The global crisis engendered by people fleeing war seems unstoppable. But open borders carry an unacceptable political price for national governments Who now cries, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”? We stand appalled as boatloads of refugees wash up on the beaches of the northern Mediterranean. Men, women and children scramble up rocks and plead: “Is this Europe?” We arrest the traffickers, yet aid their task with rescue and shelter for their clients. We know this only adds to the flow, but in truth we have no clue what else to do.
Syrians force their way through border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally on 14 June. ‘Is it nemesis for Europe’s history of economic supremacism? It is even stoppable?’ Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty
This week the UN declared 2014 the worst year since records began for refugees: 55 million people worldwide were driven from their homes by force. Of those on the move, 40,000 have reached Italy through Libya this year and 30,000 have reached Greece.
These countries cannot handle them and will try to disperse them across Europe. One estimate suggests a further 500,000, or even twice that many, are already heading for Libya to await a sea crossing. Half of these reportedly profess a desire to come to Britain.
The immigration Europe faces seems to be on the scale of the pogroms of the late 19th century or the second world war. Some making the journey are victims of western intervention in their countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Others are victims of militant Islam, spreading across Africa and Asia. David Cameron told the House of Commons on 3 June “the vast majority … are not asylum seekers but people seeking a better life”. But it matters not why someone leaves home. The fact is they are heading here.
Immigration is notoriously vulnerable to statistical terrorism. The 55 million figure includes occupants of refugee camps hoping one day to return home. It is also dwarfed, as Cameron struggled to imply, by a UN estimate (for 2013) of 232 million economic migrants and other categories. The biggest movement is still into the US (largely from the south), but in 2013 Germany and Russia had about 10 million international migrants, and the UK and France eight million. The Oxford Refugees Studies Centre also charts millions displaced by nothing more terrifying than infrastructure projects, including 10 million a year by dams alone.
The biggest movement is still into the US , but since 2000 Germany and Russia have taken 10 million, and the UK eightFaced with such numbers it is easy to panic. Is this an apocalyptic upheaval, a repeat of the “Saharan pump”, the pre-historic movement of humans out of Africa? Is it nemesis for Europe’s history of economic supremacism? It is even stoppable? What future awaits a Europe whose birthrate is falling and whose economies depend on immigrant labour?
We can at least retort that if global economic migration is so colossal, a few extra migrants into Europe can hardly make much difference. Britain took 100,000 east African Asians between 1968 and 1973, resettling them peacefully, to the considerable advantage of its economy. If it has accepted 8 million incomers in the past 15 years, it can surely accept a few thousand enterprising refugees.
That is easy to say in the abstract. It cuts little ice at the France-Italy border at Ventimiglia, where the Schengen open borders treaty has collapsed and thousands are being dumped in the road by Italian coach drivers. And what is to stop today’s proposed EU quota becoming tomorrow’s tidal wave? It does indeed appear unstoppable.
Eurosceptics never thought the EU project would founder over tariffs or farm prices or bat colonies. Its Waterloo would be the impact on perceived national identity of newcomers flowing through open borders. It would founder when the iron curtain fell, when north Africa moved en masse towards France and Spain, when Turkey became a transit camp for the Middle East.‘
The writer David Goodhart was widely attacked in liberal circles for warning of the impact of a sudden influx of strangers on settled communities, and on their “obligation to welfare”. He was right. To care for one’s family and community – and to see this concern reflected in policy – is both a natural instinct and a democratic right. It is also sensible sociology. Traumatise neighbourhoods with floods of newcomers and their valuable cohesion becomes meaningless.
Europe’s latest tyrant is not economics. It is not even history. It is geography. Italy and Greece are frontier states to Africa and Asia, as Ukraine and Latvia are to Russia. This has to make them different. The turbulent politics of the Mediterranean is not Britain’s problem. Britain did not export to Italy and Greece the millions of immigrants it received in the past from the Caribbean, Africa and the Asian subcontinent.
Immigration is the toughest area of policy. This is demonstrated in the palpable dottiness of solutions now in play in Whitehall. Apparently the refugee problem must be tackled by “addressing human rights abuses upstream at their source”. But we do not own those sources, and we do not govern the world. When we tried to do so, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it made matters far, far worse.
Then we say we will bomb the traffickers’ boats. To desperate refugees this must seem like bombing ambulances. British military policy these days is crazy.
America and Australia pursue policies that are even more cruel. They deter migrants with imprisonmentAs for those already arrived, we ask for a “European solution” and plead with Sweden, the Baltics and Hungary to “take their fair share” – except Britain does not, as it will not accept its share. The reality is that democracy prefers to adopt its own ethic. It is no good shaming Europeans with the vast settlement camps of Lebanon and Jordan. They reply that they do not live in Lebanon or Jordan. Such “we are all one world” platitudes infuriate those whose families and communities will bear the impact of any new migration, coming from those who have no intention of bearing it at all. Compulsory liberalism is not liberal at all.
The nation state remains as resistant as ever to the demands of Europe’s reborn Holy Roman emperors. National identity is fixed in history and geography. Faced with what they see as unlimited hordes from distant lands, local governments are as immune to advocates of philanthropic hospitality as to those of the free movement of labour.
Britain’s ever desperate immigration policy has been simply to make it as hard as possible for migrants to get across the Channel. The visa system is crude. The asylum regime is inhumane. Border control is slapdash. We say this is cruel, but two nations under greater pressure, America and Australia, are pursuing policies that are even more cruel. They seek to deter and repatriate migrants with imprisonment and transhipment.
What would we do in their shoes? It is not fanciful to see Australia one day like South Africa’s Cape Province, on the “continent” of south-east Asia and vulnerable to mass migration south. That is the tyranny of geography.
The prospect must be that Europe will move back to more closed borders and more rigid internal borders. Any open-eyed visitor to its southern shores will attest that the region is sliding towards a Mediterranean rather than a European destiny. Britain and other northern states may take a few token refugees – and accept many more migrants quietly slipping in. But for Europe’s democracies, open borders were a supranationalism too far. Push has finally come to shove.
- This article was amended on 29 June 2015. An earlier version said that since 2000 Germany and Russia had taken in about 10 million migrants, and the UK and France eight million. Those figures are for the number of international migrants estimated to be in those countries in 2013, not for the number estimated to have arrived since 2000.
NOTE: when I visited this article in the Guardian web site it had already attracted 1120 comments !!!!