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We can’t just base our refugee policy on what makes us feel better

9 September 2015

7:00 PM

9 September 2015

7:00 PM

People across Britain wept when we saw the picture of little Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach. We later heard of his brother and mother dying  – and his family’s story of fleeing from Islamic State, and of their year in Turkey before boarding a smugglers’ deflating dingy. Many scream out in empathy that something must be done, that we must assimilate more refugees to help the desperate and stop the dying.

I completely agree with the need for real action to help them – but l also think the Prime Minister completely right when he says that receiving ever more people is not the answer. In fact, I believe EU countries are completely crazy if they give ever-growing numbers of refugees and migrants, picked up in the Mediterranean or in EU countries, the right to live within Europe.

There are hundreds of millions of people in the borderlands of the European Union and on the other side of the Mediterranean suffering oppression or wanting a better life for their families. I believe that we should make it clear that you will not be allowed to live in Europe if you come into Europe through the back door. Instead, if you are a refugee you will be offered a well-resourced place of safety, perhaps in Europe, but more properly in a safe place in the neighbourhood of the world from which you came. If it turns out that you are in fact an economic migrant you will be taken back home. This is not xenophobic – this is moral, practical, fair and sustainable – and is the only way I can see that slows these tides of death, address the root causes of mass migration, and allow Europe to re-establish control of its borders.  

If we fail to do this then tens of millions more will make these journeys, and we will be over-whelmed in the years ahead. Big disparities in security and economic opportunity between nations will not be solved by short-term measures like giving hundreds of thousands of people asylum in Europe. Britain is already the second biggest bilateral donor spending nearly a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money helping those caught up in the fallout of Syria and Iraq: the international community must do more. Refugees should be looked after in the first available country or in their regions – there are plenty of very wealthy countries with land closer to Syria. Economic migrants should apply properly like everyone else before leaving home. It should not be the case that you only have to arrive in Europe to be allowed to stay in Europe: this is completely unsustainable. 


Some years ago I lived undercover in the refugee camp in Calais for a TV programme, and I think there are some parallels with today. Living side by side with them it seemed to me that the over-whelming majority of the people who had got as far as Calais were economic migrants. Every night hundreds of us, almost all young men, would burst out of the camp as it started to get dark. We would spend the night cutting wire trying to get onto freight trains in the Eurotunnel complex. In their position I would have done the same as these men – then from places like Iran, Kosovo, the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey. How can you possibly criticise people looking for the better life that we enjoy by accident of birth? But 99 per cent of them were doing just that – in some cases their families had sold land to get the money to pay the smugglers who had got them into Europe: they travel to northern France unchecked.    

These were not refugees – these were economic migrants.  This still seems to be the case in Calais today: many people there long ago got out of an unsafe country and have travelled through many a safe country since. They are now trying to get into their country of choice. (And yes, some of them do claim political asylum and when they finally get travel documents they do travel back to where they came from to see their – and yes, I have known a hair dresser who has done this: rather more importantly lots of genuine asylum seekers are just happy to be safe and living in Britain.)

Earlier during the course of the vicious wars in the former Yugoslavia, I posed as a deaf and dumb Bosnian Muslim in Bosnian-Serb territory at the height of the ethnic cleansing. I joined a great convoy of the dispossessed on coaches, then on a train, then stayed in a Mosque in a city in a neighbouring country: many of those I was with remained locally in refugee camps until the war ended. The vast majority now remain in former Yugoslavia, if not their old homes. These terrified people most certainly were refugees. There are 11 million displaced people from the fall-out of the war in Syria, 4 million of them in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Again, David Cameron is spot on in wanting to help the many, rather than the relatively few – by focusing enormous spending on these people: indeed it is a scandal that the world is not doing more to help these people and countries that have given them safe haven.

Today if we keep sending the message to people in poorer or less stable countries that once you get picked up by the Royal Navy or walk into Hungary or reach a Greek Island, then you have your ticket to a whole new life in Europe, then ever growing numbers will come: wouldn’t you?

Unless this message gets through to people in these countries, we invite hundreds of millions to seek a better life in Europe and Britain. Either we are a nation state, or we are not. Either we are able to be serious about helping many millions effected by war and repression or we are not.  We should decide who comes into our country – not the German government, Mr Juncker, not the people smugglers.  The message needs to be much more clear, or the drowning and the chaos will just go on and on.

I completely understand the sentiments of those demanding something be done. We must do the right thing, for the long-term, that will prevent thousands of other tragedies that we will never see in a newspaper. We all need to resist the temptation to do what makes us feel better, and to come up with a lot more that might actually help.

Adam Holloway MP is a  member of the foreign affairs select committee and a former soldier and ITV foreign correspondent.

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