Thursday, 13 August 2020

Why do migrants cross the English Channel? (And why understanding the answer can lead to better policy making)

To Nigel Farage it is an "invasion". The UK Government has deployed military. Once again, migrant crossings of the English Channel are in the news. Indeed, both Farage's self-parodying outburst and the Government's attempt at a tough response are themselves designed to present a news-worthy narrative.

I think that when any modern democratic and relatively wealthy nation feels that the solution to the arrival of rubber dinghies requires a military response it should give us pause for thought.

The UK response is to treat the matter as an enforcement issue but to take this simplistic approach fails to understand the motivations of those making the crossing and as a result inhibits the development of long-term policy solutions. 

It must also be acknowledged that this is by no means solely a matter for British policy makers. When one reaches a predicament in which people are risking their lives and spending thousands of pounds on crossing the world's busiest shipping lane to get from affluent, democratic and peaceful France to arrive in affluent, democratic and peaceful Britain, there is a fundamental collective policy failure across Europe.

To develop policy solutions, we must first appreciate that there is a logic which we can comprehend as to why the journey is being made. At the heart of this is the often over-looked issue that the principles of asylum and economic migration, while distinct, are not mutually exclusive. This nuance does not easily fit within the narrative of either those who advocate for refugee rights or those who seek to limit immigration, but it is important to understand.

Before I go any further on that point, I'd like to reflect on the instinctive human nature that underpins migration. It is to put oneself and one's family in a better position. It is why my ancestors, along with thousands of others, moved to South Wales during the industrial revolution. Today, it is why cities with high quality, well paid employment such as Cambridge and Bristol are growing so rapidly. The decision of my ancestors to move to South Wales was economic migration, albeit from within the UK. Economic migration is a natural instinct of humankind.

With that in mind, let us consider the journey of a migrant who may eventually be seeking to cross the Channel. Their journey begins by fleeing a hostile regime or conflict. This will have involved a dangerous covert journey initially within a nation which is likely to be far larger than the UK and then across borders into potentially further danger. It is quite possible that even at this stage there is a payment made to a people smuggler as it is the only way to get past border security if the individual is being persecuted by their state. Neighbouring nations may be no more friendly or themselves have ongoing conflict. This level of risk could be experienced repeatedly before the person makes it to the Mediterranean Sea. The crossing to Europe is itself is incredibly dangerous. This journey to date has been about finding safety, sanctuary and the ability to rebuild one's life. It is the portion of the journey which is motivated by the need to seek asylum.

There is no legal obligation on someone who is seeking asylum to do so in the first safe country in which they arrive. What is sometimes conflated to suggest this is the case is the Dublin Regulation which allows that if a migrant is fingerprinted and added to the database of one country and then seeks to relocate to another, there is scope for them to be returned to the first nation. While there have been iterations of the Dublin Regulations to gradually reduce the onus on the first EU country reached, often Greece, Italy or Malta, there is still an expectation that the nation which first receives migrants into the EU will be their long-term host. Accepting asylum seekers can be economically advantageous to a country in the long run but politically tends to be unpopular in the short-term. Thus, there is little incentive for governments of the reception nations to put too much effort into registering migrants. To break it down to a very simplified analogy, if you board a train at a station without a ticket office / machine and you know the station you are going to doesn't have ticket barriers, do you pro-actively seek out the 'Train Manager' to buy a ticket or do you wait to see if anyone comes around.

Why then might someone who had a legitimate claim to asylum not simply stop in the first EU nation they reach and why in particular might they try and make it to Britain? The reasons could be many but let us look at a few simple examples:

  • They may well have better English language skills than Greek or Italian and thus be drawn to the UK and Ireland
  • They may have family settled in Britain and want to rejoin them
  • Even if there is not a direct family tie, if there is an existing community from their homeland this would be an understandable draw
  • The process of rebuilding one's life is likely to benefit from living in a country with a strong economy and well established rule of law
It occurs to me while writing this, that it can be useful to overlay elements of the migration journey onto Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to see how each section relates to our innate human needs. 

There is a clear logic as to why someone with a legitimate claim to asylum would continue travelling through safe European countries. It is the same instinct in us all. It does not in anyway delegitimize their seeking sanctuary from persecution, it simply explains why after the hardship and danger of their initial journey they think it sensible to travel in relative safety to the best location for them to seek asylum and rebuild their life.

The crossing is highly dangerous and has generated a brutally exploitative market in people smuggling. Once in the UK, the individual can find themselves in a detention centre which is essentially a prison, hardly a fitting location for someone who could have faced torture and trauma. Others will make every effort to go to ground to avoid the hard-line rhetoric they hear from the authorities. This once again means those in need of help do not get it and they are very prone to exploitation by criminal organisations. Needless to say all this costs the state. Even in the best case scenario in which an asylum seeker is able to await their case outcome in a hostel, they are prohibited from working and thus the onus falls on the state to pay all their costs.

The current UK policy towards asylum fails on virtually every count. The individual is poorly treated. The Government's own rules mean that it is footing the bill while actively preventing asylum seekers from working and paying their way through the tax system. Integration is made more difficult and communities can become more divided. Everyone loses.

Border enforcement does have a role, but it can only be a supporting element to a policy solution which understands the push and pull factors. Successive governments have pitched their supposedly tough message regarding illegal immigration to a domestic electorate. It does resonate with some people's fears and can be electorally expedient.  However, tinkering around the edges of domestic policy to create a "hostile environment" which marginally reduces the attractiveness of the UK to migrants, the pull factor, is going to pale into insignificance when one considers the initial push factors are often war, famine, torture and persecution. It is also reasonable to expect that asylum numbers could increase in coming years as people seek refuge from the effect of climate change on their homelands.

If the UK and Europe as a whole is to take control of migration routes it will be through considered policy, not military deployment or slogans designed for a domestic audience. If the aim is to stop English Channel crossings, and similar trans-European routes, then the only solution is to offer official routes to achieve asylum which in turn must include a path to integration in the host nation.

At this point it becomes interesting to compare the approaches of the UK and Germany during the Syrian migration emergency. Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a policy which welcomed over a million refugees to resettle in Germany after they had travelled to the country. The UK chose a different policy approach and committed to resettling up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over a five year period with them being brought directly from refugee camps adjacent to Syria. 

The German model was well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed. The UK proposal was embarrassingly lacking in ambition in terms of numbers but a sound model. By rewarding those who made the journey to Germany, the Chancellor was allowing those most able to make the journey to settle. This, firstly, meant that there was an incentive to make a dangerous journey and, secondly, that rather than reaching those most in need and achieving the resettlement of a balanced demographic group, young fit men were the most likely to make it to and settle in Germany. The UK approach identified those most in need and brought them as families to the UK in a more managed programme of resettlement. It also fitted well with the UK's impressive commitment to international development and providing aid close to the point of need.

The UK response to the Syrian crisis should have created a best practice model for future refugee crises, but because discourse around immigration is so relentlessly toxic in the UK, relatively little was made of this foreign policy success. Germany, on the other-hand, drew both great praise and significant criticism for its far more high profile approach.

The Syrian crisis was one specific case. It will not always be possible to provide the safety of refuge across a single border and that nation have the standards of governance required to relocate those most in need of asylum. It is a good solution where it can be used, but it is not a one-size fits all policy. It is also far more difficult to establish such a programme when the migration flows are less clearly defined as being from precise geographic region.

I do not pretend that there is an easy solution to managing migration flows. It should though be apparent that the current approach of supposedly talking tough is not achieving anything and the policies underpinned by this narrative are damaging to all involved. Perhaps, an understanding of the motivations behind a migration journey and how the instincts which lead to it are not alien to us can help develop better policy solutions.