Politicians must stand up to the “bullshit” populist stereotypes about migration in Britain amid concerns that border control policies across the EU are putting people’s lives in danger, a top United Nations official has warned.
François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur for migrants’ rights, criticised the British government’s recent decision not to support search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, saying there could be terrible consequences for the tens of thousands of people setting sail in ramshackle boats in search of a better life.
Speaking to the Independent ahead of his arrival on a fact-finding mission to Italy – where a growing number of migrants are arriving by sea as they flee poverty, civil war and persecution in countries like Syria, Eritrea and Iraq – he also attacked the pervading narrative against immigration in the UK.
“The fantasy is that there is a core British culture that was created probably 2,000 years ago and carried on, and now it’s being threatened by all those barbarians that are coming to our gate,” he said. “This is utter bullshit, but who is going to say this? That is why I think we have a problem with political conversations that we can’t have.”
Mr Crépeau said he was particularly worried by the rise of populist and anti-immigrant parties across Europe – and the politicians who refuse to challenge them – as their moves could lead to more deaths in the Mediterranean.
Italy last month started winding down its search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which it launched a year ago after 366 migrants and refugees drowned off the coast of the island of Lampedusa. The EU’s border agency Frontex will now run a patrol mission in a much smaller area and operating with less than a third of Mare Nostrum’s budget. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have warned that thousands more people will die as a result.
But the British government said in late October that it would only supply one expert to the new Frontex mission, with the Home Office arguing that stopping search and rescue missions would deter migrants from setting sail on dangerous journeys in the first place. Organisations working with migrants say this is simply not true.
“Not supporting search and rescue operations means letting them die. This is what happens, if you don’t search and rescue them; they die. If we accept that, I think we go well beyond the moral boundaries of our political system.”
As well as battling populist political forces, Mr Crépeau said there are powerful economic forces working to maintain the status quo – whereby economic migrants are attracted to the EU by jobs but often work illegally, earning well below the minimum wage and living in poor conditions. But they are unwilling to speak out for fear of being removed from the country.
“We have found a system to subsidise a series of sectors of our economies by people who have no power and can be exploited at will,” said Mr Crépeau. “This was the slavery system in the old days.”
As well as rehousing refugees, the EU needs to look into opening up more legal avenues for migrants to come to fill the jobs, he said, adding that it was a “multicultural, diverse, open society” that created “Cool Britannia” in the 1990s. “If Britannia is ruled by the Ukip, or with Ukip-type policies, it is not going to be cool.”