by J. Alan Smith

If there were only one family camping near Calais trying to get to England, the government would pay their fare on Eurostar, invite them to 10 Downing Street, and demonstrate though the media how welcoming Britain was. If there were a million people near Calais intent on getting here, the Channel Tunnel would be closed and the country put on something like a war footing. The number of would-be immigrants is an essential part of the problem.

The right of people to migrate is, in practice, tempered by the implicit clause, “as long as not too many want to do it at the same time”. In the past, difficulties in travel made it less likely that too many people would want to travel in the same direction at the same time but improvements in travel have increased the risk. Internal migration within a sovereign state could provide a problem but this would be countered by increased government expenditure in those areas that people wished to leave. When the forerunner of the EU was set up with freedom of movement there was no problem because the economies of the original six were sufficiently aligned for no mass migration to be likely. This condition continued even when other states from Western Europe joined. However, problems arose when the EU expanded to take in many of the former Soviet satellites: the EU had the freedom of movement associated with a sovereign state but without the power and desire for sufficient public investment in the poorer states.

Would-be immigrants have been classified as economic migrants or refugees. To me, an economic migrant is someone who earns, say, £25,000 a year in country A and would like to earn £50,000 a year in country B, travelling between the two in world-standard public transport. To what extent this applies to those shipped in overloaded, small boats is open to question.

Refugees are those fleeing from oppressive or incompetent regimes. Generally our dilemma over dealing with excessive numbers of refugees is eased by the methods oppressive regimes use to prevent their discontented populations from leaving. During the Cold War, examples such as Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 showed how difficult the problem would have been if the Soviet empire had opened its borders. Today the whole population of North Korea would be potential refugees if it was allowed to leave.

There are various figures used to measure the extent to which immigration is a problem. Annual net immigration is a useful figure but, by itself, it is insufficient. Suppose a million people born in a country left it to be replaced by a million people born abroad, the net annual immigration would be zero, but that would not tell the full story. Another useful indicator is the proportion of the population that was born abroad. In addition, recent news from other parts of Europe suggests that it would be prudent to think about the maximum rate at which immigrants could be admitted.

The immediate problem is dealing with the large number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats whose crews seem to have no regard for their passengers: this requires action by a number of navies. Further, such hazardous crossing should not be encouraged by giving those who make it across the Mediterranean priority over those in camps in North Africa and the Middle East.

Then two things must be done in parallel: first, to establish a network of camps for the migrants in North Africa, the Middle East, and, even, Europe, on the condition that residence in the camps does not convey the right to settle in the countries in which the camps were located; and, secondly, to resolve the problems that caused the present exodus.

Migrant camps should be of a standard at least comparable to those in the countries the migrants left before their problems started, and not places to dump people who are unwanted. They should be properly policed, with opportunities for the adults to work and children to be taught.

There should be international discussion about Syria with local and world powers, including Russia. It is not simply the case of overthrowing the Assad regime. It would appear that some of the minorities in Syria prefer the present regime to any likely alternative. What is required is a State that will hold together and yet permit the various minority communities to live in peace with one another.

When the present exodus has stabilized, consideration could then be given to resettling those in the migrant camps. Many would welcome the opportunity to return to the countries from which they came, and international aid should be given to those countries to re-establish themselves. Others would welcome the opportunity to emigrate to those countries willing to accept them: such emigration would be easier to arrange once the numbers were known.

Our overall objective is straightforward: to treat the migrants with humanity without disrupting their would-be host countries. The devil, of course, is in the detail. ND