There has been another huge rise in the numbers of those seeking asylum in this country. That the figure for the last quarter is 20 per cent higher than for the equivalent period in the preceding year is disturbing enough. That it is 11 per cent higher than the preceding quarter suggests that the rate of increase is itself accelerating.
When an important topic returns to the news, a columnist may choose between repeating himself and contradicting himself. I see no case for contradicting myself. Twice now for the Times I have written that what is most worrying about rises in the numbers of asylum-seekers is not that some are abusing the system but that many are not; and there are hundreds of millions more where they came from. These latest figures strongly support what I have been arguing. Sooner or later we will have to start turning back genuine applicants.
When an irrefutable argument leads to an unthinkable conclusion, the natural human reaction is to nod wisely and change the subject. My columns about the Geneva Convention on political refugees have (as David Hume put it) fallen dead-born from the press. What little reaction there has been is of the cluck-clucking sort from those kindly souls who object that it would be uncivilised to turn back genuine refugees. So it would, but not a single reader has challenged the premises on which I base my uncivilised proposal. That is because they are unchallengable. So here goes for the third time.
The problem with the Geneva Convention is the Geneva Convention. It is time to review not the system by which we judge claims for asylum, but the concept of asylum itself.
The sting in the tail of the Geneva Convention is the (much later) New York Protocol to the convention. Though the original convention bound signatory states to offer political asylum to claimants who could show a well-founded fear of persecution in their own countries, the signatories restricted its scope retrospectively to the political and ethnic convulsions caused by the two great world wars of the last century. It was the New York Protocol which removed that qualification. The convention now offers its protection to those in fear of persecution (be it on political, religious, ethnic or other social grounds) without qualification as to the historical cause.
Let me briefly suggest just a few who would have a good case under the terms of the convention and protocol, were they to arrive in Dover tomorrow.
All the Kurds in Iraq.
Any Chinese citizen declaring himself an open opponent of the current Chinese government in Beijing.
Many, perhaps all, of the Matabele tribe in Zimbabwe. Other persecuted minority tribes in Africa, numbering millions.
Any would-be emancipated woman in any fundamentalist Islamic state.
Any homosexual in any country where homosexuality is punished.
Any Untouchable in India who refuses to accept the caste system.
I see no need to cite further examples. In half an hour we could think of a billion more. The point about these people is that as asylum-seekers they would not be ‘bogus’. The endless tabloid, New Labour and Tory palaver about the ‘nightmare’ of ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers is a craven evasion of the real nightmare: the imponderable numbers to whom, in our adherence to the Geneva Convention, we have implied an open-ended promise of sanctuary if only they can physically get here and make the application.
We have relied on their being unable to. Far from it being civilised to offer, ostensibly to all, a protection we calculate that the vast majority will be prevented by circumstance from ever claiming, I think it rather odious. It was always a kind of bluff designed to salve our consciences in a few well-publicised cases. Now our bluff is being called. People are piling into buses, walking, swimming, sailing, taking advantage of ever-cheaper mass air travel.
Just imagine, during an internal war in Iraq, virtually the entire Kurdish population, in terror of their lives, rolling up their beds and walking into Turkey and to the Mediterranean coast, and every rust-bucket freighter and decrepit ferry within a thousand miles steaming to their rescue. It would be our duty under the Geneva Convention to accept as many boatloads as could reach our shores. Interventionists will argue that this only strengthens the case for ‘sorting out’ Saddam; an argument that is not so much weak as dangerously strong. In essence it both licenses and obliges the Western powers to intervene in any country at risk of creating refugees.
Scenarios of the Kurdish kind are not unimaginable, but I accept that they are unlikely. More likely is that in at first manageable but over time remorselessly accelerating numbers, the persecuted within nasty and backward states around the globe will beg, steal and borrow in order to get out. The more that get out, the greater number of their relatives left behind can be helped to join them. In the last five years there have been more asylum applications than in the previous 15. This year there will almost certainly be a record total of more than 100,000. What notional limit has our government, or any European government, placed on the totals we could contemplate accepting?
I doubt that they have thought about it. They would rather not. And so we get a Through the Looking-Glass world in which, in the week past, our government has issued a dossier designed to persuade our own population that the regime in Baghdad is evil beyond belief, cruel beyond measure, and of a kind to leave virtually the entire Iraqi population in daily fear of their lives and livelihoods; and in the same week has released the latest figures for asylum-seekers and protested (in the words of the Home Office minister responsible) that such a large number is ‘not satisfactory’.
Well, why not, if Saddam is the monster we claim he is? The top five applicant nationalities in the last quarter were Iraq, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iran, in that order. Iraqi applications have doubled, and those from Zimbabwe are increasing fast. Western governments lose few opportunities to lambast the intolerable character of the regimes in charge of these countries. What, then, is ‘not satisfactory’ about the fact that more people are trying to escape from them?
Why they wish to is obvious, and only human. What is not satisfactory is that we are obliged, by an arrangement into which we have freely entered, to accept as many as apply. We cannot go on like this. The Geneva Convention, agreed in a different world, must be renegotiated now. When this is accepted, we shall all say it was ‘always inevitable’. I say it now.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.