There is a sentence in the latest BBC report on English Channel migrant crossings that is just exquisite. Thursday saw 1,000 people arrive in Britain unauthorised — a new record — and the story on the Corporation’s website explains how UK Border Force boats, as well as lifeboats, ferried the arrivals to Dover. However, it added:
‘A Whitehall source accused France of losing control of the situation.’
It’s a line worthy of Swift. Britain is seeing record levels of illegal migration, the Home Office is running a maritime Uber service, and somehow it’s all the French’s fault. Some wonder why the Boris Johnson era hasn’t produced any great political satire but who could take the competition? This may be the first government that satirises itself.
It’s true, France could be doing more to prevent illicit journeys to the UK from its shores. But France is not responsible for policing Britain’s borders. We had a referendum on this very matter five years ago. It is for Britain’s government to maintain Britain’s borders, though at this point they seem to exist more in theory than in practice. Upwards of 23,000 illegal migrants have arrived in Britain from France so far this year, which the BBC says is up on the 8,404 who made the journey last year. This government has done wonders for sovereignty: there’s a border in the Irish Sea and none in the English Channel.
Priti Patel’s failure to get the situation under control will be frustrating for conservatives and immigration restrictionists, but my objection is different. I’m an immigration liberal and want a flexible migration and humane asylum system that makes it easier for people to bring their talents here and to find refuge from conflict and oppression. The only path to achieving such a system is by giving the public confidence that liberal migration policies and border control can happily coexist. A flexible system would be no less rigorous than schemes designed to limit numbers. The aims would be different but enforcement, security checks and political accountability would all be the same. I went into these questions in more depth in a recent piece opposing The Spectator’s call for an illegal migrant amnesty.
Liberals tend to get mush-headed about illegal immigration, excusing or defending it purely because Tory backbenchers and the Daily Express fulminate about it. We fear voicing opposition to unlawful entry will contribute to a climate of hostility towards all immigrants. Plus, we have somehow convinced ourselves that drawing a red line between new Britons who settle here through the proper processes and those who do not is callous and heartless.
Liberals need to stop letting right-wingers live in their heads rent-free. Liberalism is one of civilisation’s great philosophies, an inheritance from Locke, Smith and Mill. Its parameters are not defined by the latest press release from Philip Hollobone. We should not shy away from condemning illegal immigration because it is this practice, and not criticism of it, that inflames public opinion. There is also nothing compassionate or enlightened in sending the message that, yes, you should hand over all your earthly possessions to people-smugglers because, provided they can get you to the English Channel, the Home Office will take it from there.
There is nothing chiselled in stone that says sovereignty, border security and immigration enforcement are the preserve of the right. Australia’s former prime minister John Howard once summed up his stance on migration and asylum thus:
‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
Howard is a Liberal, not a liberal, but in asserting Australia’s right of self-government he was vindicating a fundamental liberal principle. Until liberals can come to speak similar words, recognise why they ought to, and understand why the voters want to hear them, they will not be trusted on immigration and borders.
As for the Tories, they should take a lesson from Australia, too. Not the points-based immigration system of which they are enamoured but a programme called Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). OSB is a military-led exercise which, among other things, performs ‘turnbacks’ of boats attempting to smuggle people into Australia. It was introduced in September 2013 after the previous six years saw 1,100 foreign nationals drown at sea trying to reach Australia.
According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 20,587 people arrived via these boats in 2013. By 2019, it was 33. There are aspects of OSB that the government should not seek to replicate — the conditions in offshore detention centres, for one — but its dodging of the turnbacks option is not sustainable.
Boris Johnson’s government cannot afford many more days like yesterday. Brexit may have drawn some of the poison out of the immigration debate but record-breaking boat arrivals have the potential to retoxify it. If the government is serious about border security, it should turn back the boats.