Our duty to refugees

I t is hard to deny that the government must take tough action on the issue of migrants arriving in Britain by small boats. A large proportion of those entering the country are not refugees fleeing danger but young men in search of better economic opportunities. Indeed, the largest increase in arrivals comes from Albania, an EU accession state that is neither at war nor under malign dictatorship. Ferrying such people to Britain is a criminal racket that should not be tolerated.

But under Home Secretary Suella Braver-man’s plan, the Illegal Migration Bill will deport every person who enters the country by what the Home Office used to call ‘irregular’ methods. The bill is intended to target the small boat arrivals but would, in effect, apply to everyone. Anyone arriving illegally in Britain would lose their right of appeal for 28 days, giving the government four weeks to remove them to the country they came from or a third country, like Rwanda. It is an indiscriminate approach that will see everyone who arrives illegally kicked out, including genuine refugees.

Such a draconian policy is best understood as being a symptom of political panic. The Conservative party is further behind Labour in the polls than at almost any other time in its modern history. It is struggling to refer to itself as the party of low taxation or political stability. What can it do? The obvious temptation is to reinvigorate the Brexit debate on another issue: migration. Not only is it an issue that plays well with Red Wall voters; it is also one over which the Labour party cannot – and will not – compete.

Braverman is correct to say that dramatic action must be taken, but her plan looks impractical. Rwanda has only committed to taking a few hundred refugees. Where would the tens of thousands of others go? Is the notoriously tardy UK asylum hearings

process (which makes 94 per cent of applicants wait more than six months) going to be transformed overnight? What happens to the 160,000 people already here?

Norway pioneered the path for Britain to follow, deporting those who arrived illegally while stressing that it would also fulfil its moral obligation to help the world’s dispossessed in other ways. In 2017, the Norwegian migration minister argued in The Spectator that the cost of helping 3,000 children in Europe could help 100,000 in refugee camps. Given how much the Foreign Office already spends, Rishi Sunak could easily make the same argument. But he could go further and say that for every supposed asylum seeker deported to Rwanda, Britain will accept one or even two genuine cases. This would show

If all ‘irregular’ arrivals are to be classed as illegal, genuine refugees will be unable to apply for asylum

that the government is focused on tackling people-smuggling rather than drawbridge-hoisting. But Sunak seems reluctant to make such a case. Instead, he prefers to talk about how many people have claimed asylum in Britain historically under laws which he is about to change.

Lord Harrington, the former immigration minister, recently pointed to his own family story. His parents arrived in Britain as refugees. But today, he said, the only way they would be able to get here is via small boats because all other legal pathways have been blocked. There is no application process, no formal route. It is in many ways a scandal. Apart from a few select groups of people, which currently includes Afghans, Ukrainians and Hong Kong Chinese, there is no way to seek sanctuary in the UK apart from by

showing up, sometimes with false papers, as those fleeing repressive regimes so often do. If all ‘irregular’ arrivals are to be classed as illegal, genuine refugees will be denied a chance to apply for asylum. But people with a well-founded fear of prosecution will use every means at their disposal to save their lives and those of their families. Britain must not become a place hostile to these people. And while it is very clearly a moral issue, it is a political one, too. When Britain accepted Russians, Czechs and Bulgarian dissidents, it helped undermine Soviet communism. To be generous was to be strong. It helped emphasise the difference between communist control and western values.

A few hours after Braverman’s legislation was presented, it became apparent how her agenda would be deployed. ‘If you come to Britain illegally,’ a new advert from the government reads, ‘you will be DENIED access to the UK’s modern slavery system.’ The Modern Slavery Act was set up to help people who have been illegally trafficked into Britain for the purpose of unpaid labour or sexual exploitation. Now these same people are to be told by the UK government that they will not be helped. It is a thoughtless form of messaging that is horribly at odds with the compassionate Conservative agenda that once drove the Modern Slavery Act.

Sunak still has time to reform his plan. He need not necessarily play the role of villain in a pantomime directed by Labour. He must focus on how best to end people smuggling while strengthening Britain’s historic duty to the world’s displaced. If his agenda is allowed to be reduced to a political tool in a gung-ho culture war, designed to win back certain voters, the Tories will conform to Labour’s caricature of them. The Prime Minister will have subjected his party to a moral defeat as well as a political one.