We're deluded if we think we can turn back the tide of asylum-seekers

The British cannot long be protected from the truth. People can and will move across the seas in search of better things
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Does gatte mean "sense" in old French? In which case Sangatte means "nonsense". Or perhaps it is a Gallic word that connotes a diversion, maybe a lurid spectacle that draws the eye away from the real world. Sangatte is certainly a side-track. The camp itself has become a get-tough totem, a symbol of pointless resolve. Let's say we do get Sangatte closed down, and then what have we done? In practical terms, nothing. But in terms of being seen to deal with those few hundred anti-telegenic, dangerous-looking young men with moustaches and five o'clock shadow, who run about doing illegal things at night under the glare of railway lights, closing Sangatte is marvellous.

Does gatte mean "sense" in old French? In which case Sangatte means "nonsense". Or perhaps it is a Gallic word that connotes a diversion, maybe a lurid spectacle that draws the eye away from the real world. Sangatte is certainly a side-track. The camp itself has become a get-tough totem, a symbol of pointless resolve. Let's say we do get Sangatte closed down, and then what have we done? In practical terms, nothing. But in terms of being seen to deal with those few hundred anti-telegenic, dangerous-looking young men with moustaches and five o'clock shadow, who run about doing illegal things at night under the glare of railway lights, closing Sangatte is marvellous.

It's an illusion, of course, one fostered out of the same instinct that has ministers like Peter Hain boasting that Labour – unlike its unsavvy European social democratic brethren – knows how to take action against unwanted incomers before a new far-right has a chance to colonise the subject. Oh yes; if only they'd had New Labour in Holland, then Pim Fortuyn would still be a breathing Marxist sociology professor. What you have to do, you see, is to show the voter (who is unfortunately less sophisticated than we are) that we share her concerns. She's a bit worried about the invasion of Britain by asylum-seekers? Get tough. Reassure her. We're cracking down. Result: no British Le Pens.

Oh God! Oh God! This is such a bloody deception. Such a bloody self-deception. Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin – who has seemed so reasonable on other matters – calls for a return to a bilateral agreement with France (one his own party iced back in 97) and seems to suggest that this is the answer to the arrival of asylum-seekers, bogus and genuine. "The flow," he says, "should be from the UK to France and not the other way around." Labour agrees. Lord Rooker says that refugees who come to Britain via somewhere that isn't as nasty as the place they started from cannot therefore really be refugees. Because if they were they'd have been only too grateful to stop at the first safe haven. So, given that we do not actually border on any refugee-producing countries (Scotland is still just about OK for the moment), Rooker-logic means that we don't really need to take any refugees at all.

He may be (and is) wrong about that, but he is right about one thing. Most of those who come here seeking asylum are not fleeing persecution and are not really refugees; they are not in fear of their lives from persecution. I cannot argue with that. But anyone who thinks, therefore, that the argument ends there is deluding themselves. Peter Hain has suggested that what is needed now is a common European asylum policy – with the implication that this policy should, naturally, be tough. Rumours from Downing Street have it that Mr Blair has dropped transport and rebuilding Africa and is now personally supervising the war against asylum-seekers. Perhaps (a leaked document speculates) Royal Navy ships will intercept people-smugglers on the high seas and the RAF be used to deport failed would-be refugees back to ... well, anywhere, really. As long as it's quickly.

Dispersal hasn't worked. Building reception centres is causing a big fuss. So big is the problem of unlicensed immigration that the best thing to do is for the entire continent, from Le Penville via Fortuyndam to Haidersdorf, to put up its shutters. The borders will be guarded by grim-faced men with dogs. The trains will be searched with hi-tech equipment. The waters will be patrolled by warships. Everyone will be turned back, except for bona fide refugees, whom you can usually spot by the unmistakable marks of torture all over their bodies. Anyone who does get through will be processed at a one-stop centre and, if they don't pass the test, flown out pronto. When that happens other economic migrants will be deterred, because as one expert put it yesterday, "If they knew their cousin had been returned they'd be loath to pay their money and make that journey."

That's the plan, then. Undisturbed by the sudden appearance of black moustaches and strange accents, European countries will settle back into their long post-war alternation between centre-left and centre-right. The problem with all this is so straightforward that it hurts. This analysis takes no account of why people actually come to Europe. It is a set of propositions built on the "otherness" of immigrants, the sense that they are not like us, and therefore cannot be understood.

Turn it on its head. Let's say that you are a young man from Iraqi Kurdistan, a country with no statehood and hardly any functioning economy to speak of. And with Saddam Hussein as the next-door, angry neighbour. You want a family, or you have one, but you can't keep them. You know, because you see it on satellite TV in the village bar, that there is a land of wealth and possibility. And, like America, they speak English there. And there are jobs. So you decide, by hook or by crook, to get there. If you have to pay smugglers, you will. If you have to ride under trains, you'll risk it. Far preferable, of course, would be if you were allowed to apply for a work permit or emigration, with any kind of chance of succeeding. But that doesn't seem to be an option. Will you be put off by more police dogs, more harsh voices and flash-lights? Or will you just take greater risks to get in, operate in greater clandestinity once you've arrived, and keep yourself to yourself?

Oh Lord, we ought to know all this from the failure of drugs policies. There are boys who stow away in the landing gear of planes to try to get to Britain. There are teenagers who already risk death in unventilated lorries. What does Fortress Europa mean but greater risks, more deaths and – at the end of it – a population that has not been delivered the low-immigration paradise that was promised to it? Is Europe's message to the rest of the world really to be "Keep Out"? And does it expect to be obeyed?

Actually the Government knows this, even if some of the forces it is trying to appease do not. If we could turn highish levels of illegal economic migration into highish levels of legal migration, that would make the young men in Kurdistan less likely to turn to the smugglers for help. It would also make it much easier once they arrived. Second, if Kurdistan were a better place, then maybe some of our own people could go there to live instead. It is interesting, isn't it, how many of those who want to stop foreigners from coming here are the same people who want to cut aid, troop deployment and nation-building? Some folk don't know how to share a planet.

The British people cannot long be protected from the truth. People can and will move across the seas and the lands in search of better things. Once a Chinese peasant couldn't have known where Europe was. Now they all know. The danger of a racist nationalism developing on the Continent will be fanned more by the disappointed illusions of a closed Sangatte than by admitting the truth about this mobile, interdependent world.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

Comments