The harrowing scenes at Kabul airport, as desperate refugees try to reach planes bound for western countries, are provoking a moral and practical crisis: for whom are we responsible? Specifically, is Britain – with its offer to take 5,000 people this year and eventually 20,000 – doing enough?
I learnt yesterday of the limits to our hospitality in the form of a woman in my former constituency, threatened by deportation. Not an Afghan: but someone from Germany. She has lived here 30 years, has a daughter born here and a long history of community involvement including decades on the electoral register. None of this is regarded by the Home Office as adequate proof of local residence and it has rejected utility bills because they are in her husband’s name. We hope that decency and common sense prevail but I wouldn’t count on it.
The relevance of that episode is that it serves as a warning to those Afghans trying to come to Britain. The mindset of the Home Office officials who will process their claim to asylum should they get here is seemingly not generous, nor are the policies to which they work. And they will not be approved as refugees to be provided safe passage here if they are among the hundreds or thousands of Afghans whose connection with the UK is deemed too slight – embassy guards, British Council workers, for example – even though the connection may qualify them for a Taliban execution.
Indeed, Afghans now have the awful dilemma of whether to keep their official papers to convince British bureaucrats of their identity or to destroy them to avoid betraying their foreign links to the Taliban.
The quality of British government risk assessment can be judged from the fact that, until recently, Afghan deportees were being sent back to a country judged “safe”. Fifteen thousand Afghan refugees have been sent back in the last decade, classified as “failed” asylum seekers.
On the basis of numerical pledges Britain is up there with other western countries: 30,000 for the USA; 20,000, Canada; 10,000, Germany. That is a warm welcome as compared to eastern European countries (Orban’s Hungary says it will only take “a few dozen”), Australia and Asian states like Japan and China which do not admit refugees.
The biggest burden of refugees will be carried by neighbouring “Stans” of which Tajikistan has offered to take 100,000 and Pakistan may get millions. That would be the pattern of previous humanitarian crises which, for example, have left 3.7 million refugees in Turkey.
Britain has a somewhat ambiguous attitude to refugees and other migrants. We English like to think we are different though most of us are a cocktail of Scandinavian, German, French and Irish (probably with traces of African and Mongolian descent). The limits of tolerance to foreigners were first apparent in modern times when antisemitic “aliens” legislation curbed the numbers fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe before the First World War.
A quarter of a million Belgians came soon after but didn’t attract much attention. Irish economic migrants were treated with some hostility as were Commonwealth nationals and, much more recently, east Europeans.
Leaving aside the bigger issue of economic migration and focusing specifically on refugees, reactions have invariably been mixed. A Conservative government welcomed 27,000 Ugandan Asian refugees after a Labour government had slammed the door on Kenyan Asians, even those with British passports. I have reason to remember those events since I married into a Kenyan Asian family.
My brother married into a family of Hungarian refugees of whom there were 11,000. Later there were 20,000 Vietnamese “boat people” (out of more than a million settled in the west); 50,000 came from Yugoslavia, and more than 100,000 from Somalia. More recently, there have been an estimated 15,000 from Hong Kong with expectations of many more to come (theoretically more than 5 million are eligible but in practice only around 300,000 will come, trusting that the British promise of safe harbour will be honoured).
The numbers of refugees appear large until compared with the volumes of economic migrants. There has been net migration of more than 300,000 a year in recent years, dominated by overseas students and eastern European workers. Less than a tenth were successful asylum seekers (there are also 70,000 pending cases).
In the eyes of the public, however, it is the desperate people in dinghies in the English Channel or fighting to get on planes for Kabul who dominate as the visible face of human migration.
At every crisis over asylum and migration there has been a schism between those who believe that Britain is an “overcrowded island” which is “full” and can’t afford the cost of newcomers, and those who see merit in admitting people who bring skills, entrepreneurial energy, cultural diversity and a supply of labour to regenerate an ageing country – or simply merit compassion. The balance has changed but the direction of travel is clear: towards tighter restriction. And not only in the UK. The decision of Angela Merkel to admit a million Syrian refugees to Germany and to oversee their integration now seems a remarkable, if almost unique, exercise of generosity of spirit.
Nobody would accuse Priti Patel of indulging in generosity of spirit. But to be fair to her, the Home Office “hostile environment” goes back a long time and was very evident in the Blair era. One of the lesser discussed drivers of Brexit voting among some communities was the sense that their relatives had a rough (or impossible) ride coming to Britain, while white Europeans could come freely. But Brexit has not catalysed a rush of generosity and tolerance in Home Office circles.
On the contrary, the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through parliament, threatens to make the hostile environment even worse. Refugees who do not follow “lawful” routes – via an official resettlement programme or come from officially designated “unsafe” countries – will be deemed criminal, however desperate. Refugees outside the official programme can be given temporary refuge albeit without “recourse to public funds” (but also without the right to work) .
The new law also creates the legal basis to park asylum seekers in offshore processing centres in the Australian manner (Nauru for Australia; talk of nations like Rwanda for the UK). These measures are in clear breach of international asylum obligations, but the UK has made it clear – in the context of Brexit – that national sovereignty takes precedence over international law. This new doctrine puts the UK in the good company of China and Russia.
But the bill is some way off becoming law. With the Afghan disaster proving a terrible humiliation for the UK and the west in general, some of us are hoping that something can be rescued from the wreckage in the form of a genuinely humane response to the refugee crisis – as The Independent has called for. There is a will among the majority of the public (if not Conservative voters) to accommodate as many as possible of those people for whom Britain has a responsibility.
While the Home Office will be doing everything it can to keep the numbers down, there is a chance for Boris Johnson to confound expectations by blocking its institutional hostility from the off.
As one of the leading participants in support of the Nato deployment and a key party to its chaotic withdrawal, the UK must re-establish some respect and self-respect by taking a leadership role in its response to the needs of refugees. To do less would be unforgivable.
Sir Vince Cable is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015
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