A visitor to this planet might be surprised that the political agenda could have been dominated for so long – I’m tempted to say swamped – by the musings of a man famous for scoring lots of goals thirty years ago and talking about football on the telly. But whatever ultimately happens to Gary Lineker, there is a rather more important question we all need to answer. That question is not whether we should allow immigration into this country. Only a minute percentage would argue that we should close our borders to all foreigners, however desperate their need. The important question that really does divide the nation is how many we should admit and what steps we should take to keep out those we don’t want.
When the home secretary Suella Braverman spelled out the government’s latest approach in the House of Commons she met furious opposition – and not just from Lineker. Her statement came in the context of a forecast that suggests some 80,000 migrants will try to cross the Channel to Britain this year in small boats. That’s double the number who tried to make the crossing last year. Some of them may have had legitimate reasons – possibly because they faced persecution in their own countries - but many will have come because they’ve calculated that they will have a better life in this country.
A third of small boat arrivals last year were from Albania, which is of course a Nato ally and is not an unsafe country. Three quarters of the total were adult males aged 40 and under. They had made the calculation that it was worth handing over thousands of pounds to the gangs of ruthless people smugglers and risking their lives to cross the Channel in overcrowded inflatable boats. The great prize: a new life in a country where they can earn decent money and rely on a relatively generous state even if they can’t find a job. Some of them – it’s impossible to know exactly how many – may end up working for Albanian gangsters. Almost all of them apply for asylum status – a process that may take months or even years. And during that time they will mostly have to stay in hotels at the taxpayers’ expense.
It is these men and the gangsters themselves, many based in this country, who are the most obvious targets of the Illegal Migration Bill unveiled by Mrs Braverman in the Commons with the threat: “enough is enough”. The new bill says that anyone crossing the Channel in a small boat will be deemed automatically to have entered the country illegally and will be detained for 28 days. They will then be deported to their home country or, if it is too dangerous, to a third country like Rwanda. They will also face a lifetime ban from Britain.
No-one doubts that the measures are harsh. So harsh that they may indeed, as the government acknowledges, be illegal. Their critics say they are positively inhumane because they contravene both the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the Human Rights Act. The Home Secretary has herself conceded that the chances of the bill not being compatible with human rights law are greater than 50 per cent. The Prime Minister says he is ‘up for a fight’ with the judges. But in purely political terms, the big questions are whether they might work and whether they will find favour with us, the voters, come the next election.
In the government’s dream scenario the mere fact that they exist will scare the would-be migrants off. Why make that difficult journey to northern France, pay a small fortune to the people smugglers and risk the sometimes hazardous journey across the most crowded shipping lane in the world if your reward when you arrive is to get locked up and either sent back from whence you came or flown out to, say, Rwanda? In anybody’s language they would be taking a very great gamble.
But what if they keep coming in spite of everything? Even if the bill does become law it’s not likely that all the new measures could be in place for at least a year. And even then there can be no guarantee that the migrants would be deterred. After all, their numbers have increased dramatically over the past few years in spite of the government’s threats.
New detention centres are being prepared if they do keep coming, a couple of them in old RAF bases which would at least be cheaper than meeting all those hotel bills . And the government might make another attempt to bring in its Rwanda scheme. But that could only account for a few hundred people and it has already been put on hold by the European Court of Human Rights. No other ‘safe’ country has come forward who might accept some of them and there is no agreed mechanism for returning them to France, let alone the prospect of a deal with the European Union.
So there are many arguments against the new Tory policy. The charge facing the opposition in Parliament is that they don’t have an alternative – or at least not one that they have yet spelled out in the face of an ever-increasing influx of migrants. In the past four years the number arriving in small boats has totalled 85,000. These arrivals then claim asylum, adding to all those who have already done so and are waiting for their cases to be dealt with. It adds up to a backlog of about 160,000. Housing and feeding them is costing £6 million per day.
The government denies that Britain is an unwelcoming country - at least not to those who have a good case for wanting to settle here. Since 2015, it says, it has offered a new home to about half a million people from Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Ukraine and elsewhere. On top of that, according to some estimates, there are probably a million people living here illegally.
But Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, questions the use of that word ‘illegal’. In an article for The Guardian he asked: who are these illegals? He answered it thus: ‘They are the woman from Syria who saw her brother killed by a bomb in front of her. The Eritreans fleeing a cruel one-party state. Iranians facing persecution. Sudanese people escaping violence. And Afghans, who make up the biggest group by nationality coming across the Channel in recent months, who were unable to leave the country through the complex and failing British government schemes set up when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Half of those who came across the Channel last year were from these five countries. Applications from all those countries are granted in at least 80% of cases; and for three – Afghanistan Eritrea and Syria – it is 98%.... The reality is that of all those who came across the Channel last year, we know from our analysis that two-thirds will be granted asylum because they are refugees who need safety in the UK. They are not illegal.’
But the government, says Solomon, is not interested in ‘providing protection to people who have escaped war, violence and torture by taking dangerous journeys.’ Instead, he says, it is desperate to be seen to be tough and it ‘wants to treat all people seeking asylum as suspected terrorists and criminals, lock them up, and then deport them with no meaningful right of appeal.’ And, he says, it won’t work ‘because desperate people will take desperate measures.’
So what do you think? Do you think the new bill should become law – and what if it’s ruled unlawful by the judges? And, on the broader question of immigration, how concerned are you by the numbers seeking to live in this country? Would you choose to offer asylum only to those who can make a convincing case that they are facing persecution in their own countries? Or do you believe there are arguments for offering a new home to those who want to live and work here? Or do you simply want to pull up the drawbridge?
Let us know.