Asylum, Humanity, & Fairness

Part 1 of 2

If some congenial neoland offered anyone who touched their shore a mansion with swimming pool, and £250,000 per year, most British people would risk a 25mile boat trip and would not care that it was technically illegal.

Outrage at the small boats is pointless. We would do the same in their position, because it is human nature to seek security & prosperity.  The current system makes a dinghy to the UK a rational step for young, fit, people seeking a better life.  The deaths at sea, and vast profits for people smuggling gangs, are a product of the system we have designed.  A system that resembles a computer under DDoS attack: processing bandwidth overwhelmed, legitimate applicants kept in limbo while bogus applicants get through, often because, by the time a tribunal rules someone is not a genuine refugee, the individual has established a life here.

Applicants are seen as a burden. They could be turned into an asset with  a new Hong Kong: a freeport that welcomed the people of the world and allowed them to build what success they could.  Even without the £10,000 a head most now pay to people smugglers, it would be a hive of industry, and could be self supporting in short order.  There would have to be controls between the freeport and the rest of the UK, and it could not offer the UK’s welfare system: removing restrictions on entry and keeping benefits at ten times the average income in Sub Saharan Africa (1.2Bn people) would have a predictable outcome.

The route to such a freeport is best built by showing the UK population three things: that the system is one which they can control, that it accords with their notion of fairness/justice, and that new arrivals do not harm the locals (and can benefit them).

The current debate is polarised and poisoned.  Pro-asylum advocates pretend that the UK can offer refuge to all of the 30million refugees worldwide, and ascribe any restrictions to racism.  Anti-immigrant forces paint a picture of an elite that does not care for the indigenous population, and wishes to replace them with incomers who rape, rob, and intimidate.

Rather than aim for a compromise judged fair because it leaves both sides equally unhappy, there is possible a grand bargain that gives both sides much of what they claim to want.  The ‘liberal’ side would get a safe & legal route with processing centers in France, and accepting an international ‘burden sharing’ approach to the world’s 30 million refugees.  The ‘nationalist’ side would get quotas (one can’t admit all 30m), prioritization by ease of assimilation, and an overarching ‘no losers’ principle that does not ask some groups of UK nationals to accept suffering as the price of the country as a whole ‘doing the right thing’

The process: Safe & legal

The original intention of policymakers seems to have been good: if someone is in the UK and there is a coup at home making return impossible, then they can apply for asylum here.  But, if someone is from a major conflict / disaster zone, we work with the UN to put in place a local office for applications,

The policy of not accepting applications outside the U.K., other than via UNHCR is largely driven by pragmatism (lack of bandwidth to consider each of the 30million refugees) and fairness (not allowing people to jump the queue by travelling to Paris / Zurich and applying from there).

By its own standards it has failed.  It does not stop tens of thousands of people coming each year, but does enrich smuggling gangs and incentivise people to take risky, sometimes fatal, trips.  It encourages applicants to destroy their paperwork, and to claim to be children, even if they are in their mid twenties.

We currently have the worst of all worlds: dangerous journeys and the queue of would-be applicants prioritised according to the ability to pay smuggling gangs.  In effect we have outsourced a chunk of the system to criminal smuggling gangs.

Instead of doubling down on ‘don’t apply abroad’ with a new policy of ‘and if you enter illegally you can’t apply here either’, the government must open a processing centre in France (ideally our consulate in eg Bordeaux, rather than in Northern France where ‘why not just get a boat’ could be a constant temptation during processing).

There must be a safe and legal route for someone there who is in danger to come to the UK without risking a boat journey. Of the tens of thousands who make the boat journeys, maybe only a handful have a well founded fear of persecution in France.  But such people exist.  French agents murdering greenpeace campaigners on the rainbow warrior, and the French practice of torture against those campaigning for Algerian independence, come to mind. Nor can one rule out Macron wanting to handle a troublesome journalist in the way that the USA has harassed Julian Assange.  Those in such a position in France must have a safe route to the UK.

The safe and legal route for people fearing the French state is important for moral reasons, and as, absent such a provision, it is difficult to see the legality of any rules which refuse to consider applications in the UK from those that have fled France.  An analogy can be drawn with rape trials: the number of women making false allegations of rape is miniscule, but it is not zero: a legal process which said ‘the court must just believe what the woman alleges’ would render every conviction in it unsafe.

But it is not only about the handful of people who might need to flee France.  Pragmatic reasons abound for allowing applications to be made in France.  We would avoid the present situation in which most applicants whose claims for asylum are found to be unjustified, nevertheless get permission to stay in the UK because they have made a life hear during the years it has taken for their cases & appeals to be heard.  Instead they would be building a life in France during the processing, which makes me suspect that we would be calling France’s bluff by acceding to their request that we open a processing centre there!

Perhaps most importantly, with applications made in France, we would have a clear distinction between those that needed refuge because they were in danger in France, and those who were safe but nevertheless had reasons for preferring the UK to France.  The former are the UK’s obligation under international law. The latter are a matter purely for UK domestic law.

‘Burden sharing’

If we look only at those in immediate danger where they were before they fled to the UK, then, as we don’t have land borders with unstable or disaster prone countries, Asylum policy risks resting on our John of Gaunt laurels “This fortress, built by nature for herself, Against infection, and the hand of war”, and becoming a theoretical obligation relevant only if there is a war or natural disaster in Ireland.  Such a restrictive policy sits ill with our natural generosity and concern for refugees, which inevitably leads to some form of international ‘burden sharing’. The inverted commas are because the people could be an asset. ‘hospitality sharing’ could be a better term.

Although choosing between a John of Gaunt policy and hospitality sharing looks like a matter of fundamental principles, persuading people to accept hospitality sharing requires a pragmatic look at what it involves.  Is it analogous to giving a tithe (1/10thof income) to the Church, or is it ‘sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor’ territory?

Our world has 100 million displaced people.  Most are still in their home countries ‘Internally Displaced People’ in the jargon.  There are c30 million refugees & Asylum seekers (ie c4% of the global population).

The world’s c149 million square Km of land area is 57% classed as uninhabitable (mountains & deserts), which leaves c64million sqkm of habitable land.  Of this perhaps 25 million sqkm is safe as a potential destination (breakdown of exclusions at the end).

The UK is 244k sqkm of which 65%, c178k sqkm is habitable.  So, other things being equal, with hospitality sharing, a geographically fair allocation would see the UK assume responsibility for 0.7% of all refugees, or about a quarter of a million people out 30million.

In November 2022 the UK was providing a home to 232k refugees, and had 127k asylum cases pending, 70+% of whom are likely to be allowed to stay.   This suggests the UK is already in the more generous than average camp.

If we look at UK hospitality relative to the EU27, our 232k granted asylum compares with their 2.8m.  So about 8% of UK+EU grants with 6% of the UK+EU land area.  When it comes to working with UNHCR to resettle refugees directly from conflict zones, the UK takes in about ¼ of the UK+EU total, though the numbers are shockingly small: we ‘look good’ only by being next to the EU which is even worse. Even looking at pre-covid numbers from 2019 (2020 and 2021 ratios are similar, though numbers lower), the UK resettled just under 4,000 people, while the EU27 resettled c16,000.  The UK resettled 1person per 60 SqKm, the EU27 1 per 260 SqKm.

Some suggest that the averages are irrelevant & refugees should be able to choose the place to which they are resettled.  But, if someone can choose a country, why not a city? Saying that people can insist on Monaco or Singapore because they are city states, but they can only choose ‘France’ and not Paris, or the UK and not ‘London’ (or ‘Mayfair’) does not make sense. Many people would love to relocate to Hawaii, the Maldives, Lake Geneva,  or the San Francisco Bay area, but they can not do so for economic reasons. When someone is displaced and becomes a refugee, they need, and should be given, help, but there is no moral obligation to give anyone a suite at the Ritz.  Refugees should not be treated a pawns whose views are irrelevant, but the views can not take precedence over what is available or practical.  So I set aside the fanciful ‘displacement is a ticket to wherever you want’ theory.

Particularly when one opens up a processing centre in France (or anywhere else overseas),  it is inevitable that there will be quotas.  We can debate the appropriate level (see part 2), but, even if we don’t have official quotas, the necessarily finite processing bandwidth acts as a de facto quota, so we may as well admit the truth.

A processing centre in France could not use quotas as an excuse to deny refuge to someone in immediate danger in France. Such applicants would have to have a fast channel.  But the vast majority of applicants would be people who have successfully fled danger, and now would like to settle in a more congenial place.   For them, we should move from a pass/fail (refugee in danger/not in danger) assessment to one which uses a range of criteria to rank applicants. Once the number of the quota is fixed by the hospitality-sharing parameters we have adopted, getting an extra application is not putting more pressure on the resettlement process, but is giving the UK an extra choice.

Choosing the right people to help is the start, but we also need follow-through.

The visa is not the end of the story

Traditionally, Asylum policy ends once someone gains asylum and enters ‘the system’ in the UK.  And, as in so many other areas,  we have disjointed initiatives and skewed incentives pushing crazy actions.  Its little different from all those cases of Local Authorities dragging their heels when it comes to providing social care for old people leaving hospital, because the c£900/night cost of hospital care comes from the NHS budget while the £150/night cost of a care home would be paid by the local council.

Lack of thought about the details, and the incentive structures we set up, provides hundreds of own goals by the well-intentioned-but-thoughtless crowd.  Local authorities want to do their bit to accommodate refugees, they don’t have any spare social housing, so they email landlords and offer a 10% or 15% premium to the usual monthly rates for homes to be used for refugees.  Some Landlords then evict existing tenants so they can get the 15% extra rent, and the papers run stories about families thrown onto the street to make way for refugees.

Policy usually fails because the benefits of a good policy (like cutting tariffs) are widely dispersed and little understood (millions of consumers pay a little less for their goods, but don’t thank the tariff cut) while the costs (like less profit for local companies who have to cut prices to compete) are concentrated among a small group who are highly motivated to lobby against the optimal policy.  We have the same problem with Asylum, but it is much easier to fix. The company lobbying for protectionism can’t be given what it wants without consumers losing out by having to pay higher prices.  But, with Asylum, we can avoid creating constituencies of losers, and should do so. It will cost a little money, but will make the system sustainable.

Local authorities don’t want English tenants to be evicted, but, if they incentivize a Landlord to provide vacant houses for Asylum seekers, they will get the evictions, and the headlines. Just as, when hotels are block booked by the Home Office for refugees, the hotel owners fire their cleaning staff, their front of house, and the kitchen/serving staff.  If you are a manager with a fixed budget to accommodate as many refugees as possible, you are forced to look for the ‘best value’ and to ignore any ‘collateral damage’.  This is shortsighted.  Avoiding collateral damage must be part of the process.  It is not difficult once goes beyond thinking in terms of minimizing the per person per night cost.

Or consider a school that suddenly takes in lots of children who don’t speak English fluently.  The default approach of the school will be try to ensure that ‘no child is left behind’, and they will tailor the lessons to make them as accessible as possible to the new intake.  The needs of the fluent English speaking pupils will take a back seat, as the school prioritizes the assimilation & support of the refugee children.  This approach is unfair to the local children. They should not be required to pay a price ‘for the greater good’, and forcing them to do so creates fertile ground for anti-immigrant populists.  If we are going to assimilate a new intake, there must be funding and specialist provision so that we don’t create a constituency of pupils who have lost out from the hospitality we are providing.

We need someone in government whose job it is to ensure that Asylum policy is successful, and who can override the things that would otherwise create groups of people who lose out from the UK granting asylum to those in need.

Finally, a successful asylum regime, that commands public confidence, requires getting rid of the ‘bad apples’. Covering up for pedophile clergy ruined the Church.  No one is rendered automatically good (or bad) by virtue of being a refugee, or a priest.  Aside from being wrong, victim blaming and coverups only delay the reckoning.  The most effective way to support the church, or refugees, is to exclude, rather than excuse, those that let the side down whether through child abuse, intimidating people for ‘blasphemy’, or general criminality.

Minorities are always ambassadors, however reluctant.  A cockney in the Royal Enclosure, a public schoolboy on a building site, an Esquimaux in London, or an Englishman in Chad, will all have their actions discussed, and they will, positively or otherwise, reflect on the groups from which they come.  Many minorities accept their ambassador status and try to live up to their own highest ideals, and, as a group, censure those that let the side down. In India I heard of a drunk European expat who stole an auto rickshaw (TukTuk) and wrote it off, initially he refused to compensate the driver, but he was shunned by everyone until he paid for a new vehicle and covered the lost earnings of the rickshaw driver.

When self-policing fails, the actual police need to give the population confidence that they are there put things right.  Not an easy task: the police are not always great at dealing with urban gangs.  They still exist, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future.  But, although any and all street gangs are a bad thing, when one gets sectarian ethnic gangs claiming ‘ownership’ of an area, and attacking British people who walk into the area, it moves from being a law and order issue to one of poisoning the reputation of immigrants.  The easiest route is helping the silent majority in the group to move from seeing the gangs as ‘our boys, even if they are a bit rougher than ideal’ to realising that the gangs are creating a constituency of victims who blame their problems on the immigrant group as a whole.   In Northern Ireland, ending sectarian warfare involved ordinary people, often mothers, seeing all sectarian gangs as a blight, rather than ‘they may be bastards, but they are our bastards’.  In the deep south of the USA, it was only after the majority of the white population stopped tolerating the KKK that there was any chance of peaceful relations, as the Klan’s lynchings tended to make black Americans resent and fear their white compatriots. If we reach the state of anyone fearing and resenting a refugee group, we have failed, though the failure can be slightly mitigated if we are showing the local population that the state is on their side, and not on the side of the minority of refugees that wish to abuse the hospitality extended to them.

A joined up approach to refugees would extend not only to helping & requiring integration, but also fixing the things that can trip up a refugee. When someone in the UK is granted Asylum, they cease being eligible for support as an asylum seeker (or even discretionary NRPF support). Instead they become eligible for full UK benefits, which are more generous.  Wonderful, BUT, the system is rather quicker to stop the asylum-seeker benefits, than to start paying universal credit. The delay can mean destitution and street homelessness, which is expensive to solve as well as being traumatizing.

A Bright Future

Britain is a wonderful land of opportunity.  It does more than its fair share in terms of admitting refugees, and proportionately has a higher foreign aid budget than the EU or US for helping refugees in/closer to their homelands.  It can do even more, if we let in the right people, ensure their presence  does not harm anyone, and show that this supposed ‘international burden’ can be a benefit.  The EU expansion in 2007 offers a great example: the UK benefitted hugely by allowing free movement from day 1, because we did this while Germany, France, and the rest of ‘old Europe’ did not, the most enterprising Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians  came to the UK, which was to our great benefit.   Unfortunately, Tony Blair did not have the courage of his convictions and so, rather than argue that we would gain from hundreds of thousands arriving, he told the obvious lie that only about 35,000 people would come.  When more than ten times that number arrived, the story was about our inability to trust the government and of being overwhelmed. Now, 15 years on, no one worries about, and most actively appreciate our central European arrivals, particularly the Poles who were on the right side in WW2.

To achieve success, the starting points for pro-refugee forces must be honesty, showing how it can work, admitting failures & correcting them.  With the benefit of time, we see the positive role played by French Huguenots, by Jewish emigres, by Ugandan Asians, by Coptic Christians, by Hong Kong citizens fleeing China, by Ukranians fleeing war, and Russians fleeing conscription. We don’t worry about them anymore than we worry about non-refugees such as American CocaCola executives,  Indian IT professionals, or Philippino nurses.  In none of these cases do we see their arrival as a ‘burden’, or face social unrest, street gangs, or ethnic tensions.   People celebrate when their football club signs an international star, and most see a benefit in the three Abrahamic religions having different holy days: it means that Christians can go to a shop with a clear conscience on a Sunday, doing so forces no one to break the sabbath as shops can be staffed by those who had their own sabbath on Friday or Saturday.  As the successes mount, and as problems are acknowledged & fixed, there will be an ever greater appetite to welcome those seeking a better life here. The ‘new Hong Kong’ walled freeport without visa restrictions would be amazing for the UK, and for the world: if it attained Hong Kong Island’s population density of 16,000 per SqKm, it would require less than a square 7 miles x 7 miles to accommodate 1.6 million people.

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