My fellow passengers on a flight from Edinburgh to Stornoway the other day included 18 Syrian refugees and the support team who had helped bring them from Turkey. The new arrivals spoke little English and, like migrants throughout history, must have harboured both hopes and apprehension as we hurtled through darkness towards the edge of Europe.
I doubt if they were in the mood for irony but one day it might be revealed to them. If fate had directed these two Syrian families towards the United States, they could have found themselves on the first plane back to Turkey due to a crude ban, inflicted on grounds of nationality alone, by a man whose own mother was an economic refugee from the very speck on the map to which they were now heading.
There are now six Syrian families, comprising 32 men, women and children, on Lewis. It seems like an admirable example of policy being translated into reality – manageable numbers, a welcoming community, the certainty of sustained support. For my fellow passengers, the prospect of starting life in such a completely different environment must be daunting. There are plenty islanders committed to making it that little bit easier.
Debates about immigration, whether for refugees or anyone else, are too often based on numbers. It can be a boast, a demand or a complaint that we “take” so many. What happens thereafter – the environment into which people are cast down – is much less the stuff of headlines. Yet meeting our responsibilities as a society should surely be judged by the quality of the experience, rather than simply the head count.
A recent report by the Home Affairs Select Committee confirmed that many of the 38,000 asylum seekers and refugees who sought housing while their cases are determined live in deplorable conditions, concentrated in poorer areas while leafier bastions of prosperity take none at all. Finding the houses and managing them is contracted out to companies like Serco and G4S. It is a formula for misery and ghettos.
Presenting the report, Yvette Cooper called for replication of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme which involves closer liaison with local authorities. Glasgow City Council, at the sharp end of dealing with such issues, actually highlighted the danger of a two-tier service being created with a better deal for Syrians than others in similar circumstances. One would like to think that any equalization would involve leveling-up rather than down, but that may be optimistic.
My own dealings with the British immigration system have never suggested that it is unfair or inhumane, so much as overloaded and faced with fiendish complexities. No matter which government is in power, in Scotland or the UK, these challenges remain the same. Simply to demand in every instance that we “take more” is as likely to compound miseries as to resolve them, unless there is an increase in resources on a scale no political party is likely to volunteer and certainly isn’t doing so now.
The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has been much criticised over the decision to cap the number of unaccompanied children who enter the UK from camps around French ports. She did not help herself by trying to sneak out a highly sensitive policy decision via a written answer from a junior minister, a ruse which always gets found out. Neither was blaming local authorities for “not stepping up to the plate” much good when it emerged that some had not been asked.
Ms Rudd’s case is that by prioritising children in these camps, under the Dubs amendment, we create an incentive to reach them in the first place. That is quite difficult to argue with, when thousands of other lone children scattered around Europe might equally fit the Dubs criteria. However, the real question comes back to resources. How many children are we prepared to fund? Without that commitment – which certainly does not mean passing the buck to besieged local authorities - it is mere piety to dwell on numbers alone.
I read a grim report about conditions in the camp at Dunkirk where there are 100 unaccompanied children. That certainly seems like a manageable number to deal with promptly and humanely. However, the main thrust of the report was that women and children are living in fear of rape and beatings. The unfortunate corollary of that depiction is that these camps contain some dreadful, violent people – and they too are hell-bent on finding a way into the UK, by fair means or foul.
Sorting the threatened from the threateners, the genuine from the bogus, the traffickers from the trafficked, the fleeing victims from the deadly menaces … these are challenges of monumental proportions which involve constant balancing acts between liberal humanitarianism and necessary self-interest. No government will get everything right but neither will any critic – and when things go wrong, it is not the critics who are held to account.
By comparison, freedom of movement within the European Union seems like an easy concept to defend. Like most migration, it is economically driven. People in Krakow and Bucharest need jobs. Employers in London and Edinburgh need labour. Leaving the EU is not going to change that imperative which is why a solution will be found, just as it always is when the needs of capital dictate.
The enlarged EU has only existed for a decade. Already there are resentments in non-EU countries about the priority given to EU citizens who want to work in the UK. Is a worker from Split or Odessa inherently of less value than our friends from EU countries? If there are rules which link entry to the offer of employment, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Moral high ground has to be earned rather than asserted. Most politicians are seeking humane, beneficial outcomes in a minefield of complexity and it is best to avoid the pretence that there are simplistic solutions for the challenges of global or regional migration. Neither should we lose sight of the absolute certainty that differentiation in immigration policies means border controls - for no country in its right mind goes to so much trouble to protect its front door while leaving management of the back door to someone else.