When the migrant crisis first pierced the British imagination, there was barely a Syrian in sight. On 30 July 2015, when the prime minister warned that a “swarm of people” were heading for Britain, I could not find one refugee from Assad in the shanty town in the fields north of Calais.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but going back through my notes I see I met Eritreans, Nigerians, Ethiopians and Sudanese. French volunteers told me there were Syrians somewhere in “the jungle”, along with Afghans and Pakistanis. But they did not make up the majority or even a large minority of the men and women planning to stow away on the Eurostar or jump on a passing lorry.
The great wave of migrants moving towards Europe has never been composed solely of Syrians. An arc of instability surrounds our continent. In Nigeria, Boko Haram still operates and the collapse in the oil price has wrecked the economy. In Chad and Niger, global warming has turned farmland to desert. Warlords and their barbaric militias have pushed civilians to the edge of starvation in Sudan. Eritrea remains a police state from which the young want to flee. Libya remains a failed state, where the same impulse applies. The Middle East is locked in a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, which feels as if it will be as long and monstrous as Europe’s Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants. And the Russians are once again menacing Ukraine.
It says much about the parochialism and self-indulgence of the British right that they are threatening to add to the chaos by yanking Britain out of the EU at a moment of continental crisis. But it also tells you that hundreds of thousands would still try to get to Europe, even if the Syrian conflict were solved tomorrow. There was something else I didn’t notice at the time, which strikes me now. The Calais migrant camp was so small. There were about 3,000 people there and you could cross it in 20 minutes.
Syria’s civil war: five years of Guardian reporting
Compare the few thousand trying to reach Britain from Calais with the 1.2 million who flooded into Europe last year entranced by the apparently welcoming governments of Germany and Sweden. Actually, forget that; compare them with the numbers coming now. Last week, the International Organisation for Migration reported that 67,000 arrived in Europe by boat last month. This in winter when the weather is meant to deter people from taking to sea.
Their numbers will grow. Assad’s forces, with Russian and Iranian backing, are now threatening Aleppo, and sending tens of thousands fleeing north. The abysmal failure of the west to develop a coherent Syrian strategy has now boomeranged and smashed us in the face. Putin must look with satisfaction while his client’s armies drive refugees into the European Union and threaten to destroy its founding principle of freedom of movement. He must look with even greater pleasure on the far-left clique that has taken over the British Labour party and is so enamoured of Russian imperialism it cannot bring itself to utter one squeak of protest, not even for form’s sake.
Above all, he must enjoy the spreading fear. The Cologne attacks brought fear of sexual molestation. The politically insane and unintentionally racist decision by the German and Swedish authorities to cover up crimes by individual migrants branded all migrants as sexual predators and brought fear of the authorities’ intentions. The Paris attacks brought the fear of terrorism extending across the continent. And the sheer weight of numbers brought the fear of cultures being overwhelmed.
All of them are encouraging the rise of far-right parties, which, by a happy coincidence for a Kremlin whose bombers are driving refugees into Europe, are as wiling as the leaders of the British Labour party to bend the knee to Putin. Across Europe, governments are clamping down. Germany has quietly set a limit on North Africans claiming asylum. I am told by sources I trust that Britain has with even greater secrecy decided that it will not take Palestinian refugees living in Syria. (As the Assad regime never gave them passports, they are stateless people; Britain could never send them home in the unlikely event of peace returning to Syria.)
If liberals want to defend refugees in these dark times, they are going to have to ditch prejudices that have become a self-defeating menace. The first is the waffle you hear everywhere that there’s no difference between refugees and economic migrants. In theory, there’s truth in the argument that a man who is about to starve to death is in no better or worse predicament than a woman who knows Assad’s forces or Islamic State will execute her. In practice, a starving man has neither the strength nor the money to flee, while some victims of political persecution can escape, if they can find a country to take them.
By blurring the distinction between genuine refugees and economic migrants, liberals let their governments off the hook. For a generation, home secretaries have said that Britain is a lovely, tolerant country. We welcome genuine refugees, of course we do. It is only economic migrants we want to stop.
Their combined statements comprise one enormous lie. Britain has accepted economic migrants by the millions. As for asylum seekers, in 2014, they made up a mere 8% of the total number of immigrants.
Liberals also need to stop treating their fellow citizens as if they were closet Nazis. It is no good screaming that they are “racists”, like some no-platforming student dogmatist. Some may be. Others will have real concerns that lying applicants and sharp lawyers can rig the system. They will only welcome genuine refugees if bogus asylum seekers are speedily removed. The president of Finland was too close for comfort when he said last week that “anyone who knows how to pronounce the word ‘asylum’ can enter Europe” and disappear before their case is judged.
If you look at all the different nationalities who make it to Calais you can see that the migration crisis will continue, whatever happens in Syria. The longer it continues, the more acute the liberal dilemma will become. If you want to be a true liberal and persuade your society to accept genuine refugees, you must accept authoritarian measures and agree to the rapid expulsion of illegal immigrants.