Last week an article by our editor on the very significant numbers of migrants attempting illegal entry into the UK by crossing the Channel in small, and usually overloaded, boats unsurprisingly attracted a lot of comments ranging from, in effect, let them all in, to keep them all out. It is a subject on which strong views are held on all sides.
But who is right and who is wrong. Indeed is there such a thing as completely right or completely wrong in this situation?
First we should perhaps define the difference between “migrant” and “asylum seeker”. Broadly speaking an asylum seeker is one who is forced to flee from his country in fear of persecution or their life. A migrant, in the current sense of the word, simply seeks to find a better place to live.
Britain has a long and honourable history of accepting those who are forced to leave their homeland – one comment last week reminded us of the welcome given to Jews and also the Kindertransport of the 1930s. Subsequently we provided a safe and secure home for thousands of Asians forced out of Uganda by Idi Amin (and who have more than repaid the gesture by manning our corner shops at all hours, staffing the NHS with nurses and doctors, including a number of now-eminent consultants, to say nothing of lawyers, engineers, teachers, business people and the current Home Secretary), and more recently the offer made to many Hong Kong Chinese who could be in potential danger from the appalling communist government in Beijing.
Those seeking asylum here are required to apply either from their country of origin (often impractical) or from the first safe country they reach. If their application is genuine it will usually be approved, although the process can take some time. For those that want to come here simply to improve their quality of life, there are now strict conditions, one of which is that they need to have a firm job to come to.
The problem with the cross Channel migrants is that the genuine asylum seekers, however deserving they might be, are jumping the queue and trying to be allowed in ahead of others, many of whom will have spent months, possibly years, in unsanitary and sometimes dangerous refugee camps. In the case of those simply seeking a better life, they are breaking the law by landing without any of the required papers or identification and by not fulfilling current immigration requirements.
In both cases there is also the question of, who are they? Are they all poor displaced refugees who only want somewhere safe to live a peaceful and honest life? In many instances – probably most – that will of course be the case. But there will also be some who have their own agenda in coming here and which is designed to be of no benefit to – and possibly to hurt – this country.
There are also two other factors that one should not forget: Covid may, for the moment anyway, be on the retreat, but no one knows where these people have been or who they have been in contact with and it is inevitable that some will arrive with the virus, as evidenced by outbreaks in detention centres. Also there is a cost to all of this. Each migrant is currently costing around £30,000 a year to house, feed and clothe. In the overall scheme of things, this may not seem a great deal but it is anticipated that in excess of 20,000 migrants will arrive illegally this year incurring a cost of around £600m and that is not including those already here. A sum that would provide a good few nurses and doctors for the NHS, and a sum also, if any government was so minded, that would be of enormous benefit to those of our own country who are without a roof over their heads.
The scale of the problem is aggravated by the traffickers who promise a land where the migrants will be given a home, a job and money which will more than compensate them for the small matter of anything between around £3,500 and £7,000 charged to get them as far as a boat on a French beach. Videos of recent arrivals have shown dinghies crowded, almost exclusively with young fit men and few, if any, women and children, suggesting that they have made the long and difficult journey from their homeland purely on the promises of those who lie without compunction and have no interest in their “clients” other than the enormous profits to be gained by this trade in human lives.
The government have maintained for some time that the only true answer is to put the traffickers out of business, although so far they have been singularly unsuccessful in doing this. They must also come to some accommodation with the French who are aiding and abetting the traffickers by escorting the migrant boats, sometimes from just a hundred yards or so from their coast, into UK waters where the navy, Border Force and often the RNLI are left with no option but to bring them in to safe harbour or to see them land on our beaches including Dungeness, Camber and Winchelsea Beach.
A recent bribe of £54m paid to the French to beef up their beach patrols is unlikely to make much difference, although a proposed change in the law will make it illegal not only to land without proof of who you are and where you have come from, but now also to even enter British waters without such proof. The French would therefore be breaking the law by encouraging boats to cross from French to British waters, although whether the small detail of respecting our laws would stop them is, of course another matter.
Image Credits: Dietlind Löffler , Rye News library , Carol Macdonald .