21 February 2022

Only by taking our fair share of refugees can we protect our borders

By Andrew Mitchell MP

A city falls, a war ends, a humanitarian crisis begins. This familiar and tragic cycle has played out time and again across the world. We saw it in Vietnam, after the fall of Saigon. We experienced it in Iraq, with the collapse of Mosul. And we watched horrors unfold in Afghanistan, as Kabul was retaken by the Taliban last August.

These examples are differentiated by history, root causes and geopolitical objectives. But they have one thing in common: when the guns fall silent, the powers which bear responsibility for the ensuing plight of ordinary people must take responsibility for helping them.

In Afghanistan today, millions are trapped in hunger and poverty. Refugees are on the run. Many are in mortal danger of Taliban reprisals, for daring to build a progressive society. Female judges. High school teachers. Anyone who has ever been at odds with the Taliban’s ideology is a target. These people’s only chance of safety is to get out of the country.

The crisis has laid bare the appalling effects of cutting our foreign aid budget. Our collective responses have not matched the scale of support needed. Refugees are out on a limb, risking their lives in dangerous journeys, across mountain ranges and, eventually, in small boats across the Channel. And not just in Afghanistan but around the world where the confluence of instability, conflict and persecution continue to drive people out of their homes.

The International Rescue Committee’s annual Emergency Watchlist highlights the ten worst crises around the world. In 20 countries, where just one in ten of the world’s population live, are to be found nine out of ten of those in need of humanitarian aid. Most of these countries are too dangerous to return people to, and Freedom of Information requests by the Refugee Council shows the vast majority of claims made by those crossing the Channel are indeed accepted by the Home Office.

Rory Stewart’s proposal last week, that countries should agree a long term internationally agreed target for refugees burden sharing, is based on a sound logic: that international problems require international solutions. That collaborating countries should be rewarded, not penalised, for taking their fair share. He argues that Afghanistan can be used to reframe an international resettlement coalition, which would enable countries to respond effectively to the refugee challenge. Each country joining the coalition should aspire within two years to take refugees equivalent to 0.05% of their population annually. This would be wholly manageable for the UK, which in 2021 settled fewer than 1,000 people through our existing resettlement schemes combined.

Just like the UN’s 0.7% aid commitment and NATO’s 2% defence spending target, this proposed benchmark is proportionate, fair and manageable for Western nations.

Under Stewart’s plan there will be three major categories of resettlement. Those who have been evacuated but lack permanent settlement in a new country; those who remain in their country having already been promised a right to resettle; and those at risk of persecution. It would put the spotlight on international burden-sharing which would make it easier to justify at home.

Without it, the French will continue to leave their back door ajar. We are fortunate not to have beaches on the Mediterranean. But we can not maintain our strategic depth from crisis-affected countries without playing our part in international efforts. We may be an island, but last year proved that we rely on cooperation with others to secure our borders.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, currently going through Parliament, is helping us have a full and frank discussion of these issues, but it does not offer firm and fair solutions in its current form. MPs have been calling for a global resettlement scheme with fixed targets to be incorporated into immigration reforms. A former Conservative immigration minister, Lord Timothy Kirkhope, is leading the charge in the House of Lords. He and other Conservative colleagues recognise that the UK has not shared its part of the burden for – certainly in the case of Afghanistan – problems we helped create.

Government ministers have talked of ‘safe and legal routes’ as part of a ‘New Plan for Immigration’. But the reality is that there are no safe and legal routes to Britain available to refugees. The Government do not actually need to change the law to provide safe and legal routes, but they cannot expect MPs to support measures to discourage those without valid claims, unless they provide a resettlement scheme for those fleeing persecution.

There is no drawbridge to pull up. Only fences to mend and agreements to strike. Otherwise we face the chaos of everyone for themselves; with the human tragedy and moral decline that entails.

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The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP was Development Secretary 2010-2012.

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