Over the past century the UK has had a proud record of accepting refugees and asylum seekers. Just like today there were often loud voices against, but the Prime Ministers of the time had the courage of their convictions and made them welcome.
After the second world war and the resettlement of thousands of Polish exiles in the UK, the Windrush generation spearheaded an influx of Jamaicans in particular. In response to some MPs concerns, PM Clement Attlee wrote: “It is traditional that British subjects, whether of Dominion or Colonial origin (and of whatever race or colour), should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom. That tradition is not, in my view, to be lightly discarded. The majority of them are honest workers, who can make a genuine contribution to our labour difficulties at the present time”.
Later, Conservative PM Edward Heath had offered Asian minorities the right to a British passport after their home countries declared independence: When Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda, thousands exercised their right to come to the UK and built successful lives and businesses here. Margaret Thatcher made a similar pledge when Hong Kong was handed back to China.
Since then Boris Johnson presided over a massive influx of migrants, double the number deemed acceptable before Brexit with Afghan and Ukrainian refugees also finding new homes in the UK. So much for “taking back control”. Now for the first time the UK has two people of immigrant heritage setting asylum policy, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman – and the results are an abject failure.
By the end of June this year nearly 180,000 people were waiting for their asylum application to be decided. This is up by 44% over the previous year and the highest figure since current records began. The Home Office priority to “stop the boats” crossing the channel has had but limited success to-date, yet such channel crossings account for less than half those arriving by all routes. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University has established that only 41% of asylum seekers arrived this way – marginally down on the previous year when it was 45%, even though the overall number of applications has gone up.
The fact is that this is not just a challenge for the UK. According to the latest Report from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). last year over 100 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced thanks to conflict, persecution or famine. 40 per cent are children below the age of 18. Over half of all refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Ukraine ad Afghanistan. A mass exodus from the conflict in Sudan is now adding to this number. Millions with nothing to lose will continue to risk their lives for what they see is a one-time chance for freedom and opportunity.
Many of these are seeking new lives in Europe or the United States. Last year, the number applying was up 64% over 2021. According to the latest Eurostat figures, the EU countries taking in the most asylum seekers are Germany, France, Spain and Austria. The UK is way down the list.
The EU is grappling with the issue, trying to produce a collective formula for Member States to share the problem but some countries have their own special challenges. Poland is the latest to join Hungary on refusing to take mandated quotas and is even talking of a referendum on the subject. Meanwhile Belarus is encouraging potential asylum seekers to cross its borders: Lithuania has immediately shut two major border control points. Many EU countries are also facing lengthy backlogs in processing applications.
Rishi Sunak may highlight his own campaign to “stop the boats” to please his right-wing supporters, and then naturally blaming the French to please them even more, but the reality is that it is a global problem needing a concerted global response. The UK’s actions are simply making matters worse.
A recent change in the law has declared that asylum seekers entering illegally in future will not be regarded as legitimate claimants. The consequence will be that they will just disappear to work in the black economy, and conveniently drop out of Government figures altogether. They are able to do this because of the UK’s bizarre ideological antipathy to identity cards as somehow an attack on personal liberties, whereas in most of the western world they are regarded as a benefit and a safeguard of such liberties. The attraction for illegal immigrants is self-evident. Yet the Government plays politics rather than addresses the issue.
Perhaps the last word should be left to another former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who famously said: “The world is becoming like a lunatic asylum run by lunatics.” Some Prime Ministers were clearly more perceptive than others.