The plight of refugees crossing the English Channel is being portrayed as a ‘culture war’ issue that divides younger, city-dwelling Remain voters from older, Leave-supporting voters in the UK’s towns. The trend was supported by this week’s YouGov poll, but talking to people in greater detail about these issues reveals a more complex set of reactions. And that, in turn, points to how immigration policies could be reformed in a way that is fair and secures support across social and political divides.
I have visited the seaside town of Folkestone in Kent to interview people four times in the last two years, the last occasion just before lockdown. The views that were aired then were similar to those we heard when we were conducting the National Conversation on Immigration. People are sympathetic to the plight of refugees and they know that many of those crossing the Channel had fled war and persecution from countries such as Iran and Syria. There is an acknowledgement that people who get into tiny boats must be desperate. Many people admitted feeling torn or confused about this issue: we were often asked “where are the women and children?” At the same time, this compassion is matched with concerns that the Government was unable to control the UK’s borders and that the boat arrivals posed a security or public health risk.
There were also themes that came up time and time again in the discussions, in Folkestone and in many other places. While people accepted that those who were crossing the Channel had fled real dangers, they were also perceived to be crossing Europe to take advantage of the UK’s supposedly generous benefits system.
“When they flee for their lives, it’s a terrible thing; you see terrible things on the news. But isn’t it the rule that they have to go to the first safest place, and if so why do they suddenly chance coming here? Is it because once they are here it all boils down to the benefits system?” (Wrexham interviewee, National Conversation on Immigration.)
That asylum-seekers are barred from working in the UK is not something that most people know. Rather, their knowledge about the immigration system is selective: ‘cognitive bias’ means people tend to interpret facts in ways that that resonate with their world views. It is not surprising that the image of refugees crossing the Channel, alongside Nigel Farage’s visit to asylum accommodation, reinforce views that refugees are being drawn to the UK to take advantage of the benefits system.
The YouGov poll reveals that 19% of people have a great deal of sympathy towards migrants who have crossed the Channel and just over a quarter (27%) have no sympathy at all. That is a consistent pattern. After the drowning of the toddler Alan Kurdi, a quarter of people took action to support refugees, for example donating money or signing petitions, while 30% said UK should take no refugees at all. In between are the ‘balancers’. They include the 25% of people in the poll who have a fair amount of sympathy to migrants crossing the channel. This group will be sympathetic to the plight of refugees, but also want the UK and France to have an effective asylum system that combines control and fairness. The quarter who say that they have ‘not much sympathy’ can accept the principle of protecting refugees but would prioritise controls and want France to take firmer action.
The high public salience of channel crossings means that the Home Secretary has felt she had to act on this issue. Her responses can risk stoking an already heated debate. But are there approaches that would reduce the numbers of people crossing the Channel, combining control with fairness? I believe the answer is yes.
Both the UK and French governments will need to do more to disrupt the activities of criminal gangs who are putting lives at risk. But there is limited scope for action once people are actually in the water – by that point, saving lives is paramount. Solutions lie on land: in people’s countries of origin, in France and in the UK. The Home Secretary should acknowledge this and tell people there is no magic bullet. Over-promising and then failing to deliver only undermines public confidence in the government’s ability to manage immigration.
Some of those arriving on boats have family in the UK. Providing safe and legal routes to reunite family members would help prevent them making perilous journeys. The ‘Dublin Process’ that determines which EU member state should hear an asylum application, allows for family reunion. But it is slow and bureaucratic, and in any event will not apply to the UK after December this year. The UK will need to negotiate an agreement with the EU – but the EU, in turn, needs to make Dublin a less cumbersome process.
Not all migrants crossing from France have family in the UK. The English language and the view that it is easier to get a job in the UK than in France are also factors. Those fleeing war and persecution need to have confidence in the French asylum system. More resources are also needed to support integration in France and the UK Government should consider contributing to make this happen.
And changes can also be made closer to home. Asylum applications need to be processed more rapidly. People should be allowed to improve their English while they are waiting for a decision, and to work to support themselves if they have waited for more than six months for a decision. Both measures would help address public perceptions that refugees are drawn to the UK to claim benefits.
Maintaining public confidence in the asylum system is important. Where public support is lost it becomes much harder for politicians to make the case for humanitarian policy changes. In a democracy immigration policy needs to attract majority support – from those who are liberal on migration and the ‘balancer’ majority too. This can only be achieved through approaches that combine both fairness and control. It’s the path Britain can lead on.
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