On 1 January 2021, the immigration rules changed to make it much harder for anyone who has travelled through Europe to get here to have their asylum claim considered in the UK.
What’s the problem with that? There are plenty of safe countries in Europe and nobody should be risking their lives trying to cross the Channel in an inflatable dinghy.
Both of these statements are of course true, and the new rules are intended, in the government’s words, to “destroy the business model of the ruthless criminal gangs” who offer this sort of dangerous and extortionate passage.
The changes will make the hostile environment even more hostile, which will deter people attempting a crossing to the UK.
All this, however, assumes that desperate migrants will have any notion that the rules have been altered. If they are still willing to attempt the journey, the gangs certainly aren’t going to enlighten them, so there will continue to be a booming market for their exploitative business.
There are many reasons why individuals and families might want to come to the UK in particular: they may speak English, or they may already have family and friends here to welcome them. We should not underestimate the desire to seek out something familiar when your entire world has fallen apart. What sort of country might you flee to with your family if you were in their shoes? There’s a decent chance that it might not be the most accessible country, but the one in which you might feel most at home.
The government’s new plan is to send asylum seekers back to either a safe country they have passed through, or else to another safe country they have never been to. The government has provided no detail about any such agreements with other countries to facilitate these removals. It’s a bit like ‘we’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it’ – great slogan, but no one bothered asking Mexico.
In the meantime, the government plans to house refugees who make it here in camps, apparently without access to running water or healthcare. They have been described as ‘open prisons’ by the Conservative leader of a local council in Hampshire, where one camp is due to be built.
The minister said in the House of Commons just before Christmas: “We will continue to welcome people to the UK through safe and legal routes”. However, the main safe route – the refugee resettlement scheme – has not been operating since March last year. And even then, this was only for people displaced by the Syrian conflict. The failure to provide any definitive timeframe for the restarting of the scheme, or for its long term expansion to other areas of the world where people require protection, does not help to dissuade desperate people from using other routes to come to the UK.
Now that we have left the EU, we need to work out how to position ourselves in the world. Wouldn’t it be better to be seen as a place of sanctuary for those in need rather than an increasingly hostile environment, pulling up the drawbridge against those who seek safety on our shores?
The numbers of asylum seekers in the UK is far fewer than many European countries with land borders: In 2019, France received 123,900 asylum applications compared to the UK’s 35,566.
But exploiting our island status just feels to me like another case of Britain being the grumpy jobsworth, sat sour-faced behind a desk, finding any excuse not to do what is obviously right. We are using our watery circumference as a technical get-out to handpick only the ‘deserving’ refugees, the ones we like the look of; whilst other countries take more than their share. Nobody likes a jobsworth, so why are we aspiring to be one on the international stage?
Years of stirring up fear about the ‘dangers’ of immigrants by the tabloids and populist politicians has made it difficult to see those fleeing from war and terror in their own countries as people just like us, whose circumstances of birth have meant that they have experienced war and persecution in their own countries, and have lost their homes, possessions and safety. It is easy to dehumanise them, and from there it is a small step to dismissing their plight as something that does not concern us here.
But nobody would seek a winter crossing of the Channel in stormy seas if they felt that they had a choice. When I was Lib Dem leader, I visited the Jungle camp in Calais, where people were hoping to find a passage to the UK. They had no knowledge of our welfare system, our NHS or even our asylum rules. Many of them simply saw the UK as a place of safety and a beacon of freedom, where they could escape persecution and civil strife.
At the other end of the spectrum, we are planning to offer visas to thousands of British National Overseas Citizens fleeing the Chinese regime in Hong Kong. Last month, the activist Nathan Law revealed that he has claimed asylum here because of the persecution he experienced in his home country. I am very pleased that he and his fellow campaigners are being welcomed, but why aren’t we equally bothered about the story of an Iranian political activist arriving here on a boat from France?
When you are a real patriot, you are embarrassed when your government actively seeks to pollute Britain’s reputation as a civilised place of safety. The new immigration rules embody a Britain that I don’t recognise. Indeed, it is a Britain that fewer and fewer of our friends recognise either. It is an act of reputational self-harm and a further unpicking of our Christian heritage. I am not surprised but I am ashamed.