10 August 2015

Good for migrants, good for Britain


The chaos in Calais is a nightmare, not least for the 3,000 or so migrants scraping by in makeshift camps. It’s not fun for the 75,000 people of Calais either. And it’s a big disruption for British hauliers and holidaymakers who are delayed, and for people in Kent whose roads are jammed. With £200 billion worth of UK trade transiting between Dover and Calais each year, the Financial Times estimates that the lost trade, including wider costs such as retailers having to write off spoiled food and manufacturers not receiving crucial goods in time, amounts to (a surprisingly large) £250 million a day. Perhaps it would be cheaper to let the migrants come work here instead.

The poor people squatting in squalid conditions in the Jungle outside Calais have risked life and limb to get there from war-torn and repressive places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Now they are again risking death to try to reach Britain through the Channel Tunnel. Such brave, enterprising people are surely just the kind that an open, dynamic country would want to welcome.

While the disruption they are causing is large, their numbers are small. The 3,000 in Calais are a tiny fraction of the 219,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe last year. They pale into insignificance compared to the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (local population: 4.4 million). Overall, Britain received only 31,400 asylum applications last year – and most are rejected. Sweden, with a seventh of our population, received 75,100. The total number of refugees in the UK at the end of 2014 was 117,161: 0.18% of the population.

What attracts desperate people to Britain is not the measly benefits for asylum seekers. People don’t spend thousands of pounds risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean to get £36.95 a week in benefits. If welfare was their priority, they’d stay in France.

Most asylum seekers wouldn’t need to claim benefits at all if they were allowed to work. But in a futile attempt to deter “economic migrants”, Britain bans asylum seekers from working. Yet the line between the two groups is blurred: most people move for a variety of reasons. Fear and desperation overlap with hope and aspiration.

Making asylum-seekers wards of the state is financially costly and politically poisonous. Perversely, it prevents people fleeing persecution bettering themselves, contributing to society, and paying taxes: giving something back to Britain.

What the poor people in Calais really want is not charity. They are seeking the security of a peaceful, stable country. They are looking to live in a free society with the rule of law. They may want to be with family and friends in Britain, and speak English. And they want to work hard and get ahead in our growing economy with its flexible labour market and plentiful jobs. Britain’s attractiveness to foreigners is a sign of success, not evidence that it is a soft touch.

Listen to Tahir Dlil, a 26-year-old radiology graduate who fled the turmoil in Sudan a year ago and has been in Calais for more than four months. “Back home, you could wake up in the morning and go to work and die. You could die every day, any day,” he said. “Would we have come if there was peace? Why would we want to live like animals in the jungle? No. We just want to live, to work, that’s all.” When asked how he usually spends his days in Calais, he breaks into a wide smile. “England,” he grins. “I dream about England all day.”

There are all sorts of suggestions for dealing with the chaos in Calais. UKIP leader Nigel Farage wants to send in the Army. Great idea: let’s invade France.

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has written to David Cameron demanding that the prime minister seek compensation from the French government for the costs to British businesses and families. Good luck with that. It is with France’s agreement that the UK border is now, in effect, in Calais, not Kent. It is with Paris’s approval and assistance that any enhanced security will be implemented. Blaming France would jeopardise that cooperation, and Home Secretary Teresa May has conspicuously avoided doing so. Instead, a bigger fence is being erected and extra police and sniffer dogs are being sent over, although it remains to be seen how effective these new measures are.

Others suggest that leaving the EU would eventually help. Yet Brexit wouldn’t shift Kent into the mid-Atlantic or cause the Channel Tunnel to cave in. Migrants would still be able to readily reach Calais from the Mediterranean across the border-free Schengen Area, of which Britain is not a member and which isn’t going to disappear if Britain leaves the EU.

Daniel Hannan advocates an Australian-style policy of intercepting boats at sea and forcibly returning them to their point of origin. But that falls foul of the United Nations’ Geneva Convention on refugees, of which Britain is a signatory and which is also part of EU law. Even if the UK quit both the EU and the UN Convention, it scarcely has the will or the capacity to police the entire Mediterranean Sea alone, as Pawel Swidlicki of Open Europe points out. At the same time, the EU is moving towards implementing an idea that Hannan has also proposed: processing asylum claims outside the EU, in consulates in North Africa and the Middle East, for instance.

Britain should also open up safe, legal routes for people to come work here. Kent farmers might want to hire some of the migrants in Calais to pick fruit. Tahir Dlil sounds like a great potential recruit for the NHS.

Immigrants are generally a boon for Britain, as I have explained in CapX. They do jobs that not enough locals can do or want to do. As care-providers and taxpayers, they are a shot in the arm for an ageing society with big debts. In our globalised world, their diversity is a bonus for an open, trading economy. Their dynamism and different perspectives help spark new ideas and new businesses: just look at London. It would not be soft-headed to let the people in Calais work here. It’s in our self-interest.

Philippe Legrain, who was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and the author of European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right.