Current Affairs Opinion

The Refugee ‘Crisis’: All Our Own Making

If you have been reading the news recently you will probably have noticed, alongside the stories of the world falling apart and the government’s failure over A levels, that Downing Street is very worried about an apparent influx of migrants/refugees crossing the Channel.[1] With everything else that is going on in the world it might be tempting to take the government’s line that the refugees & migrants are doing “a very bad, stupid, dangerous and criminal thing” at face value and move on to worrying about something else.[2] However, it would be fair to say that the government isn’t telling the full truth, and is desperately trying to avoid the difficult questions the “crisis” raises about the impact of recent British policy on our interconnected world.

Firstly we should establish the basic facts. There has undoubtedly been a rise in the number of migrants and refugees crossing the channel by boat in recent months, with 4,000 arriving since the beginning of the year. However, this represents only a small fraction of the 35,500 asylum seekers who came to the UK in 2019. It would also be wrong to think that the UK is facing some unprecedented surge in asylum requests, last year Germany received over 165,000 claims.[3]

It is also worth asking why there has been a rise in the specific type of refugee/migrant crossing, and no one really knows the answer. It is the smugglers, not the migrants, who decide what route is taken, and it may just be that more conventional routes have been affected by coronavirus. However this does not explain what motivates asylum seekers to leave their home countries in the first place. According to the BBC, some of the most common countries of origin for the migrants include Yemen, Eritrea, and Iraq.[4] The “push factors” for why people would make the decision to leave these countries is obvious. Yemen has been ravaged by a brutal civil war between a Saudi-backed government and the rebel Houthis which has led directly to the deaths of at least 7,700 civilians.[5] Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and home to one of its most repressive dictatorships where people can be forced into the army indefinitely, often for up to 20 years with little pay. Iraq is still facing a combination of terrorist threat, economic failure due to collapse in oil prices, and endemic government corruption.

Therefore it is understandable why so many people would want to flee these countries, but why are they coming to the UK? The truth is of course that the vast majority are not. We have already seen how continental European countries like Germany have taken in far more asylum seekers than the UK. However even this number pales in comparison to countries like Lebanon and Turkey who combined house 5.5 million refugees, highlighting the fact that the vast majority decide to stay in neighbouring states.[6][7] In fact the UK, with the 6th largest economy in the world, houses only 1% of the world’s refugees. 

There has long been an argument that refugees should only settle in the first safe country they reach, and therefore someone who has passed through Italy and France to reach Britain no longer has the right to asylum. However, this view has no basis in the law with refugees being under no obligation to stay in the first safe place they arrive in.[8] As for why some migrants do come to the UK there is no one answer. In many cases, they will pay smugglers to take them to a generic safe European country, with the refugees themselves having no say over their final destination.[9] In other cases it can be due to cultural links, English is afterall one of the most spoken languages in the world, so it might make sense why refugees with a good command of English would feel safer here. Furthermore the legacy of the British Empire means many have family links.

It is also ironic that a government obsessed with stopping refugee arrivals, to the extent they have deployed the Royal Navy and RAF to the Channel, is willingly removing itself from one of the few mechanisms they have of removing asylum seekers.[10] Under the “Dublin System”, the UK can remove refugees to the first EU country they entered. However, given the lack of progress in Brexit talks it seems like this will soon cease to apply and the UK will have to process all asylum claims itself. [11]

Putting the current situation in its historical context, the role the UK has played in creating these global crises which produce refugees who so alarm the British government is clear. Iraq is the most obvious example, having helped invade the country in 2003, the UK underinvested in nation building, creating the environment which led to the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS.[12] Similarly in Yemen, Britain has actively profited from the war which has created so many refugees.. Having temporarily suspended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the government decided to restart them in July, the British arms industry having made £5.3 billion in sales to the Saudi government since 2015. Of course both Whitehall and Riyadh claim these weapons have never been used to knowingly target civilians, yet the UN estimates that 60% of civilian casualties in the Yemeni conflict have resulted from Saudi air-strikes.[13]

To their credit, much of the UK government’s rhetoric has been against people smugglers, not refugees themselves. Smuggling is undoubtedly a morally abhorrent industry, with Sky News reporting that migrants have to pay upwards of £1,000 per head to cross the Channel with traffickers.[14] In response to this the government have sought to deploy the military to the Channel, and have created a “clandestine Channel threat command”.[15] However this bellicose approach has drawn concern from experts who worry it will make crossing the Channel needlessly dangerous and do nothing to stop attempts. It may in fact be more effective for the UK to expand legal methods for refugees to enter the country. For example by offering more places to unaccompanied children as Lord Dubs has proposed, or by expanding the UNHCR’s global resettlement programme by which the UK will house refugees from countries like Lebanon which are facing genuine crisis.[16]

Therefore the refugee “crisis” at the Channel coast may not be all that the government has warned about. While it is tragic that people are risking their lives to cross into the UK in such a dangerous way, so far none of the government’s measures have actually done much to help those most in need. What this situation does offer us though is an opportunity to look back on our country’s past actions and consider their influence on present day politics. It was in a large part the UK’s joint invasion of Iraq and failure to rebuild which precipitated the current day crisis there, and British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have had an impact on the number of people fleeing Yemen. Even domestic politics has an impact, as the government’s apparent failure in Brexit negotiations means it will soon lose the ability to remove asylum seekers to other EU members. Through all of this it is important to remember that the only real victims are those forced to flee their home countries, be it because of war or economic collapse, and who now face a hostile reception in Europe. Furthermore, given the recent news that the Greek government has begun illegally expelling hundreds of asylum seekers by forcing them onto rafts and abandoning them in the open sea, the British government’s rhetoric is put into an even more worrying context.[17