather than practice. We already know what happens when politicians, no matter how well-intentioned, recklessly encourage refugees and other migrants to hand all their belongings to criminal gangs in order to risk their lives in perilous sea crossings. Angela Merkel sent just such an inviting message on the EU’s behalf, and tens of thousands of people then died in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Had Germany taken the same approach to aiding Syrian refugees as the UK did, focused on results rather than appearances, the outcome might have been very different.