It is a curious thing that a country with such an acute shortage of labour that it is going into recession will pay a foreign neighbour even more money to prevent workers coming over to plug the gaps. That, though, is precisely where the UK is with the deal the government has concluded with the French.
Instead of giving the French police £54m to attempt the impossible and to stop the small boat crossings across the English Channel, the UK is now going to sub them some £63m a year to do so. Voila! How’s that for an inflation-busting rise?
It is perfectly possible that our subsidy to the French police will be the only area of public spending to increase in the coming Austerity 2.0 era. It’s not obvious to me that we voted Leave in 2016 to send more than £1m a week to Paris to keep the gendarmes busy, but there we are. It is a funny old world. That’s Tory government for you.
Suella Braverman and James Cleverly shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t in receipt of the undying thanks of British taxpayers. Yes, there will be more British coppers hanging around in the control room, sipping their tea while the French fly their lovely new drones over the beaches. We should, however, be under no illusion that this is any return to the kind of common Europe-wide effort that existed before Brexit.
In those days, under the Dublin III regulations, there was at least the possibility that bogus asylum seekers could be returned to the rest of the EU. Under Dublin III, a refugee could file an orderly, lawful claim for asylum in the UK while they were in, say, Greece or Malta, usually on permitted grounds of family reunion. Now, that is impossible – and so they have to make the long trek to Calais and then pay the people traffickers so they can make their claim in the UK, when and if they get there.
With EU membership, the UK had a say on EU border and naval activity in the Mediterranean – and at the border with Turkey. This is a small, very limited and very probably ineffective bilateral deal, with, ironically, no recourse to a body such as the European Court of Justice if it is being applied efficiently. We are relying on the French to keep people they don’t want in their own country. Seems strange.
There are no targets set, no criteria for success or failure. The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, a man who is no doubt trying his best, was challenged on the BBC Today programme to describe what success would look like, and he could not.
Very fairly, he said the numbers were highly variable, depending on wealth and wars; but he dodged answering whether there would be an agreed “interception rate”. More troubling, the French authorities are only supposed to turn up and hassle the people with the boats; they’re under no obligation to arrest them, process them, still less deport them for people smuggling or any other offence. So they scarper off and they’ll try again tomorrow.
The deal Suella Braverman concluded with her French counterpart doesn’t have “breakthrough” written all over it, any more than the one Priti Patel negotiated last year.
The chances are, then, that it won’t be different this time. Such is the weight of numbers and their determination to get to the UK that the French police will continue to have difficulty stopping them. They did manage to intercept some 29,000 last year, but it’s not clear how many eventually made the dangerous crossing. There’s no reason to suppose the numbers will be different now. The refugees and the economic migrants will get through.
The refugees will not, by the way, be deterred by the minimal risk they’ll get sent to Rwanda ) they will merely then try not to be detected and won’t make any claim for asylum at all. They’ll simply melt away. Even if the official asylum claims come down, that will be a misleading statistic. The Rwanda plan will encourage more clandestine movements, and be counterproductive. Another £140m wasted.
Even if we renounced the humanitarian obligation to offer shelter to those fleeing persecution – and left the European Convention on Human Rights, as Braverman wishes – the desperate would still come, for they have nothing to lose.
The more extreme elements on the right would have the Border Force forcibly push them back into French waters, or get the Royal Navy to ship them out to international waters in the Atlantic. Even if that were lawful or practical, it still wouldn’t be a deterrent – because there’s always the chance that they’ll make it to England, and some are obviously prepared to risk drowning to do so.
We’ve been here before. Under the government of John Major, the asylum system was under even greater strain. Things got better when resources were devoted to it – and worse when they weren’t. It was the same when wars started and ended.
Refugees will always be with us – the real problem is that there isn’t a way for their applications to be filed from abroad, so they turn up at the Channel.
The delays in processing applications in the UK are creating conditions where neither genuine refugees nor economic migrants (nor, indeed, any criminal elements) are being dealt with swiftly – and deported or jailed if needs be. There are 120,000 such cases awaiting decision, many for months in end, and 1,000 for more than five years.
If you want to come and work for quite a while before being kicked out, the British Home Office is your friend. Rather than spaffing £63m on overtime and new kit for the French police, we could use the cash to create a fast but fair asylum system, and the rest on some reception centres that won’t harbour diphtheria and scabies.
Nor is the points-based immigration system working for economic migrants because it’s based on the misconception that the UK is only lacking skilled workers plus a few seasonal agricultural labourers. As we see now, we need far more people of every kind to get the economy back on its feet, and yet we’re doing everything we can to exclude them.
We need people to work in our struggling hotels, not be banged up in them banned from doing an honest day’s work for pay. We have a shortage of housing; why not get migrants who want to work to help build more homes?
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The Braverman deal with France is not rational, and it’s the inevitable consequence of a bodged Brexit.
I only labour the points about Brexit because the endlessly repeated claims that it meant we would “take back control of our borders” have turned so sickeningly, tragically sour. Ending free movement of labour across the EU was supposed to end all this. All it did was prevent lawful migration and starve the economy of people. Leaving the EU meant abandoning co-operation, albeit imperfect, on the international problem of migration.
We are now left with an immigration and asylum system that works for no one, and which even this Brexiteer government cannot defend. It’s not the Brexit we voted for.