EU Referendum

Immigration: the final frontier


Once upon a time, prime ministers used to make their announcements public via the Commons, but such is the general contempt for the House that now we get Johnson revealing developments by Twitter.

Broken up into eight parts, his message told us that he had written to president Macron offering "to move further and faster to prevent Channel crossings and avoid a repeat of yesterday's appalling tragedy".

The substance of his message was to propose five steps which should be taken "as soon as possible", two of which were set out in my piece yesterday.

The first, I suspect, is a bit of flim-flam for the media - joint patrols to prevent more boats from leaving French beaches. This has already been fully aired in multiple newspapers, and has had a mixed (and not altogether hostile) from the French.

It is the second proposal that makes more sense: "deploying more advanced technology, like sensors and radar", which was the first of my suggestions. Readers will recall that I mentioned ground-located cameras and radar.

It also occurs to me that the French could also use tethered surveillance blimps, also known as aerostats, which have been used with success in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I also mentioned the use of UAVs and airborne synthetic-aperture side-looking radar, systems.

There has much ill-informed chatter about the difficulties of policing the length of beaches involved but, given the right technology, the problems are vastly over-stated. Technology massively enhances surveillance capabilities and, for once, Johnson has been well-advised.

Next on Johnson's list is a proposal for reciprocal maritime patrols in each other’s territorial waters, to which is tacked on "airborne surveillance", which could also be tacked on to the technology proposal. In a full copy of his letter, also posted on Twitter, he refers specifically to manned and unmanned aircraft "perhaps flying under joint insignia".

This makes sense, as does the idea of reciprocal maritime patrols. Something similar has been agreed with land-based customs between Norway and Sweden, where both countries have the same enforcement powers in the border zone. The precedent could be useful.

Johnson then proposes deepening the work of our Joint Intelligence Cell, "with better real-time intelligence-sharing to deliver more arrests and prosecutions on both sides of the Channel". That also makes sense.

But the pièce de resistance is Johnson's final step – one which I also suggest in my piece. This, in his words, proposes: "Immediate work on a bilateral returns agreement with France, alongside talks to establish a UK-EU returns agreement".

"An agreement with France to take back migrants who cross the Channel through this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact", writes Johnson. "If those who reach this country were swiftly returned the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced".

He says that "this would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs", concluding: "I am confident that by taking these steps and building on our existing cooperation we can address illegal migration and prevent more families from experiencing the devastating loss we saw yesterday".

And tucked in there is a phrase which will infuriate the NGOcracy – Johnson refers to " illegal migration", which effectively sets the seal on the description used by most ordinary people, no matter what the purists and rent-seekers would have us say.

That aside, with the possible exception of dedicated control centres directing rapid-response "interception units", on the Spanish model, and digitised environmental exception mapping, utilising the very latest in AI technology, Johnson (or his advisors) are offering a strategy which has a good chance of working, even if – as the Mail asserts - traffickers are forcing migrants into the boats at gunpoint.

Whether or not the French will respond favourably is anyone's guess, but it certainly puts Macron on the back foot if he rejects the plan. Offered something which could bring the cross-Channel traffic to a halt, he is prone to accusations of "blood on his hands" if there are further mass drownings.

The signs look quite promising, especially in the context of a returns agreement, with a reference in Johnson's full letter to an agreement with the EU. There, he notes that France is soon to take over the EU presidency and has "committed to make "a reaching systematic returns agreement" between the UK and the EU.

The letter notes that the EU has readmission agreements with countries including Belarus and the Russian Federation (for what good it does), hoping that an agreement can be reached rapidly with the UK as well.

This will not please the NGOcrats, given full expression in the Guardian in the person of Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council.

He argues that displaced people have a right to seek safety in Britain and hold that the government must rethink its "punitive policy" and find some compassion. Central to this is the idea that, in order to avoid the risky journeys, "people could be allowed to apply for a humanitarian visa to enable them to travel safely to our shores to claim asylum".

This is not dissimilar to the concept of eradicating burglary by leaving house doors open overnight and inviting thieves to help themselves – after all some of the burglars may be near-destitute and a little bit of compassion is all that is needed.

What the likes of Solomon never do, though, is state where the limits lie. Effectively advocating an open borders policy, they talk glibly about addressing the factors "that force people to seek safety", without proposing alternatives if measures fail.

This "safe routes" policy, as it is known, has however, attracted the observations of former home secretary Lord Blunkett. Acknowledging that the politics of migration are "toxic", he warns Starmer against softening the asylum system.

Even if such an approach would likely not result in a "huge" spike in asylum claims, the Labour peer stated: "Well, the numbers might not be but Nigel Farage might end up being prime minister and that could even be worse than what we have got at the moment".

One thing that Solomon does suggest is multilateral action, and it is there that we are likely to see most progress – but not of the sort that he has in mind. All round the EU's land borders, the fences are going up, blocking the easy routes into Europe. This – and other preventative measures – is essentially, is driving the boat traffic. To that extent, the sea is becoming the final frontier – apart from the activities of rogue states such as Belarus.

A particular weak spot is the Mediterranean, with Greece, Italy and Malta on the front line – joined latterly by the UK which now also has to deal with the boat people. Australia, of course, was one of the first, in what is a global problem, with no "magic bullet" solution.

Eventually, though, tolerance for immigration with no set limits, and the associated loss of control, wears thin. An immigration policy which can be by-passed by asylum seekers demanding entry is no policy at all. Potentially, this leaves the UK in a pole position when it comes to crafting solutions, where the alternative is more drownings and endless recriminations.

Also published on Turbulent Times.