Voices: We can’t solve the UK’s refugee crisis with a culture war

·4-min read
The home secretary has invited God, through the archbishop, to come up with his own solution (PA)
The home secretary has invited God, through the archbishop, to come up with his own solution (PA)

Over Easter, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke powerfully for Britain’s committed Christian minority when he said that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was “against the judgement of God”. The response from critics has been, essentially, “what has this got to do with God?” The home secretary has invited God, through the archbishop, to come up with his own solution.

Both sides are talking at cross-purposes here. On one hand, refugee and human rights campaigners condemn the new policy as “inhumane”. On the other, those who say or imply: “of course it is inhumane. The point is to deter people from attempting dangerously to cross the Channel in dinghies.”

My heart is with the archbishop, but I can’t help but think that, for the secular majority of Britons, practical arguments about what works weigh more heavily than spiritual judgements or the government’s attempts to stir up a culture war.

The politician who best captured a spirit of what I would call “enlightened practicality” was Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary. She wisely refused to be drawn onto the moral high ground, to denounce the human rights abuses of the Rwandan government and our own, in interviews.

Instead she had technical but sensible proposals starting with the slow and difficult task of cooperating with the French authorities to track down and prosecute criminal trafficking gangs: this being more effective than sending asylum seekers to central Africa.

Much of the difficulty comes because the distinction between someone seeking asylum, and someone (supposedly less deserving) merely seeking a better life, is not nearly as clear as people make out. The cross-channel dinghies may well contain Afghans or Syrians, Eritreans or Somalis who are fleeing conflict and persecution but they are also fleeing hunger and the hopelessness of “safe” refugee camps.

In other words, the difference between “economic” and “political” refugees has therefore become largely meaningless. But decisions must be made as to who stays and who goes.

In the latest full year, 13,000 were given refugee status out of 48,000 seeking asylum (out of a net immigration figure of around 300,000). The numbers are relatively modest, but the public concern is that global demand is potentially almost infinite while the British supply of compassion is finite.

I don’t buy the cynical view that the British public is irredeemably racist and must be constantly placated by organised nastiness. But I don’t buy either the idealistic optimism of the Canterbury pulpit that there is unlimited goodwill towards those in desperate need.

The problem with British public opinion, and the politicians who are led by it, is that it is fickle and unpredictable, and has long been so. The considerable demand for a more open approach to Ukrainian refugees – embodied recently in The Independent’s own campaign to which 250,000 readers have signed up – is a contrast with the general attitude that had prevailed over refugees fleeing from further afield.

A similar capriciousness was on display in the late 1960s when an exodus of Kenyan Asians prompted panic legislation to bar their entry and led to an outpouring of hostility towards non-white immigrants in general expressed in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech. Three years later a Conservative government freely admitted Asians expelled from Uganda to apparent public approval. As an east African Asian by heritage, Priti Patel will be aware of the history, as I am through marriage.

There have been similar panics and reversals in attitudes towards refugees from Hong Kong, the former Yugoslavia and Syria and to economic migrants from the Commonwealth and latterly eastern Europe.

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All this means that amidst the partisanship of British politics, there is now a rough consensus. Governments must demonstrate control over their borders. Some economic migration is necessary and desirable, but must be managed based on individual migrants’ usefulness rather than their ethnicity or nationality or arbitrary net migration targets. Humanitarian crises, as in Syria, Afghanistan and – now – Ukraine should be met by rationed generosity.

There remains the issue of those who are trying to get here “illegally”, claiming asylum, but for whom legal routes are largely blocked. The answers are not to be found either on high moral ground or in grubby, expensive gimmicks like the Rwanda scheme.

The real solutions lie in the mundane but apparently elusive work of cross-border law enforcement: a European-wide policy on asylum was a hated bogeyman of Eurosceptics before Brexit, but now looks a more useful idea than ever.

Sadly, the home secretary is more interested in the efficient expulsion of those who do not meet the government’s mark, than in efficient recruitment of competent Home Office staff to process applications quickly and to mete out safe, humane treatment to those who do not qualify to stay.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015. His podcast ‘Cable Comments’ is available here

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page

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