Is there really no alternative to the Rwanda policy for refugees?

It seems increasingly rare to hear supporters of the Government’s policy of removing asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing defend the policy. Instead what you tend to get are comments along these lines:

And …

Now, first of all, a couple of preliminary responses.  You will notice that the presumption is that anyone who opposes Priti Patel’s strategy is a liberal leftie.  Now, there are two problems with that. The first is that it conflates “liberal” with “left-wing.” However, the two don’t necessarily go together. Margaret Thatcher was in many respects “liberal” with her emphasis on small government, free trade and freedom of movement. Yet, you would not call her “left-wing.” Meanwhile, to be left-wing and socialist is something distinct from being liberal. Further, the argument also assumes that opposition is only coming from the left and that it’s party political.  Rather, the response has come from across the political spectrum. Regular readers will know that I oppose the policy but my own political leanings are far from left-wing.

Secondly, there has been a lot of sloppy talk about illegal immigration and illegal means of entering the country.  Now, there are a few complexities to this.  First of all, yes: the UK has laws that taken on their own would suggest that the boat crossings are illegal.  Illegal entry includes and focuses on attempting to enter the country without seeking appropriate leave to enter and remain either as a citizen or by obtaining a visa.

This means that should those crossing on the boats seek to evade detection and blend into society, then at that point, they become illegal immigrants. It is possible, maybe probable that this is their intent but we cannot say that for certain, especially when other routes into the country are not available to them.  It also means that people who overstay their visa either because it runs out or because they no longer meet its terms (e.g. if they come on a student visa and then leave their course) is an illegal immigrant.

However, the UK’s domestic laws concerning border control are not read in isolation.  They have to be considered in conjunction with our international treaty commitments.   This means that the UK is committed to welcoming refugees and so, we have a duty to consider asylum for anyone who claims it at the first possibility.  Note that there is no obligation on them under international law to claim that asylum at the first country they come to. There are many reasons why a refugee might specifically seek refuge on one country and not another.

Setting those points aside, it is worth now responding to the specific questions and accusations thrown the way of those of us who are opposed to the Rwanda policy.  First of all, there is the suggestion that we are not prepared to state how many illegal immigrants we would accept.  The answer to that is that I don’t think there is an acceptable level of “illegal immigration.”  The only acceptable figure is “zero.”  I believe that people should comply with the law themselves, they should seek the right visa, they should not overstay and if they are coming for asylum, then they should make the claim as soon as possible.[1]

Furthermore, I do not want people to be coming into the country through unsafe routes. I want to see them arriving on flights, ferries, the Channel Tunnel through regulated ports.  I don’t want to see anyone turning up in dinghies.  There are so many dangers with that.  However, the responsibility and the criminality lies there with the people traffickers.  More of that shortly.

Now, sometimes when people ask about illegal migration, they are in fact conflating illegal immigration with immigration generally.  So, sometimes what they really mean is “what is an acceptable level of immigration?” My answer to that is to suggest that it is a bit of a meaningless question because, this isn’t something you can set an arbitrary figure on. If immigration is bad for our society then 20,000 immigrants are 20,000 too many. 

Really, immigration numbers are about supply and demand.  How many people are needed here for work reasons whether that’s as doctors, nurses, plumbers, professors or fruit pickers?  How many houses are available? How many school places? What can the infrastructure of the country cope with?  How many people want to come here?  There  are unlikely to be fixed answers to those questions.  The answer will vary. 

This means that the only question is about the extent to which we try to manage and control immigration centrally. Now, politically and economically I lean to a position that is suspicious of command and control. I don’t think central regulation works well. I don’t think someone in Whitehall can decide how many tractors we need to manufacture for the next five years and so I also don’t think it is for them to decide how much steel to import as raw materials to go into the tractors or how many people we should bring in to work at the steel plant. So, I believe in free movement of goods, money and people. The three go together. 

The only reason therefore why we might be concerned about overall immigration numbers is if there is going to be pressure on the welfare system. There’s a simple answer to that which is that people should not receive the benefits of our welfare state until they have contributed into it.

Returning to Dan Hodge’s questions around what deterrents and sanctions there should be against illegal immigration, there are two sides to that. The first is the carrot approach.  Why do people seek alternative routes into the country? Well, it’s because the safe/preferred routes are not accessible. In fact, the impression given at times is that there are no preferred/legal routes into the country. Asylum seekers are simply not welcome.

So, as I and others have frequently argued, the first job we have is to ensure that there are safe and accessible routes for people to come and seek asylum.  This might mean making it possible for asylum seekers to get onto the Eurostar trains and claim asylum at that point or by offering specialised ferry services.  We also want to make these options preferable to trying to get into the country and disappear. So, secondly, it has been suggested that people coming through such routes would be fast tracked. We would provide processing centres and claims would be considered within 6 months. During that time, asylum seekers would have access to education, health-care etc. They would live at the processing centre.  Once processed they would either be returned to their home country or they would be allowed to find housing and work.

Alongside this, we need to cut the amount of time that people spend in the system going through appeals and Judicial Review. Based on how often I’ve seen people have to go through multiple appeals and JR before winning their case, I would suggest that the problem here is that too often we don’t get the decision right first time. So, we need to improve our systems and processes to reduce the amount of failure demand. This will actually reduce the cost of the asylum process. I would also only allow representation through the legal aid process where there has to be at least 50% probability of success.  This will take out of the process the lawyers looking to make money and slow the process down for personal gain.

In terms of deterrent and sanctions. I think this is quite simple. If someone fails in their claim, then they should be removed and returned to their home country as soon as possible.  If they want to make their appeal through the ECHR, then they should be sent in person to the court to have their case heard there.

But the primary issue we have is with the people traffickers who are part of organised crime. Of course, if they don’t have asylum seekers to smuggle, then they’ll find other criminal activities in order to make money. So, we won’t deal with organised crime by punishing the victims of organised crime. We need to target the people smugglers themselves. This means that we should deploy all means possible to arrest, try and imprison those who are making money out of the suffering of others.

Now, it isn’t the first time that I’ve made comments along these lines. Nor am I alone in this. The question is whether or not those who have been supporting the Rwanda policy are willing to engage with those offering serious alternatives to their flawed and immoral approach?

[1] Noting that for some people, the claim comes later because their quickest and safest way of gaining entry into the country is to get a short term visa for other reasons. Often, it is only when that visa runs out and they need to access things such as health care that their primary reason for entering the country comes to light.

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