Over the summer I read Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, a documentary novel about the Swedes who emigrated to America in the 18th century. It powerfully describes what drove illiterate peasants to take such an extraordinary gamble on a country about which they knew almost nothing. The story, of course, could have been written about migrants from many European countries, and particularly those (including some of by relatives) from the Scottish Highlands. Moberg tells how some fled starvation, some religious persecution; some sought economic and political freedom. And they all risked a voyage which they might not survive: Moberg’s ship’s captain would take a clump of earth with him to scatter on corpses in the funerals he knew he’d be presiding over. But the reader is persuaded that Karl Oskar Nilsson and his fellow travellers – including pregnant wife and toddler children – had to take the risk.
It’s funny how little the world changes. Last weekend, an Afghan Sikh was found dead in a shipping container in an Essex port after making what seems to be a repeat of the emigration mission that poor Swedes were making in the 19th century. There were 34 other Afghans found there, including 13 children. They were today’s Karl Oskar Nilssons, and the Swedes at least have sympathy for them: they accommodate more asylum seekers than Britain, whose population is six times greater. The leader in the new Spectator argues that we should offer far more resettlement places and acknowledge the mass movement of people now underway (rather than see ministers stick their heads in the sand, and pretend that our ridiculous overseas aid pledge somehow gets then off the hook).
A new tide of human beings is coming towards us, and part of it is the consequence of recent British interventions. Those of us who supported involvement in Iraq and Libya must also accept that Christians in Iraq were not singled out for persecution under Saddam – they’re fleeing because Western attempts to build a stable government there failed and allowed vicious sectarianism to triumph. Britain rightly helped depose Gaddafi, but the chaos now engulfing Libya has led to boatloads fleeing every day, in a desperate attempt to reach Malta or Italy. The West also failed to set up a stable government in Afghanistan; there are now 2.5 million Afghans in exile, none too keen to rush back to the Taleban to whom we are (in effect) preparing to hand power. The Taleban don’t like Sikhs much, either. Which explains why some are now taking incredible risks, in refrigerated and sometimes airtight containers, to escape.
The age of religious wars, brilliant documented by Spectator’s new associate editor Damian Thompson in his recent cover story, has a corollary. There is now a boom in people with a legitimate right to asylum, and we are bound to provide it under the 1951 Refugee convention. We agreed, then, to offer shelter to those having a ‘well-founded fear of prosecution’, be they openly gay Somalis or Christians from Mosul. But we aren’t doing it. The below map looks at how many displaced people are in which counties: we are not punching our weight.
We’re seeing a new a wave of genuine asylum seekers, in part due to foreign interventions that we started, but didn’t properly finish. The below chart looks at asylum places versus immigration.
So let’s not pretend that we don’t have the capacity to more for refugees. And with the burgeoning aid budget being used to help rather dodgy causes such as Ugandan wind farmers, let’s not pretend some of that budget could not be better spent granting asylum. David Cameron won’t want to talk about refugees before an election. He may not have the option: they’re more numerous, they’re coming here and, tragically, dying here. The question should be how, not whether, he responds.