29 March 2023

Beyond the English Channel: why a global crisis needs global solutions

By Mark Simmonds

According to the UNHCR, there are currently more displaced people on the planet than at any point in human history. As the last week has shown, however, the global dimensions of the migration crisis are scarcely reflected in any of the mainstream political debate here in the UK.

Yet again, our political establishment continues to treat migration as a political football, rather than as an incredibly complex issue which requires global action. If this is to continue, our attempts to address the small boats crisis – including the Government’s latest plan to ‘stop the boats’ – are doomed to fail.

The reality is that there is no way that the UK, or indeed any other country, can legislate its way out of this problem. Instead, we need a more ambitious and co-ordinated approach. Working with our international partners, we must overhaul a global system that was created to address the fallout of World War 2 and is, unsurprisingly, no longer fit for purpose. This global approach must address the crisis’ roots, not just its end results.

This does not mean overreaching, and attempting to unilaterally fix the horrors of conflict, persecution, desolation, insecurity, economic corruption, and instability, wherever they exist in the world. After Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the limits of so-called ‘liberal interventionism’ are clear. We must accept that some degree of these challenges will persist, and continue to drive people from their homes.

How, then, can we hope to make any difference at a global level?

The most compelling approach is one which not only eases the pressure on the migration and asylum systems, but can also contribute towards other key goals, including global development, economic progress, job creation, poverty eradication, and climate action.

The first step comes with understanding what motivates the perilous journeys to Europe. Contrary to what many politicians think, these journeys are not just driven by a perception of Europe as a shining city on a hill, where the ‘streets are paved with gold’ – as the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party put it. Asylum seekers and economic migrants alike are all aware of the hostility and challenges they may face once they arrive.

They risk their lives because they see Europe as the only viable option. The other alternatives are desperate.

In most cases, they are forced to choose between languishing in a refugee camp – where they can be trapped within a cycle of dependency for decades, in desolate environments which offer little more than life support – or they can head for the slums of nearby foreign cities, where many are forced to turn to the criminal underworld to make ends meet.

If we cannot address this reality, we will never fix this crisis.

We must be more imaginative. We must seek long-term, preventative, structural change. This can create alternative centres of gravity – ‘hubs’ of opportunity – through long-term investment.

This is not a totally novel idea. In their excellent book – Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System – Paul Collier and Alexander Betts point to the King Hussein bin Talal Development Area in Jordan as an example of what they term ‘development zones’: special economic areas, supported by the international community through investment and trade incentives on the condition of employment opportunities for refugees. Yet for the most part, this approach has not gained sufficient traction.

It is a model which can, and should, be expanded throughout the world – targeting stable, rapidly developing areas in difficult global neighbourhoods as employment hubs, supercharged by favourable regulatory conditions and investment in modern technological, industrial, and agricultural production.

We can take East Africa, which produces a significant proportion of UK asylum seekers (from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan), as an example.

Uganda is considered by many to be a model refugee recipient, having long operated a pioneering ‘Self-Reliance’ strategy, which gives refugees access to land, the right to work, and freedom of movement. Rwanda, one of Africa’s safest countries and the world’s fastest growing economies, has similarly accommodating policies, and has shown its willingness for partnerships – however controversial they may be – that use Western investment to offer other Africans ‘the opportunity to lead dignified, productive, and safe lives on the African continent’, as their President puts it. Even Kenya, the region’s economic powerhouse, has shown itself to be amenable to progressive pilot schemes for refugee employment when incentivised with burden-sharing agreements – despite its often confrontational relationship with its Somali refugee populations.

The opportunity to work with these countries in a more imaginative way, and pioneer mutually beneficial investments (creating green technology hubs or remote IT centres, for instance) is a ‘win-win’ solution for the developed and the developing world. It could represent another innovative step in the freeport policy that the Conservative government is seeking to pioneer.

Most importantly, it creates genuine opportunities for the world’s most vulnerable. It is a more ethical, efficient, and equal allocation of the trillions the global economy spends on global asylum and migration.

Crucially, these targeted redistributions, supplemented by the creative use of regulatory and trade incentives, are both politically and economically attractive – they do not create an unpalatable additional aid burden. There are several creative ways to achieve this, from refocusing our aid budgets, to greater use of development finance institutions and the private sector. The savings could be immense.

The critical piece of the puzzle, from a UK perspective, is global leadership and collaboration. For a country seeking to redefine its global role, this problem seems a logical place to start.

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Mark Simmonds is a former Minister for Africa.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.