If nothing else comes out of the tragedy last week in the English Channel, let us hope that the debate on migration will recognise that those desperate sailings across a wintry and busy shipping lane are about real people, that real lives are at stake, that men, women and children in totally unsuitable craft are attempting to land on a dangerous shore in the hope of a new beginning.
Over the last three years the number of crossings has risen dramatically from an estimated 300 in 2018. But there had been few deaths until 27 people - men, women, and children - drowned last Tuesday as their inflatable sank in rough seas. The Home Office believes that in 2021 around 27,000 illegal migrants had entered the UK via this route by mid-October, compared with about 8,500 in the whole of 2020. Of those 27,000, around 1,000 had had to be rescued when in peril of drowning in the Channel, most of them being brought to British soil. These may well be slight under-estimates as no doubt some landings are not detected.
These figures need to be given some sort of perspective. There were around 712,000 births in the UK last year, a relatively constant figure for the last ten years. 715,000 people migrated into the UK and 403,000 people emigrated from it, leaving a net legal immigration figure of 313,000 in 2020. At the end of 2019 about 6 million people were living in the UK who had the nationality of a different country (3.7 million were EU nationals), and about a million UK nationals lived outside the UK (people living abroad who had not permanently emigrated).
So 27,000 illegal entrants is hardly a significant figure in the overall context of the population of the United Kingdom. It is, in truth, a figure that Britain can relatively easily absorb. Even if sustained over a ten-year period it would not present any particular difficulties, if the new arrivals were dealt with in a positive and welcoming manner. But of course it is not as simple as that.
Existing citizens of most countries in the modern world do not welcome poor immigrants. This is not the USA in the C19th century when immigrants were essential to the growth of the country, and younger and fitter arrivals were especially welcome as being able to make a valuable and immediate contribution to the US American economy. It is true that the US had plenty of wide open spaces, and some migrants made for the mid-West to begin farming. But of course, far more settled around the eastern cities and became the essential workforce for the economic miracle that drove the remarkable growth of the American economy for over a hundred years. Capitalism, business, free enterprise, call it what you will, was fuelled by those new hard-working folk.
And it remains true that a country which finds itself with an inwardly-bound, young, enterprising work force will benefit. The losers in economic terms in the nineteenth century were the countries of middle and eastern Europe whose heavy- handed and repressive regimes drove away their most enterprising citizens. In the twenty-first century the losers are again dictatorships of a repressive nature, mostly incompetent into the bargain, whose appalling governance is driving away their most economically useful citizens.
But most European countries do not want to receive migrants. They are seen as a burden on care and health services; as a social difficulty – people with no assets except what they wear on their backs and carry in their heads; as potential terrorists. The terrorist worry is greatly exaggerated; it should not be dismissed altogether but few terrorist incidents are down to migrants. And the economic and social impact is mostly short term; once migrants are allowed to work they will become a valuable resource in a country where the ratio of non-working to working population is becoming more and more of a burden. From a purely selfish economic point of view, we should perhaps be encouraging migrants in, not thinking of pushing their boats back onto French beaches.
But of course if we simply gave each young man and woman clambering off a dinghy on a Kentish beach a National Insurance number and a teach-yourself-English course, the attractions of making that perilous journey from Syria and Iraq would appeal to yet more fit and mobile people and more would arrive. And the last thing we want is to allow any migrant to get into the grip of the evil thugs who charge large sums of money to arrange the transit, the last stage being in boats which, as a lifeboatman pointed out after last week’s tragedy, would not be allowed to leave any UK port.
The UK authorities have got themselves into that trap which seems to be the mark of recent governments and of a civil service which has lost its traditional imagination, clarity and efficiency: simply creating noise and much smoke but doing nothing, except, in this case, blaming the French.
However oddly M. Macron is presently behaving, he too is stuck in a conundrum. The French public do not want more immigrants, even if it might be to the long-term good of the French economy and even of diversifying French society. Immigrants pour across open European borders and M. Macron, as an exemplary EU citizen, cannot return them or close his borders. Italy and Greece have a far greater problem than either the UK or France with much larger numbers arriving, but have the same national reluctance to take the desperate refugees in.
That is what we should remember: these migrants are desperate. Their own countries are wrecked by war and dictatorship; their homes destroyed, businesses and jobs gone, repression all around, a collapse of whatever civil society existed. Those who have the money to pay for a passage, and are fit enough and enterprising enough to risk it, will attempt the journey to a new life. Do not forget, those who they leave behind - parents, the sick, the very poor - are often in far worse circumstances than those who cross into and across Europe, many living in temporary camps or wrecked homes. Indeed, one of the migrants’ motives is to try to make enough, to establish themselves, so that they can remit money home and perhaps get dependent relatives into their new countries legally.
However worthy their cause no European country can take unlimited migration. Absorption is not that easy and existing citizens will not accept it. But that does not mean we in the West do not have a duty to those less fortunate than ourselves. We must somehow help people whose lives have been torn apart. In the nineteenth century that was easy. Gunboats would be dispatched, local rulers given firm instructions as to future conduct, a colonial administration put in place. Financial investments would be made, infrastructure built, jobs created, and economic activity encouraged. That is so absolutely out of kilter with our current times that it is laughable. Except it is not entirely so. China, in a more subtle way, is in many parts of the world doing just that. By careful investment, whilst respecting existing governments, whether benign or unpleasant, China has obtained much real power and influence and also brought economic stability to many “client” nations. The motive is usually both economic – the procuring of raw materials and obtaining protected markets for Chinese goods – and politically strategic – having friendly and supportive states in various parts of the world.
If we really care about refugee migrants and the countries from which they have fled, we need to do something similar. We do not need to have such calculated motives as China. Generosity and Christian (post-Christian if you like) charity is a fine excuse for action. We can help rebuild homes and businesses for entirely altruistic motives, starting perhaps by improving the slum camps which house many displaced citizens, taking in medical facilities, improving food supply and distribution and offering education. Then go from there with roads and homes and technology. We could offer limited-period visas to bring to the UK and educate young people who will go home at the end having learnt key skills, and seen the benefits of democracy, enterprise, and kindness. We would make new friends, counter the influence of China in a positive way, make the world a better place and hopefully in the long-run create stability.
Yes, the costs would be great but maybe other European states would follow our example and make the initial seed go much further; in any case an enormous programme could be paid for by (say) cancelling HS2. Do we really need to get to Birmingham 20 minutes faster while people die in slums two thousand miles away? Let us travel a little more slowly so that others do not have to make such dangerous journeys.