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What IS the liberal response to the migrant crisis?

Hand-wringing about the plight of migrants crossing the Channel and Mediterranean by boat - and angry words about their treatment - will only go so far. What would liberal progressives actually like to see done?

Migrants on a small boat in the waters off Cap Blanc-Nez heading to Britain - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Much of the world is on fire: Syria remains in the throes of a years-long civil war, Ethiopia is close to embarking on one, just months after its prime minister was awarded a Nobel prize, Afghanistan faces a new Taliban era, and famine, persecution and civil strife force millions of people across the globe to seek sanctuary elsewhere.

Many of those people – entirely understandably – look to the relative peace and stability of Europe and the UK for refuge. And despite the huge obstacles in their way – the safe routes here have all been blocked – are prepared to make the dangerous journey to our shores.

In both the UK and Europe, a fixation with the daily arrival of boats, across the Channel and the Med, excites the anger of many and the compassion of others. Neither response seems to be proving particularly helpful in finding a solution.

The reaction of many European countries has been to turn to populists and to try to further close their borders. That is the response of home secretary Priti Patel and the Conservative government of which she is part, too.

Despite us being on the western fringe of the European continent and getting just a trickle of asylum seekers relative to other countries, our government has been keen to use some of the world’s most vulnerable as an easy source of political credit, vowing to make it even harder to seek respite in the UK, despite asylum being a fundamental right recognised in international law.

Patel might be offering nothing in the way of insight or in compassion – but all too often the liberal response to the issue of refugees is no better, warmer words aside.

It is easy to say we don’t want asylum seekers drowning off our shores, or living in squalid and unsafe conditions in detention centres, and certainly that people should not be shipped to Australian-style prison islands.

But when it comes to saying what we actually want to happen, those of us of a socially democratic persuasion often have less to say – and that’s because the issue itself is often quite a difficult one. What is it we actually think we should do for the world’s refugees?

One thing we should stop doing is pretending that every refugee crisis in the world is the direct fault of the UK – it is neither a true argument nor a politically winning one.

The UK clearly holds some responsibility for the rise of ISIS across Iraq and Syria, and should recognise that. Similarly, we have a broader colonial legacy that has done a lot of harm across much of the world. But equating that with the UK being the ‘cause’ of the world’s miseries itself removes the agency from the people of the affected countries: when Bashar al-Assad murders his own civilians, he is the person who should be held accountable for that. We should not act as if those of us in liberal democracies are the only people on the planet with agency.

Leaving that point aside, we are left to the practicalities: in a world where millions of people are displaced by persecution, war, natural disasters or famines, what do we do? One step is to make sure we join up our thinking on different border crossings – the UK does not exist in isolation versus the rest of the world.

Countries on the eastern and southern borders of the EU have closed many of the relatively safe (land-based) border crossings used by those who would seek asylum. The result is desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean – landing them in the same countries battling to keep them out.

Part of those border countries’ antagonism to refugees is the unwillingness of the EU to fully commit to fairly sharing the ‘burden’ of hosting refugees. In theory. people accepted as legitimate asylum seekers should be distributed across EU nations, and there is financial support available to arrival countries from those further away.

In practice, such measures always come a day late and a dollar short, meaning that anti-asylum politicians all too often are propelled to political power in the affected countries. The result is a vicious cycle: the inflow of refugees becomes visible because people have to highlight the death and danger it involves.
That keeps the issue high up the news agenda, which leads to calls for political action, and so on and so forth. Even if the current tactics cut the number of asylum seekers by 80%, their increased visibility produces a toxic political mix.

This Mediterranean crisis fuels, in turn, the crossings of the Channel – with few options in Europe and hostile political environments in so many countries, the UK becomes an incredibly attractive option for those with the resources to reach it, not least because many more people speak English than other European languages, and want that head start towards integration.

As we, like the EU, have closed off most safe and ‘legitimate’ routes to claiming asylum, boats become the option of last resort. And once again, the harsh approach fails on its own terms – keeping the crossings in the headlines, with all the divisiveness that entails, while helping almost no-one.

The current approach fails on its own terms. Going harsher would do the same – it would simply incentivise media coverage of the issue, both from right wing papers highlighting that even these new draconian measures got missed and people ‘slipped through’, and from activists trying to expose what would, from experience, surely be grim and dangerous conditions, if asylum seekers were kept offshore somewhere, for instance.

Some of us might think the right thing to do is to just drop restrictions or quotas altogether, and say that anyone found to be a genuine refugee – always a tricky thing to define, but let’s park that for today – would be welcome to seek asylum in the UK. This would certainly feel morally admirable, but it may not prove either politically or practically sustainable.

The main problem is that the world is so chaotic and dangerous now that there are huge number of people seeking asylum – almost all of them living in poorer countries. UN statistics suggest there are more than 25 million refugees around the world, alongside a further 50 million people displaced within their own country.

More than 80% of those people are in developing world countries – richer nations do far, far less than their fair share here. Turkey alone, for example, has more than 3.6 million refugees – despite having a population only slightly higher than the UK’s.

A wave of several hundred thousand skilled immigrants from eastern Europe in the 2000s prompted a political backlash that created the Brexit movement. An influx of millions of refugees would risk political consequences even more dire – assuming it ever got approved as a proposal in the first place. And that’s not even to consider the damage it could do to countries suddenly denuded of much of their populations.

A sincere effort to do more as a good global citizen while also making asylum a smaller political issue would have to be a compromise. People do not spend thousands of pounds – often all the money they have in the world – and risk the lives of their children for fun or out of spite. They do it because they have no other choices. Giving people safer and better choices is the way to end the Mediterranean and Channel boat crises.

The government repeatedly says it wants people to take ‘legitimate’ routes to seek asylum in the UK – essentially asking people in camps in Turkey or elsewhere to apply for UK entry from there. This would be a safer and fairer option, if only it were a real one: an unfairness of entry by boat is that it is an option only open to relatively rich, middle-class asylum seekers. Poorer families can’t even afford it.

The issue with the legitimate channels is people know their odds of success are astronomically low, because we take so few people from them. Instead of a trickle of a few thousand people, we should take hundreds of thousands. If we manage to make the terms fair, and let people work as they come, that could be increased over time if there was a lack of political backlash.

We pride ourselves – often undeservedly – on being a nation that believes in fair play, and yet as it stands we have set up a game for refugees where it is impossible to win without cheating, and then we condemn the cheaters who actually get here. Un-rigging the rules of the game might just be able to please everyone.

Finally, we have to remember to stand for what we believe, and to have and try to win the argument. If we have politicians that believe in the moral and ethical case for asylum, they should make that case, rather than dodging the issue or trying to deflect it.

Part of why we have ended up with a hostile environment is that almost no politicians challenged it. If we want to be a global Britain, and a good global citizen, we should help our neighbours when they are in need. We can hope otherwise, but one day we might need that help in turn, too – we don’t want to be forced to hope that other people are kinder than we managed to be.