Pictures from Calais have returned to our television screens, showing desperate men and women trying to break into lorries bound for Britain. A Sudanese man died jumping from a bridge onto a lorry heading for Dover. Another perished after falling from the axles of a bus. The mayor of Calais has blamed Britain for being an ‘El Dorado’ offering aspirational benefits to migrants — but as she’d know, the Africans arriving in her morgues would never have qualified for welfare. They risked death due to a sense of desperation, and hope, that we can scarcely imagine.
The same is true in the Mediterranean, where 2,500 have died after embarking on unseaworthy boats heading for Europe. Corpses of Syrians, Egyptians and others now regularly wash up on Italian shores. Britain’s decision not to support any future search and rescue operations on the grounds that they encouraged North Africans to make the dangerous journey was greeted with disbelief in Brussels. ‘It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: “I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river”,’ said Michael Diedring, secretary general of the European Council for Refugees.
For once, the man from Brussels is right. Those climbing onto these boats will have seen the news, and know the risks. Yet they still take their families on board the inflatable boats, the airtight ship containers, the refrigerated cargo lorries. They are part of a worldwide exodus of which, whatever Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail tell us (‘Asylum: you’re right to worry’ is a typical headline), those coming to Britain are only a tiny proportion. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, says last year was the worst for refugee crises on record, reaching levels not seen since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. The population of forcibly displaced people is now 51 million, twice the entire population of Afghanistan. Yet no one fights for them.
We are in the grip of immigration hysteria. Much of our panic about asylum seekers in Britain is strikingly self-regarding, not least the notion that our island is the destination of choice for most of them. The fact is, it isn’t. Below 1 per cent of the planet’s displaced people are in the UK. We Brits like to think we’re a decent lot, that we do our bit and stand up for the oppressed. We can hold our heads up high, we tell ourselves, exemplars of fair play in a cruel world.
Yet if we look at how other countries handle immigration and refugees, perhaps we would be rather less self-congratulatory. The truth is that we punch well below our weight. What do Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have in common — apart from being Muslim? According to the United Nations, they are the world’s top five hosts of refugees. Pakistan alone has 1.6 million. Earlier this year, the UNHCR called on countries to take in an additional 100,000 Syrians in 2015 and 2016. The UK’s response? The Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. As of August, the total number of Syrians resettled was 50.
How do we compare with our European neighbours, who are supposedly much less of a soft touch? Germany received 127,000 applications for asylum last year, France 65,000, Sweden 54,000 and Britain just 30,000 (Sweden’s population, for the record, is a sixth the size of ours). So not so much Floodgates Britain, Mr Farage, as Fortress Britain. And here it is worth remembering that we are signatories to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, under which asylum is given to those with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ in their own countries. There is no shortage of these people, but we seem to have suspiciously few of them here. Statistics aside, this latest bout of British immigration fever reminds me of friends I have worked with during the past decade in the sort of conflict-ravaged countries that produce so many refugees.
When Fatima, my long-suffering Arabic teacher in Baghdad, decided it was time to leave Iraq, it was not the UK she chose, but America, to teach Arabic at a defence institute in California. Forced to seek asylum after raging violence in Baghdad, my Iraqi friend Manaf, a retired diplomat, scholar and Anglophile, found his way to Amarillo, Texas, with his wife. Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need? Its approach could be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. During a visit to Afghanistan in 1996, Hazara warlords were reportedly staging ‘dead dancing’ shows, decapitating prisoners, cauterising the severed necks with oil and watching the corpses stumble around pour encourager les autres.
Eventually, like so many Afghans overcome by the conflict, my translator Arif fled the country. He won a Chevening scholarship and graduated from Stirling University with a Masters in communications. But this isn’t enough to guarantee residency — next year, he’ll learn whether he can stay permanently or be asked to leave. Given the government’s failure to meet its immigration target, it’s people like Arif — from outside the EU — who are at greatest risk of deportation.
If one good thing could come out of Britain’s latest fixation with immigration, it would surely be a long, hard look at the Department for International Development. Its dizzying growth contrasts awkwardly with our stinginess towards those seeking shelter in Britain. Whenever a crisis breaks out — think Syria or Ebola — Britain likes to donate more money than the rest of Europe put together. It is as if David Cameron believes a nation’s compassion can be measured by the size of its overseas aid budget. And how big that is.
A decade ago, the government gave £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money to charities of its choice, via Dfid. Now, it’s £11 billion and rising steadily. For civil servants, corrupt foreign governments and the army of consultants who feed from this largesse — and here I declare an interest having served as one — Dfid is the gift that keeps on giving. Compare this with the Foreign Office, once the parent of Dfid’s modest predecessor the Overseas Development Administration, now the poor relation with a budget of £1.7 billion. While no one would argue the UK has caused this latest global tide of migrants, we certainly had a hand in some of it.
The Iraqi Christians being turned away here were never singled out for elimination under Saddam Hussein. We have become good at deposing dictators, but bad at filling the resulting power vacuum. Our well-intentioned interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have led to population upheavals on a grand scale. The Afghans found in Tilbury Docks recently (one of them dead) were reportedly Sikhs, targeted by the resurgent Taleban. If we had left Afghanistan a stable country, would they have ended up in Essex? Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need?
Our approach can be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. Yet in previous eras we opened our doors more readily to Sassoons, Saatchis, Hadids, Dallals, Auchis, Yentobs, Zilkas and Shamashes. History will remember another Iraqi-British friend, the former national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, a London neurologist, as the man who hanged Saddam. There’s a serious intellectual inconsistency here. Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron have insisted there is a connection between failing foreign states and domestic problems, such as terrorist threats and heroin on our streets — and used that argument to justify interventions abroad. Yet they have remained silent about the backlash from these decisions when waves of migrants flee these states. If we were all Libyans in 2011, as those who advocated the removal of Muammar Gaddafi put it, aren’t we all Libyans now?
Britain’s response is to the refugee crisis is to offer fewer than 1,000 ‘resettlement places’ a year. It’s pitiful. Of course we can’t house them all, but part of any nation’s moral duty is to shelter the genuinely persecuted — and Britain does disgracefully little, for a country that accepts 1,200 immigrants a day. Reallocating some of Dfid’s budget to help shelter those who arrive would be a start. And given that this problem will not go away, it is time to consider it properly. Somehow, a fixation with overseas aid budgets has broken the government’s moral compass. The public can be trusted to support overseas charities; it is the government’s duty to help refugees who arrive here needing shelter. For the Prime Minister to neglect that basic British duty diminishes us all.
Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.