The UK is not disproportionately affected by the global refugee crisis

Abdulfatah Hamdallah died whilst attempting to cross the Channel. The Foreign Affairs Committee has found that our government policy was “pushing migrants into the hands of criminal groups” by focusing on closing borders rather than addressing the causes of migration or creating safe legal routes to seek asylum.

Farage, Patel & Johnson have shown an absence of compassion and a lack of understanding 

The response of Nigel Farage to the reports of asylum seekers crossing the Channel in inflatable dinghies was to claim there has been a “shocking invasion on the Kent coast”. Similarly, Priti Patel claimed the solution was to adopt a military response, such as deploying Royal Navy warships, and she subsequently appointed a former royal marine as her “clandestine Channel threat commander”.

The UK has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, a legal document which affirms the rights of refugees and places no obligation to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. Thus, Boris Johnson’s statement that crossing the Channel to claim asylum was “a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do” is misleading. Frequently, there are no safe regular routes for refugees. The term ‘illegal migrant’ is used by some to orchestrate hostility and even violence.

When the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini adopted a similar hostile approach there was an increase in the number of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean with 1,283 deaths just in 2019.

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea on a boat. At least 19,164 asylum-seekers have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.
Photo: Wikimedia.

The Channel asylum seekers are a composite group: many are escaping armed conflict or persecution. Others are escaping poverty or dreaming about a better life. There is no difference, in this respect, between them and the large number of British and European migrants that have shaped world history.

Many British migrants to North America in the 17th century were Puritans, whose religious beliefs were no longer tolerated in Great Britain. Subsequently in the nineteenth century there was a British and European mass migration, as 61 million moved to America or Oceania: population growth and poverty were important drivers, as well as the dream of a better life over there. Some were ‘trafficked’ such as the 162,000 British convicts, usually guilty of petty crimes, who were forcibly transferred to Australia

A ship arriving in New York with migrants. In the nineteenth century there was mass migration from the UK and the rest of Europe to America, Australia and New Zealand.
Photo: Wikimedia.

We have not changed. The UK is one of the European nations with the largest number of emigrants. In 2015 about 5 million people born in the UK had chosen to live in other countries. Amongst our popular TV programs is Wanted down under(about the dream to relocate in Australia or New Zealand) and A place in the sun (about the dream to buy a property in various Mediterranean countries).

British and European emigrants do not have to pay smugglers to fulfil their relocation dreams. Australia had a ‘white Australia’ migration policy. Even now the migration policies of developed nations favour migrants with wealth, education and specific professional or language skills. Impoverished Africans would not meet these criteria.

Cover of the magazine of the Big Brother movement in January 1929: Australia had a policy favouring white migrants. The migration policies of developed countries still favour migration from other developed countries. 
Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. NAA: A1, 1932/7662

The UK is not disproportionately affected by the global refugee crisis. The UK received 35,566 asylum applicants in 2019, less than the 84,132 applicants in 2002.

On a worldwide basis there are 30 million refugees and asylum-seekers but only a relatively small proportion is in Europe. Thus, a poorer country like Turkey has 3.6 million refugees, whereas Germany is the only European country with more than 1 million. France has 407,000 but the UK only 133,000. Greece and Italy are the countries where most refugee would land after a sea crossing. 


The asylum seekers who walk their way to the Channel, in the hope of crossing to the UK, may have felt that the capacity of other states to assist them had been reduced. Pretending that we could just return any asylum seekers crossing the Channel to ‘safe third countries’, like France, is both unjust and unworkable.

In 1939 900 Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany on board of the St Louis ship, shown in this picture. Neither Cuba nor the USA allowed the ship to land. The ship had to return to Europe where 254 of the passengers would subsequently die in the Holocaust.14
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Herbert & Vera Karliner

A humanitarian approach is necessary, and it can be combined with pragmatism. About half of those applying for asylum in the UK are given permission to stay as refugees. It is possible to repatriate those whose application is rejected: poverty, as opposed to persecution, might have been their motivation.

Populist politicians argue that we have duties of solidarity only to our fellow citizens and we just need stronger barriers, such as a wall along the US-Mexico border or more navy ships in the Channel. However, barriers usually fail and may increase the number of deaths. 

Whilst progress in finding an internationally agreed strategy is slow, it is increasingly clear that there needs to be a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for the world’s refugees. No country is an island and we have duties of solidarity across the world. 

We need to do more collaborative work with our European partners to mitigate the root causes of large-scale migratory movements: conflict, persecution, extreme poverty and, increasingly, natural disasters facilitated by climate change. After all, large-scale migration is often the result of our actions or inactions.

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