Over the Christmas period, much was made of the migrant ‘crisis’ in the English Channel, where between 200 and 300 people tried to cross into the UK, many in dinghies without sufficient supplies of food, drink or fuel. The obvious concern within both the French and English authorities was the danger of people attempting to cross the open sea in small unsuitable boats, but the story was branded in some of the right-wing press as a ‘crisis’, given their hostility to immigration.
There is a crisis in this story, and it is that these 200 people are being driven to attempt what they must know is a highly dangerous journey. At the height of the European migration crisis it was estimated that over 8,000 people were living in the Calais ‘jungle’ - the unofficial refugee camp. With the French authorities making it abundantly clear the refugees, largely from Iran and war-torn Syria, are not welcome there, some feel their only option is to attempt the crossing.
Of course, dealing with this issue is difficult, both practically and politically. In the year ending June 2018, nearly 5,000 people were granted asylum in the UK. Given that the government has famously had problems limiting net migration numbers to the ‘tens of thousands’, there is an argument that our asylum process, granting help to people in desperate need should be more of a priority.
For Conservative politicians, however, there is much currency to be had in appearing to be tough on immigration. Given the limited shelf-life of Theresa May’s leadership, Tory leadership hopefuls, including many of May’s top ministers, are very obviously on leadership manoeuvres. Given that becoming Tory leader relies on the support of the Conservative Party members, who tend to be significantly more right-wing and authoritarian than the regular voter, leadership candidates are well served by appealing to their right.
Sajid Javid, the current Home Secretary, who is responsible for border control, has been seen for some time now as a front-runner in the race for the leadership. However, as many in the party and the commentariat have long noted, that is the worst place for a candidate to be this far out from a contest, and has led to vicious briefing against Javid in recent weeks, including the story that he refers to himself, rather obnoxiously, as ‘the Sajid’ in meetings.
When he was first appointed Home Secretary in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, Javid’s background as the son of immigrants encouraged him to take a more liberal line on immigration than the Prime Minister, whose ‘hostile environment’ policy when she was Home Secretary was largely to blame for the Windrush catastrophe. However, in both his long-awaited post-Brexit immigration plans and his response to the Channel crossings, he has taken a much tougher line which seems to believe the importance he attaches to his leadership prospects.
Of course there are genuine concerns in many communities about immigration and the effect it has on particularly working-class areas, fuelled by the long-term anti-migrant rhetoric of much of the right-wing press. There are, however, more responsible ways of dealing with these concerns, and the issue of dangerous Channel crossings, than suggesting that these clearly desperate migrants are not ‘genuine’ asylum seekers, as well as enlisting the support of the Royal Navy, clearly appealing to the right wing of the Tory party. When he became Home Secretary, Javid’s personal story and apparent moderate agenda gave him an impressive start to the role. However, in dealing with this latest ‘major incident’, he seems to have, like many politicians, proved that he values political expediency above genuine beliefs and concerns.