On 28 July 1951, after more than three weeks of tough legal wrangling, delegates adopted the ‘Convention relating to the Status of Refugees’, the ‘Geneva Convention’. It allowed people displaced during the second world war and its aftermath to apply for asylum in the countries where they had ended up.

Although World War II had long since ended, very many refugees still wandered aimlessly across the European continent or squatted in makeshift camps. This was a more far-reaching convention than those previously adopted in response to the 1st world war and to the purges carried out by the USSR. But in its original form it only applied to people who had been displaced in the period up to 1951, and the right to make a claim for asylum was to last only for 3 years after the convention came into force.

The size of the problem was then estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Things have unfortunately continued to develop. In 1951, the world’s population stood at 2.5 billion. It is now almost 8 billion. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2018 more than 70 million people worldwide were living in countries other than their own, having been forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. So then the problem has vastly increased and the reality is that the principles behind the Geneva Convention have been overwhelmed. What was initially a reluctantly agreed, but limited requirement to accept that displaced people already in your country should be able to live there permanently is now on a wholly different scale.

And most of the people now displaced are not Europeans, as had been the case post-war. They come from elsewhere in the world and bring with them the differences of language, customs and religion which that implies. And those differences make us less willing to accept them as part of our society. We are also told that we are having to put our hands in our pockets to support them. Our tendency to xenophobia is stoked by politicians promising that, if we vote for them, then the problem of illegal migrants will be dealt with severely. Except that it never is because the great majority of asylum applications in the UK are successful. And to stop this there would have to be a complete rejection of international law regarding refugees – so far only a pipe-dream for the denizens of the right, although repeal of the Human Rights Act is still talked about as one of the potential benefits of Brexit.

Refugee status is only conferred where the applicant has ‘a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country...’.

Politicians and commentators of the right say however that most applicants are in fact economic migrants and so not entitled to refugee status. But most countries where persecution is rampant are in fact poor. This has resulted in a tangling of human motives: one can of course be both persecuted and poor. Undoubtedly economic motives supercharge the quest of many of the world’s asylum seekers to avoid persecution, but this does not mean that their claims are ipso facto invalid.

Largely in dictatorships, which mainly do not provide their citizens with a decent standard of living, billions are oppressed by both persecution and poverty,. This means that, potentially, billions might take the chance to move if they had it, and with modern means of transportation they possibly could. I’m not convinced that a large proportion of those entitled to apply for asylum would actually wish to leave their countries. However, because the potential scale of the problem is so great, British policy is to thwart the working of the 1951 Convention, while keeping to its letter. In the world of 2021 its requirements are seen as impossibly open-ended.

So whilst paying lip-service to our international treaty obligations, we put every possible obstacle in their way. Many of our rich neighbours do the same. We don’t allow claimants to apply for asylum until they are here: they may not therefore apply at the British embassy in their home countries; we don’t allow people to board planes or ferries without proof they are entitled to come here. If they somehow get here, we don’t allow asylum applicants to seek employment until their application is successful.

The tribunal system is hopelessly underfunded and so delay in dealing with asylum applications is rife. This in turn leads to asylum seekers entering the black economy rather than relying on the £37 per week we provide as financial support. We make claimants’ lives miserable to deter them from making the journey. And yet they still come. Why? Because once here there is virtually no chance of their being deported.

This subject has been brought to the fore by the horrific events last week – when 27 people lost their lives trying to cross the Channel in order to get to the UK. Our government sought to blame the French government for not having stopped the would-be migrants from setting off in a completely inadequate boat.

Our government is desperate to show a win on the immigration front at least. They say therefore that M. Macron’s government should accept that any migrant arriving here or picked up en route should immediately be returned to France, as France is a safe country. That would destroy the business model of the people smugglers.

This demand is made, despite having, through Brexit, cut ourselves off from the only treaty – the Dublin accord – which allowed us to require safe countries through which they had previously passed to take them back. We want to ‘take back control’ but only to the extent that it suits us. And we have a French government determined to say that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit!

It also has to be said that the people smugglers are not the only ones to blame. The people being smuggled know the chance they are taking in leaving a safe country to cross a major shipping lane in November. It also illustrates the pressure they felt in deciding to accept such a situation in the first place.

Since 2003 we have paid the French to allow us to put a virtually impermeable UK border on French soil to prevent refugee crossings in the backs of lorries. As far as I know, though, France has no actual law against people leaving France in boats, inflatable or not, launched from beaches along its exceedingly long coastline.

Although the French have in fact stopped about 40% of the attempted crossings, it too has a population which is not at all keen on immigrants - hence the relative success of xenophobes such as Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Ironically, the channel crossing in its various forms is relatively safe. In the past 20 years fewer than 300 asylum seekers have died trying to cross the Channel to the UK, whether by boat or in the backs of lorries – an average of 15 each year. A far higher percentage of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean have drowned than in the English Channel. In only the last 7 years more than 22,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Getting a sense of proportion would also be good for us. Of the more than 70 million people in 2018 displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict or violence, only 6 million were then in Europe. Of the rest, 11.6 million were in South America and the Caribbean, 27 million in Africa and 28.5 million in Asia. Most Afghan refugees are in Pakistan. Europe is hardly therefore carrying the biggest load. And Britain is very much at the margin in both senses. According to the UNHCR, in 2019 the UK had 133,000 refugees. That is one third of the total in France (408,000) and one ninth of the total in Germany (1,146,000).

What are we to do? Should we put on special refugee ferries to cross the Mediterranean, the Channel and the Irish Sea? Any politician proposing this would not be elected. So it seems that we have to allow would be asylum seekers to decide to continue to imperil their lives. At the same time, though, we have to cooperate with Europe in finding and imprisoning the people traffickers, so disrupting their business model.

We also desperately need to have a longer term solution. What the West should be doing and should have been doing far more is to put effort into helping underdeveloped countries, so that at least poverty is not the push factor which it clearly is.

We should also stop selling arms to dictators and push forward even further both with financial sanctions against dictators and their friends. We have made a good start before the International Criminal Court with prosecutions of dictators, but we need to build on that. Could we have snatch squads to arrest and bring to the Hague people who have been indicted for war crimes? We have to try to stop dictatorship being a worth-while occupation.

A final thought: perhaps a slightly controversial idea, but surely at the moment, we should acctually be welcoming refugees. Despite stories about spongers, we know that most refugees want to be employed so that they can support themselves and their families here and in their home countries. Job prospects in the UK are better than in most of Europe. Most will have received a reasonable education and speak English. That's why they're coming here rather than France or Germany. For us to go to extremes to keep them out, when we have labour shortages in most sectors, does seem to be remarkably stupid.

Paul Buckingham

30 November 2021

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