Four men attempt to cross the English Channel in August. Credit: Ryan Sosna-Bowd/Getty

August 20, 2020   6 mins

Anyone watching the television news in recent weeks will have seen the images of wretched men and women clambering ashore on the beaches of Kent. They may also have seen the Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage patrolling the coast and bombastically calling this sorry sight an “invasion”.

Yes, more than 4,000 people have crossed the English Channel this year on makeshift boats and inflatable dinghies. However, it is not armed units washing up on the beaches but rather men and women who are in many instances fleeing from armed conflict.

Farage, though, eager to reverse his flagging relevance, wants to be seen heroically manning the barricades while an indifferent and ‘soft touch’ political elite looks the other way.

And in some quarters, Farage’s influence still looms large: the Government appears to see the utility in marshalling public opinion against new arrivals. Last week, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, told Tory MPs that the asylum system was “broken” and promised new laws that will “send the Left into meltdown”.

This attempt to whip the country into a hysterical fervour over these ramshackle new arrivals appears to be making headway. According to a recent YouGov poll, 49% of Britons said they have little (22%) to no sympathy (27%) for migrants attempting to cross the channel from France to England.

Parallel to this, a counternarrative is developing on the Left where it is argued that Britain ought automatically to give sanctuary to people seeking asylum on the basis that this country has played a “major role” in precipitating the migration crisis, as Daniel Trilling puts it for The Guardian. Trilling writes that many recent refugees have arrived in Britain from “Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen. Of these countries, two were invaded in recent history by a coalition that included the UK; one has been pushed into famine by a Saudi-led bombardment using British weapons and military expertise; one is in a prolonged conflict with Israel, which like Saudi Arabia is a UK ally”.

In other words, it is our fault that fresh waves of people are coming to European shores.

Trilling might have gone further and pointed to the destabilisation of Libya by Nato — once described rather unpleasantly as “the cork in the bottle” of sub-Saharan Africa under its deposed dictator Colonel Gaddafi — as one of the major reasons for increased waves of people seeking sanctuary in Europe. Many Libyans are making their way to Britain against a grim backdrop of civil war and strife. A total of 1,126 grants of humanitarian protection were given to Libyan nationals in 2019 — an increase of 31% on the previous year and more than half of the total number granted.

Migrants arrive in port after being intercepted in the Channel on August 11 (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Yet there is a risk of reducing a complex situation to an argument about western intervention. This has become something of a reflex on the Left in recent years: a sort of inverted imperialism by which Britain remains at the centre of every important event in the world. ‘It’s our fault,’ goes the self-flagellating cry — beneath which lurks a familiar imperial solipsism.

In the year ending in March, the top four countries for asylum claims were Iran, Albania, Iraq and Pakistan. We needn’t re-tread the embittered old ground of the Iraq war here — though I would urge readers to watch the BBC’s Once Upon a Time in Iraq if they still harbour illusions about that particular episode of military adventurism. But Iraq notwithstanding, most who wind up seeking asylum in Europe are fleeing from countries beset by corruption, ethnic and religious persecution, as well as plain old bad governance.

Even in war-torn countries such as Libya and Syria — nations from which significant numbers of migrants have travelled west in recent years — it is a stretch to cite ‘western meddling’ as the main reason many have chosen to leave. Had things panned out differently in Libya in 2011, a fresh wave of migrants would surely have fled a revengeful and bloodthirsty Colonel Gaddafi. Indeed, 5.6 million people have fled Syria — whose war we decided to effectively wash our hands of in 2013 — since that conflict began nine years ago. Some of this is arguably down to contagion from the intervention in Iraq but much of it isn’t. Dictatorships are perfectly capable of creating refugees without external assistance.

And yet, attacking the Left — or in Patel’s case trying to send it into ‘meltdown’ — risks parochialising the issue. It is the Conservative Party in government and myths around asylum are mainly propagated by Right-leaning newspapers.

One such myth is the ubiquitous claim that ‘soft touch’ Britain is overwhelmed with refugees compared to the rest of Europe. Au contraire: Germany and France receive double the number of asylum applications per year as the UK. It is also untrue to say that EU law requires that refugees coming to Europe must apply for asylum in the first safe country he or she arrives in — a common trope in recent weeks. A UK judge ruled in 1999 that “some element of choice is indeed open to refugees as to where they may properly claim asylum”. Additionally, the judge said that “any merely short-term stopover en route” does not invalidate an asylum claim elsewhere.

It is perhaps worth looking at the real reasons people try to come to the UK, rather than whipping oneself into a frenzy over fictitious ones. Shared language appears to play a big part motivating people to come to Britain. More than half (58.6%) of those interviewed at the notorious ‘jungle’ refugee camp in Calais in 2016 described their spoken English as ‘very good’ or ‘good’. This compared to just 3.8% who said they spoke ‘very good’ or ‘good’ French.

Life in Britain also retains a penumbra of grandeur in some parts of the world, even if this is largely driven by nostalgia (one of ways Britain markets itself these days, both at home and abroad). Travelling in Latin America 10 years ago, many of the local people I met viewed Britain — along with the United States — as a notch above various other ‘First World’ countries. Indeed, one of the reasons Britain still “punches above its weight” is the lingering cultural pull of the English-speaking world.

That many of these new arrivals are washing up in Dover by boat is mainly to do with the pandemic and the lockdown’s shuttering of haulage and other vehicle crossings — one of the traditional routes by which asylum seekers are smuggled to the UK.

So what can be done about the situation?

Despite Patel’s rhetoric, Britain is unlikely to withdraw from the Refugee Convention. Nor can the Royal Navy turn a significant number of vessels away without risking a tragedy on the high seas that would generate bigger headlines than a few inflatables washing up in Kent. Moreover, unless a new agreement between the EU and Britain is put into place at the end of the Brexit transition to replace the existing Dublin regulations, the UK will no longer be able to return any failed asylum seekers to northern France.

One solution — which would also undermine the criminal people traffickers — would be to make it easier to process asylum claims outside of Britain. At present it is nearly impossible to make a legal journey to these shores to claim asylum. Those who wish to do so must invariably travel here illegally — there is simply no other way to put in a claim. The Government could reinforce the credibility of such a scheme by coming to a new agreement with Europe so that Britain processes more asylum applications in mainland Europe while agreeing that returnees will be accepted by France.

This, though, requires a constructive dialogue on the part of the British government with its European partners. So far, we have seen little of that. Instead, the Government has given the impression that asylum diplomacy is being formulated with eyes fixed firmly on the potential for melodramatic headlines — the home secretary is currently ramping up a pointless verbal spat with France, a country whose cooperation this country needs if it is to stem the tide of boats.

To suggest that Britain’s borders are under siege on the basis of a few telegenic landings off the Kent coast — or to call it a “national humiliation” as Farage has done — is to lose all sense of proportion. We live in a prosperous country in a tumultuous world — refugees are a part of that equation whether we like it or not.

But rallying public opinion against them can be a cheap political win. It is after all what both of our political parties have frequently done in times of crisis. Under Labour, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett claimed that the country was being “swamped” by refugees and tried to ban the children of asylum seekers from attending state schools. And that was during the relatively prosperous early 2000s.

Given the present home secretary’s statements about France that will likely make it harder to stem the flow of people — as well as her summoning of ‘new laws’ that will invariably fail to materialise — one must assume the present home secretary is pursuing a similar course.

As millions of Britons face the prospect of a moribund jobs market — and as awkward questions abound about its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — the Government has noticed a potential way out of the expected deluge of negative media coverage. A few lurid headlines about asylum seekers can go a long way. History tells us that the surest way for any politician to appear ‘tough’ is, paradoxically, to lash out at those most desperately in need of our compassion.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.