A Humane and Sensible Approach to the Immigration Crisis

Migrants land on a beach in Dungeness, UK on 24 November 2021. Courtesy of Steve Finn / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK needs to move away from its current overtly security-focused approach to migration in favour of a more sensible and humane one.

In the last year, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people trying to cross the English Channel on small boats. According to Home Office data, over 25,000 people have crossed the Channel in boats this year. In 2020, around 5,000 people crossed the Channel by this means. The deadliest of these crossings happened on 24 November 2021, with 27 people, including a pregnant woman and three children, losing their lives at sea. Efforts to stem irregular immigration and prevent the dangerous journey across the English Channel have been mired in diplomatic squabbles between the UK and France, with the UK paying France up to £55 million to clamp down on small-boat Channel crossings. The dominant official narrative in the UK holds criminal networks responsible. According to this account, people smugglers and criminal gangs are benefitting financially from people’s misery and suffering. Therefore, disrupting and apprehending the criminal networks is considered the most appropriate way to curtail the irregular flow of migration across the English Channel.

The criminal networks facilitating these dangerous journeys should be disrupted and apprehended, but we must not undercut the overall benefits of migration in the process. One such benefit is plugging the acute labour shortage in key industries in the UK that Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have created. To achieve this, the UK would need to adopt a sensible and strategic open-border policy. At the moment, the general attitude towards migration, judging by the proposed immigration bill, is a far cry from such a policy.

Rather, the Home Office seeks greater enforcement powers backed by legislation through the flagship Nationality and Borders Bill. The new enforcement powers sought include the authority to force boats back towards France by being able to board, divert and detain boats carrying irregular immigrants. The new law also makes it a criminal offence for someone to deliberately enter the UK illegally, punishable by up to four years in prison. Evidently, the problem is viewed through a criminal lens rather than adopting a much more holistic approach that would likely involve addressing the conditions that push people to take these perilous journeys. The Home Office’s approach also provides little insight into what is driving the surge in irregular immigration and why people are willing to risk their lives by embarking on such dangerous journeys to reach the UK.

While the image of drowning and desperate people shocks and pricks our moral and humanitarian conscience, it should point us to the bigger picture of the suffering that these people are escaping from

Among the UK population, reaction is mixed. While some support the rescue of migrants who encounter trouble at sea, others maintain an unfavourable view and go as far as suggesting blocking the rescue of troubled migrants. Some of the reasons cited for such anti-immigrant and nationalist positions include the need to counter a breakdown in social relations and cultural identity; to stall the economic impact including loss of jobs and diminishing wages; to reduce undue pressure on social infrastructures including housing and healthcare services; and to curtail the rise in general insecurity including terrorism and the threat of terrorist attacks. But these immigration myths have been debunked. According to Professor Benjamin Powell, an economist based in Texas, eliminating barriers to migration produces benefits to both origin and target destinations, with an increase in GDP or Global World Product (GWP) of between 50% and 150% (Benjamin Powell, ed., The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy, 2015).

But the current immigration problem is not new, nor is it peculiar to the UK or the rest of Europe. For instance, within the last 10 years, there has been a noticeable spike in global migration and a change in migration patterns following the allied forces’ intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Millions of people affected by the destabilisation and instability in conflict zones, including fragile states such as Yemen, Nigeria, Niger, Sudan, Somalia and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, have been forced to migrate to safe and peaceful areas, either internally or externally to destinations such as Europe. A significant number of asylum seekers are also economic migrants seeking better economic opportunities.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 per cent of the world refugee population’. This amounts to around 18 million people. This number has soared due to ongoing crises in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Yemen. The refugee situation in Africa should not be seen as any less severe than the crises in Europe. While the image of drowning and desperate people clinging to lifeboats to reach the promised land of Europe shocks and pricks our moral and humanitarian conscience, it should point us to the bigger picture of the suffering that these people are escaping from.

There is no doubt that Europe is a choice destination for refugees and asylum seekers, but closing borders and criminalising people who are desperately escaping threats to life is definitely not the best solution. The UK–France agreement, similar to the EU–Turkey agreement signed in 2016, is not an effective answer to the migration challenge. Efforts in the past in relation to refugees from Africa have involved the European Commission signing development aid partnership agreements with some African countries including Nigeria, Mali and Ethiopia, and proposals for an African regional centre for processing refugees/asylum seekers.

The UK needs to find a balance between protecting its borders against security and socio-economic threats, and fulfilling its human rights obligations

EU partnerships with source and transit countries, through aid packages such as the European Trust Fund for Africa, boast of development programmes that address root causes, yet fail to conceal the fact that immigration and border controls are prioritised over human rights and our humanitarian responsibility towards refugees and the destitute.

The UK needs to deal with the migration crisis that is unfortunately pushing it towards dangerous protectionist policies and practices. In comparison to other destination countries, the number of asylum seekers in the UK is relatively small. The UK was insulated from the migration crisis that rocked Europe in 2015 and received far fewer asylum applications than the rest of the EU. For instance, France receives double the number of asylum applications that the UK receives. There has been a steady decline in the number of asylum applications in the UK, from 35,737 in 2019 to 29,815 in 2020 and 14,670 in the first half of 2021, according to the UK Parliament. Conversely, the UK presently has the highest percentage of successful asylum applications (64%) compared to Germany (39%) and France (23%). However, asylum seekers need to be in the country to make the application. This could explain the desperate attempts to cross the Channel.

The UK needs to find a balance between protecting/safeguarding its borders against security and socio-economic threats, and fulfilling its human rights obligations. To achieve this, it would have to abandon its overtly security-focused approach to the migration issue in favour of a more sensible and humane one. The crisis should be seen as part of a global crisis that speaks to global inequality and a general climate of insecurity. One way to take back control from the criminal networks that are benefitting from the crisis is to open up more legal avenues into the UK that are accessible to those who are fleeing from catastrophic human threats. Perhaps it would be more productive to have asylum centres in France and other transit countries, rather than the ineffective French patrols in the Channel that are costing the UK £55 million yearly.

Lastly, the UK government has grand ambitions for a ‘Global Britain’ which it has set out in key policies. A ‘Global Britain’ – a forward-looking and engaged country with a positive outlook and reputation – is precisely the sort of place migrants will want to come to. There is therefore a need to understand and accept that immigration offers challenges as well as opportunities. In this regard, political leaders need to show strong leadership and contribute positively to public debate on the subject. The focus should be on better management of migration to the benefit of the UK and those attracted to it. Managing it poorly or harshly diminishes the country’s reputation.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Michael Nwankpa

Associate Fellow; Founding Director/Director of Research at the Centre for African Conflict and Development, London

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