The screaming UK media headlines said it all – “Tragedy in the Channel”. Last week, 27 people were drowned when their small boat capsized as they made their way from France across the English Channel. This was a disaster waiting to happen but entirely avoidable. It was a direct consequence of the greed and lack of concern displayed by human-trafficking gangs. They have been accused of criminal negligence for charging huge sums and cramming too many people into small, flimsy inflatable dinghies for the perilous 21-mile journey across the channel to England which is one of the busiest waterways in the world.
But this tragedy can also be attributed to the failure of Britain and France - two of the richest countries in the world - to take effective joint action to stop these illegal crossings by migrants willing to pay extortionate amounts of money to people-smugglers in order to travel to the UK despite the real risk of losing their own lives.
Mass migration around the world over hundreds of years - either voluntarily or through displacement because of conflict or financial deprivation - has produced significant economic and social benefits to the receiving countries concerned. Obvious examples are the US as a land of immigrants, together with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain, too, has traditionally been a haven for those fleeing persecution; and, while the nation has gained in many respects over the years from an influx of those seeking safety and security, it has also benefited as a result of ordered immigration from within the Commonwealth.
Sadly, however, around the world there is now an illegal migrant crisis that has spread alarmingly in recent years - not just across the short stretch of water between Britain and France but in countries like Italy, Greece, Spain, and, most recently, on the border between Poland and Belarus. There will always be genuine asylum seekers fearing for their lives in their own countries, but there are now also vast numbers who are simply - and some say understandably - seeking a better life in developed countries which offer law and order and security together with the provision of welfare benefits for those with no resources.
In recent years, migrants - now mainly from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and a number of African countries - have gathered in makeshift camps in northern France and have stowed away on lorries waiting at ports like Calais to cross the Channel by ferry. After the French authorities made access to these ports more difficult, crossings by small boats increased, with unprecedented numbers taking advantage of this illegal route by which some 26,000 migrants have reached Britain so far this year; and they are doing so in the mistaken belief that getting to the UK will automatically lead to a permanent right to stay there. This current number is about three times the figure for the whole of 2020 while asylum claims have hit the highest level for nearly 20 years, with a backlog of more than 65,000 asylum applications awaiting a decision. Meanwhile, according to the latest figures, deportations have dropped from about 47,000 in 2013 to less than 8,000 last year.
Commentators now say these large numbers and last week’s terrible drowning incident have at last forced people to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem so that the migrant crisis is now seen in Britain as a national emergency.
Public anger is apparently skyrocketing and there is now speculation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government itself could be in jeopardy unless he takes effective action to stop this activity that is making a mockery of UK laws and is undermining the fairness of the existing official immigration system.
There is general agreement the problem can be resolved if Britain and France have the will to act together. Their leaders pledged some while ago to co-operate in order to stop the gangs by destroying their business model and “making the route unviable”. But it comes as a considerable surprise that over the weekend there was a meeting in France to discuss the situation and Britain did not attend it - or, rather, the British were “disinvited” after a diplomatic spat about their new five-point plan being made public in advance of bilateral talks.
Mr Johnson recently warned those contemplating the journey across the Channel that “we will send you back”. So, turning the boats around or later returning migrants to France is part of the new plan because they were, of course, already in a safe country and therefore should not have been making the journey in the first place. The plan also includes a proposal to send UK Border Force personnel to help patrol French beaches and coastal waters, to share intelligence and to deploy drones and ground sensors - and such extra help would be in addition to the $70m promised last June by the UK as part of a deal to beef up French border patrols. Bizarrely, instead of co-operating fully the two sides are indulging in a blame game, with the French Interior Minister claiming migrants are encouraged by the promise of “the Eldorado of England” consisting of generous welfare benefits, an “attractive” labour market and lack of identity checks.
To most people, the lack of co-operation is alarming. Some observers are describing it as a deliberate part of Macron’s Brexit punishment strategy, though this remains debatable. But I cannot help thinking the whole controversy is a reminder of how here in The Bahamas the issue of illegal migration from Haiti is handled so much better - with immediate deportation as long as, of course, this is done in accordance with the country’s own laws.
WHERE WILL IT ALL END?
In connection with my separate piece on this page about migrants crossing the English Channel, there is an aspect of immigration that is causing increasing concern; namely, a limited but growing tendency among policy-makers to give less and less credence to the existence of international borders.
Some say this is evident in the Biden administration’s handling of the immigration crisis on its southern border with Mexico, and in Britain there have been accusations in the press that some senior officials in the Home Office are hostile to border controls, with fanatics even believing frontiers should be fully open.
Critics also claim the UK Border Force is not being used to protect the nation’s frontiers properly while in the Home Office there is too much emphasis on the promotion of diversity and the pursuit of identity politics. Whether or not that is true, if these claims can be justified, such action would be in defiance of the wishes of the political masters of those concerned and of the British public as a whole which, at the last election in 2019, voted in a Conservative government with a thumping majority.
Such issues prompt reflection on the significance of the nation-state. There are, of course, many who believe in the completely free movement of people as so-called citizens of the world. In some ways, this is a fine ideal often driven by a fear of nationalism which, it is contended, creates wars. Indeed, European integration is based on this founding principle as the European Union continues its relentless quest for ever closer political union within the bloc leading to a federal super state. In more modern times, the claim that nationalism creates wars is a questionable proposition when ideologies like fascism, communism and Islamic fundamentalism have caused some of the worst conflicts; though it can be argued, for example, that in Germany fascism and the rise of Hitler became a form of extreme nationalism after beginning as a response to devastation and economic collapse after the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles that followed it.
It is said patriotism and nationalism are often confused as they are sometimes used interchangeably. The former focuses on people and the latter on the state. It is generally agreed patriotism means loyalty and devotion to one’s own country and a sense of pride, affection and attachment to it in the belief that it is the best in the world. But that does not necessarily result in any sense of compulsion to force it on other people. By contrast, nationalism is a more unforgiving form of allegiance to one’s country, with a strong national identity based on a belief of superiority and sometimes a desire to impose it on other countries. In the words of George Orwell, patriotism is of its nature defensive whereas nationalism is inseparable from power and that can include aggression towards others. Be that as it may, the world is based on the nation-state - and after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 this was regarded as the best structure for constitutional order and the protection of liberal rights while the concept of sovereignty became the basis of international law and diplomacy.
That said, it is, of course, the case that the world has now become more integrated and interconnected in so many institutional and practical ways through, for example, the UN and its specialised agencies - together with numerous other international bodies - and establishment of the rules-based international order on which world trade is based. The global village is a reality. But, despite adhering to obligations under international conventions, the nation state ultimately rules the roost. So, many believe that it is unrealistic to seek to remove borders and allow free movement of people around the world because without borders a country cannot exist in its present form.
Certainly, one of the reasons for Brexit was to enable Britain to control its own borders and, if the crisis of illegal migration across the English Channel is not fixed soon, Mr Johnson could well face a leadership challenge from within his own party.
It was good to learn recently of another example of what has been a busy UK presidency of the G7 world’s leading economies. It has been announced that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will host her counterparts - the Foreign and Development Ministers of G7 countries - at a meeting in the iconic city of Liverpool from December 10 to 12.
This follows the two global summits of COP26 - the climate change conference in Glasgow this month - and the G7 gathering of leaders hosted by the Prime Minister in Cornwall in southwest England earlier in the year. Southeast Asian countries which are members of ASEAN have also been invited to a G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting for the first time – and their attendance looks to be a sign of the UK’s growing tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. It also builds on the Cornwall meeting which included representation from Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa.
As for the agenda, the Foreign Secretary has said she wants to discuss how to build closer economic, technology and security ties globally and to develop a worldwide network that advances freedom, democracy and enterprise and encourages like-minded countries to work together from a position of strength.
More specifically, there is likely to be a focus on human rights and on global health issues - including post-COVID economic resilience, and, most importantly, the new variant, Omicron, which suddenly is having a serious effect around the world. Prior to the summit there will be a meeting of the World Health Assembly to consider the benefits of developing a WHO convention to provide a framework for greater co-operation in relation to pandemic preparedness and reaction. Mr Johnson has been quoted as saying that the world needs a pandemic treaty to ensure proper transparency and the sharing of data. So it appears that Britain wants to lead efforts to promote a global approach to pandemics, including an early warning system.
All this activity should surely be welcomed by other countries since - assuming it brings results - it ought to benefit them in the long-term. It seems to be an example of the flexing of Britain’s muscles as a global player post-Brexit. As such, it will come as no surprise to those who wanted the nation to break free - as they saw it - from the tentacles of EU membership and assert its influence on the world stage.