People who are fleeing violence and persecution, who have no safe place to live, are willing to risk their lives and to pay thousands of pounds to risk drowning in freezing seas as they cross the Mediterranean and the English Channel.

It is not a question of ‘pull factors’. These are people fleeing – they are subject rather to ‘push’ factors, if anything. Some of them choose to seek asylum in the UK, but this is a smaller number than those who have gone to France, Italy, Germany and Greece. All those countries have granted asylum to greater numbers than those trying to reach the UK.

Refugees who choose to come to the UK usually do so because they speak English or have relatives already living here. When they have been allowed to remain here and work, the statistic is that on average immigrants pay 10% more tax – and earn and spend that much more – than indigenous Britons. The NHS would not survive without its many thousands of immigrant doctors and nurses. 

There is no ‘legal’ way to claim asylum in the UK. There is no way to apply unless you are already in the UK. Under the Refugee Convention 1951 refugees are not obliged to claim asylum in the first place where they flee to, but if they do claim asylum in a country, that country is obliged under the Convention to consider their claim. It would be a breach of the Convention to deport asylum seekers to an offshore processing centre, as Australia did.

But we miss the point if we get bogged down in the mechanism of how asylum claims are made. The point is that since time immemorial people have fled from country to country, from continent to continent, if the place where they were born becomes dangerous or they are unable to earn enough to feed themselves. A distinction is made between asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’, but it is specious. If you have been driven from your home in fear of your life, of course you are an ‘economic migrant’ as well. 

The point is that this migration in search of safety and prosperity is all right. Immigration is a Good Thing. Why am I entitled to live in the UK? Because I was born here. But does that entail entitlement? I think not. The fact that I was born here is sheer luck. 

So why should I try to assert entitlement to live here as against other human beings who happen not to have been born here, but rather have been born in poor or dangerous places? If I benefit, by sheer luck, from living in the fifth-richest country in the world, why should other human beings, who are not so lucky, not join me in this earthly paradise? What right have I to deny them?

But, people say, our islands are too crowded. We can’t afford to share our schools and hospitals and universities with foreigners. This is nonsense. The indigenous population of the UK is shrinking in numbers, as our birthrate is too low. We need more people – not just doctors and nurses (although we certainly need them, to fill the shortage of over 100,000 staff in the NHS today), but we need people in all walks of life, professions and trades.

We have plenty of room. Half an hour from the centre of London in any direction one is in green countryside. The same is true of all our conurbations. There may be 67m people in the UK, but there is plenty of room for more – and plenty of need for the economic boost that extra people will create.

But ‘they’ won’t integrate, they say. They keep themselves to themselves and some don’t even learn English. But do we try to get to know them? Do we welcome them into our homes – or do we ostracise them, shrinking away from them and avoiding contact? No wonder they are separate – we drive them away into themselves. The latest racism scandal, affecting Yorkshire cricket, could, in some aspects, have been repeated all over the country.

Yet our politicians compete to be ‘tough’ on immigration. Disgracefully, Theresa May started a ‘hostile environment’ policy towards immigrants which continues under Priti Patel. Imagine what it must feel like: driven out of your homeland in fear of your life, you reach the country which drafted the Human Rights Convention and most of the Refugee Convention, which welcomed the Jewish refugee children fleeing Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport – and you are received, not with a compassionate welcome, but with a ‘hostile environment’.

With climate change, this pressure of population, shifting from poverty and violence towards comfort and abundance, from Africa and the Middle East towards northern Europe, will be many times greater. People will flee those countries where it is 50 degrees in the shade. And again, they will benefit the northern countries where they go to.

But we are a democracy, and 55% of those polled say they are against immigration, and would vote for politicians who are ‘tough’, who restrict immigration and show a hostile face to poor asylum seekers. This unenlightened, if not actually racist, attitude is said to prevail in the ‘Northern Red Wall’ of parliamentary seats formerly held by Labour and now narrowly Conservative, because these voters supported Brexit, largely in order to stop immigration. The Conservatives are afraid of offending these voters, and Labour want to regain their affections, so neither party dares to tell the electors what is right and good.

This will not do. There is room in a democracy for elected representatives to offer leadership and inspiration. They ought not lamely to follow their constituents’ unenlightened and unjustified bigotry. Most of these people have never met an immigrant, let alone tried to get to know one. If he or she is wearing medical scrubs and cures their pain, they conveniently forget that it was a ‘foreigner’ who helped them. 

The same goes for all that fruit that didn’t get picked, all those lorries that didn’t get driven, all those plumbing jobs which didn’t get done. All done by immigrants – until Brexit stopped freedom of movement and the ‘hostile environment’ was the best the government could offer in order to ‘take control’.

So much of this is attributable to fears of the unknown, or the ‘other’. Surely our leaders can address this. The people of the Red Wall are racists, if they are so, because of what they don’t know. What they don’t know they fear and shun. We need to challenge this. 

No Red Wall temporary Tory is happy to see children, their mothers and fathers, drowning in the freezing English Channel. Even at this lowest common level, their common humanity is something we can all recognise. So if they are like us in not wanting to be drowned, what other similarities are there? 

They are human beings, in every respect just like us. They love their children; they feel hunger, and cold, if they are not in their houses. Just like we do. They enjoy having nice meals to eat; they love music and stories. Just as we would miss these things if we were deprived of them, so do they.

Immigrants and refugees are just as much entitled to live in a safe place – indeed, in our safe place – as we are. It is just our good luck that we got here first.

Think of Emma Lazarus’ words on the foot of the Statue of Liberty: 

‘Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

And think of what Jesus said.“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”

(Matthew 25:31-45)

Which do you think our leaders resemble today? The sheep, or the goats? And, for that matter, what do you think the British electorate looks like? ‘Come on’, they might say. ‘When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ Because ‘you’, in this, are a refugee, or an immigrant. 

We need leaders, politicians, who have the guts to dare to remind everyone what that mythical British character is supposed to be all about. Fair play; protect the underdog; not, certainly not, to meet him as he emerges freezing from the sea with a ‘hostile environment’.

Hugh Bryant

25th November 2021