Take some dark-skinned, agile, desperate young migrants. Add queues of irate lorry drivers and frustrated holiday-makers. Stir in striking French ferry-workers. And then garnish with populist politicians pontificating about how the UK is being swamped with illegal immigrants and talking of sending the British Army to sort out the situation. This recipe, and the slight variant on it described today by Donald Armour of the Freight Transport Association, is for a perfect storm, or maybe a perfect swarm.
David Cameron responded to all this with a classic piece of gesture politics: kick-ass “I’m in charge” soundbites and a weedy practical response involving more fences. He has tossed this chunk of red meat to the popular press in the thin hope that it will be enough to keep the media occupied while he slips away with his children to the beach.
We are not suggesting that the Prime Minister should not have a holiday. Cancelling would be another vacuous gesture. But what the crisis illustrates is that big problems are not amenable to swift solutions. Like so many other global issues, they cannot be fixed within the five-year electoral cycle to which modern politics condemns us.
Vast forces are at work in the unprecedentedly high movement of peoples across the world. Large parts of the Middle East are riven by wars, where the UK could be doing much more, whether with soft or hard power, to bolster failing states such as Syria and Libya. But there is more to it than that. When safe and prosperous Europe sits cheek-by-jowl with an impoverished Africa many are bound to see migration as the answer. The counter to that by the rich world ought to be to trade more fairly, and give economic assistance to develop poorer regions, so that their populations see a future in remaining at home, and it is to the PM’s credit that the UK continues to set aside 0.7 per cent of GDP for overseas aid. But trade and aid are long games, not quick fixes.
In the short term it is morally incumbent upon countries such as the UK to share in alleviating the immediate burden, rather than leaving it to countries such as Turkey, whose president this week criticised Europe for accepting less than a 10th of the 1.8 million refugees his country has taken from Syria. That “open-door” policy has cost Turkey £4bn over the past four years. Compared with those brain-stretching numbers, 5,000 migrants at Calais do not constitute a tide of humanity.
More fences, lights and CCTV are not the answer. Indeed, they will stoke the fires of anti-immigrant populism – and, in any case, ignore the fact that most illegal immigrants are not lorry-jumpers but those who overstay their visas. For those on a one-way ticket from misery, more fences will simply make their desperate journey yet more dangerous, while doing little for UK security.
Instead, Britain should do more to assist frontline countries. If British civil servants were sent to assist the processing of entrants to countries such as Greece, Italy and Hungary there might be less incentive for those countries to allow migrants to journey north and west. British police and intelligence services could play a bigger part in cracking down on the people-smugglers who are making millions of pounds.
British ministers should join with the French to set up registration stations in France to offer migrants some status as well as basic health care. There, asylum claims could be assessed, and those fleeing war and persecution could be admitted to the UK and the unqualified afforded a humane return to their countries of origin. We also need to revisit the populist distinction between refugees and “economic migrants”; seeking an escape route from dire poverty is not a reprehensible motive for migration.
The issue of migration does not need harsh words and feeble gestures. It needs sound, practical and ethical actions.
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