A better form of ‘blue sky thinking’ about asylum seekers is needed

Asylum seekers coming to the UK across the channel is back in the news. Not because we’ve had a particular influx (we haven’t really), but because the Home Office, or the Cabinet Office, depending on who you choose to believe, have been on a brainstorming session. But, of course, none of them want to admit it because the ideas are about as stupid as they sound.

For example, somebody suggested that maybe we could create a line of boats to pump waves in an effort to float those crossing back into French water. In another idea, that could only be the brainchild of the brightest and best, it was suggested that perhaps we repurpose some North Sea oil rigs and detain anybody attempting to cross on one of those. It actually took somebody specifically raising ‘safety concerns’ to shut that one down. Then of course, there were the various suggestions of different islands we might imprison them on. Naturally, when Scotland was mooted, that was met with a distinctly unimpressed First Minister insisting that would never happen.

Little wonder, then, that everybody is trying to shift the blame. Some are claiming Priti Patel is being fitted up by disgruntled remainer civil servants still in a huff about Brexit. Others insist that it’s all Dominic Cummings fault and everybody is too scared to cross him. Likewise, the Cabinet Office have insisted, and I quote: ‘Do you really think the Cabinet Office is spending its time working out how to pump waves across the Channel to France? This nonsense is coming from brain-dead morons in the Home Office.’

Whilst all this is going on, we are still left with some very real concerns. There is the safety of those seeking to cross the channel in the first place. That is what makes sticking them on North Sea oil rigs particularly ill-considered. If our concern (and it does factor into our concerns, doesn’t it?) that we don’t want people dying unnecessarily in rickety boats with faulty engines, placing them without thought on an even more dangerous oil rig – for I am not entirely sure what reason – does seem to lack the value of actually going anywhere toward resolving the problem at hand. Placing people on a dangerous oil rig – where they may well drown – doesn’t really sound much better than letting them cross the channel in leaky boats where they might drown.

Even if our concern isn’t saving life and discouraging what is manifestly dangerous – and let’s not pretend that everybody is overly concerned by that – none of these solutions resolve the question of cost. In fact, they are almost certainly more costly as interim solutions that processing people’s cases and dispersing them to the typically sub-standard housing that we seem happy to place them in at present. Even if money is the ultimate arbiter here, these suggestions don’t really go any way to making things any cheaper and are, frankly, likely to be considerably more expensive for us.

There are, of course, those whose main concern is neither safety nor money. They are more concerned about ‘being overrun’ and diminishing ‘our culture’. Now, it bears looking at these stats here and here to see just how likely that is (TL:DR: not very). But what are stats and facts in the face of people’s assumptions and feelings? Politicians deal in what wins votes, not necessarily what happens to be true. If people will vote for them because they kept ‘those people’ out of our area, some of them will gladly oblige.

But even this is seriously flawed. Consider the proposal to place all asylum seekers on Ascension Island, for example, until their cases have been resolved. First, let’s not forget there are people that live there too and – like just about every part of our country almost no matter what necessary thing is apparently being suggested – nimbyism rules the roost. So, folks there are not likely to be any more enamoured with the suggestion than anywhere else. Second, we suddenly have to find housing and support for these folks placed there when there are plenty of NASS houses for them around the country. They are those hard to let homes that are generally unwanted by Brits and unused until used by asylum seekers. This suggestion is just vastly more expensive when we already have means to do this.

But perhaps most perversely of all, at the moment, whilst asylum seekers cannot (usually) work whilst awaiting a decision, they can undertake training and English Classes. But if we go sticking them on an island where they cannot learn the language nor train in anything whilst there, we are doing more than kicking the can down the road. The things that (apparently) seem to annoy some about asylum seekers – that they don’t contribute (because they can’t), they don’t always have a great grasp of the language (as would you if you were dropped in, say, Saudi Arabia), etcetera etcetera – will be built into the system as impossible to rectify. Only when they are granted their leave to remain could they move and it is only at that point – when they are allowed to contribute – that they can *begin* learning the language which is key to getting a job.

At least at the present time, often when refugee status is granted, folks have learnt a new language and picked up a new skill so that they are in a position to work and contribute here as many claim they wish they would. To detain them on an island where they can do none of those things stops them being in any position to do anything should their case be successful. It also comes with the likely inducement of mental health issues – being as they aren’t allowed to do anything – that will cost even more as they access services to rectify problems that could have been mitigated, if not avoided altogether.

In this whole discussion, most people are trying to hold various things together somehow:

  1. People traffickers are bad and should not be encouraged
  2. People are often fleeing serious threats to their life and we should be compassionate
  3. Some people claim to be asylum seekers when they are really economic migrants
  4. It is extremely difficult to enter the country by normal means as an asylum seeker and so there is a legal recognition that many will have to enter by ‘irregular means’
  5. We do not simply want an open border policy that allows anybody to come, for any reason, and receive money

These are all valid concerns and holding them in tension is extremely difficult. Whatever system we put in place, there will be those who seek to, and even succeed in, bucking it whilst others – who desperately need help and protection – will fall foul of it. There are, sadly, no perfect systems.

Some suggest that we should disincentivise those who want to cross the channel by boat, say by insisting those who do will be immediately returned. The question remains, however, what route ought they to come otherwise that is any safer for them? It seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate to disincentivise channel crossings if, and only if, it is coupled to some safe means of people crossing. Legally, there is no ground for us to stop people coming this way and claiming asylum. But I do think making it considerably harder to cross – if we provide other safe means of travel for people – might be a legitimate thing to do.

But I think focusing on disincentivising the people who are crossing from doing so is the wrong tactic. They do not discover boats for themselves. They are given to them by people traffickers. There are those out there making money on the backs of desperate people. Rather than penalise those who are seeking sanctuary, we ought to disincentivise the people traffickers who are “helping” these folks to cross in the most dangerous ways. The simplest way to do this is to provide safe passage for those claiming asylum ourselves. There would be no money to be made at their expense if we were to do so and the traffickers would lose their business. It only exists – and this is a point we ought to take seriously – because we refuse to provide the service that they will. But if we provided safe means of crossing – coupled to a commitment to returning those who undertake the asylum process and fail – the dangerous crossings pushed by people traffickers would cease.

The other benefit to this approach is it would allow us to work more helpfully with the French authorities. At the moment, both nations seem to inherently distrust the other. The French are more than happy to wave some folks through whilst we seem determined to try to send anyone who gets through back. But if we provided safe means of travel to the UK for those seeking asylum, we could do so on the condition that the French authorities would register that person at their end and – should we deport them and they find their way back to France – they would not be permitted back to the UK and the French authorities would have to process their case internally should they seek to enter again. With such a system, it would then be legitimate to find ways to make non-regulated transport routes considerably harder to use (but, again, the likelihood of them being used lessens as the market falls out of the people trafficking route).

By doing this, we can process those who need access to help whilst deporting those who we find do not. We are able to work collaboratively with the French authorities, rather than in the way we do at the moment. We would be able to reduce deaths and would successfully disincentivise people traffickers, making it less likely that we would see migrants simply washed up on UK beaches. Further, if we offered such routes in, we could more legitimately disincentivise those who crossed by other means.

Ultimately, we should be willing to show compassion to those in need of asylum. I can think of no better way to judge whether somebody is legitimate than by bringing them under the British asylum process and removing harmful Home Office quotas. Such quotas are themselves a problem as they care nothing for justice and only for an arbitrary figure that has been dreamt up in the kind of blue sky brainstorming session we saw above.

We should welcome those who are given the right to remain and deport those who are not. Our neighbours should be happy to send on those who wish to come, knowing there is a good chance they may stay in the UK. But they should also, then, accept that if the case fails any subsequent claim must be processed internally in France with an automatic bar on UK entry. This would seem to strike a fair balance between welcoming people in and showing them compassion, recognising the serious issues that exist in getting here, not simply having an open-door policy, not wanting people to die on dangerous crossings and recognising it is less than excellent when people simply wash up on UK shores, for whatever reason.