Over the past three months we have seen numerous reports on migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy and moving on to the English Channel at Calais with Dover in sight – in some cases succeeding in the latter crossing, too. In virtue of the historic sequence of the two crossings, both involving migrants navigating watery obstacles it is tempting to look on them as expressions of the same phenomenon. Can unrest at Calais and the heating up of diplomatic friction between France and the UK be viewed as springing from political unrest in North Africa – the Arab Spring, as it were, making its way to our shores?
Our recent general election showed that immigration is a hot topic among voters and our political leaders have wasted no time making capital out of voters’ concerns. Amidst the rhetoric and posturing it is easy to forget that migrants crossing the Mediterranean and those in Calais trying to cross the Channel are not one and the same phenomenon.
Britain is, for the most part, prosperous. By and large we have the resources to support a large population and to maintain a welfare state, too, albeit with careful management. Insofar as migrants seek to come here to participate in an advanced economy and to enjoy higher levels of prosperity the question of whether or not to accept them can be seen as a matter of resource allocation. It is undoubtedly the case that, in the absence of a birth-rate above replacement level, we do actually need immigrants to sustain the very economic growth that sustains welfare programmes. Although it touches on issues as sensitive as the birth rate and the character of British culture, the matter can readily be regarded as an administrative issue rather than an obviously moral one.
We are fortunate to live in a country in which, by and large, the rule of law prevails. We have a government capable of providing the political stability that enables both citizens and those allowed to live among us to conduct their lives in an orderly manner. Those crossing in boats to the shores of Italy and Greece are not simply seeking improved conditions. Rather their situation, fleeing conflict and mayhem, is often desperate enough to make terrible risks to life and limb seem worthwhile. Generally they are looking to escape violence rather than in any straightforward way to obtain easy access to benefits.
If people are fleeing destruction from countries in the violent destabilisation of which the United Kingdom has played directly or indirectly a significant part – like Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iraq – it might forcefully be argued that we have a real moral obligation to help them.