EU Referendum

Immigration: fair dealing


Matthew Parris has done it again, coming up with a halfway decent article, this one headed: "It's time we re-examined our obligation to refugees".

The sub-heading sets the framework for the piece, with the assertion that [the] "Convention sets up a false moral framework by suggesting we have a duty to care equally for all", the reference to "Convention" meaning the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

However, before dealing with the substance of the issue – how we treat refugees – Parris makes an essential and important political point. Voters on an island, he says, will never soften towards settlers arriving uninvited in boats, and politicians who must govern by consent cannot ignore this.

He goes on to say that foreigners in significant numbers try to settle here without permission "absolutely infuriates British people", and this is "a rock-solid truth that cannot be wished out of existence".

In a democracy, he adds, "our politicians have to respond". Referring to his liberal self and "fellow liberals" - who have the luxury of sermonising – he then remarks that politicians do not have that luxury. They must, he says, "negotiate with powerful national sentiment", a process he does not regard as "disreputable".

A little while ago, on this blog, I quoted from Kipling's poem, Norman and Saxon and, although it was cited in a different context, it applies in great measure to the issue of asylum seekers.

The essence of the poem is about "fair dealing", a principle buried deep in the psyche of the English people, so deep that many of our foreign readers – and some others – have failed to understand its significance – it washes right over their heads.

But the Guardian tendency, the rest of the media and all the "liberal" apologists for illegal migrants can write all the words they like. They can wringing their hands and churn out as many the deeply emotional sob-stories as they can get published, in as many sources as they can reach.

Nothing of this torrent of words, though, or even the finest crafted arguments, will have the slightest effect if the English people believe that would-be migrants are taking advantage of the system, and exploiting their inherent good nature. If what they see acquires the taint of a lack of "fair dealing", then you can talk and argue until you are blue in the face. It will not make the slightest bit of difference.

And that's where we are with the dinghy people. Rightly or wrongly (and mostly rightly), the ordinary English person – the man on the fabled Clapham omnibus, who is firmly embedded in English law – sees the people who are by-passing our laws, and rocking up to Dover or the beaches if Dungeness (illustrated), as "taking the piss". That is the perception, and no amount of sermonising or sob-stories will change it. It ain't "fair dealing", and that's the end of it.

Although many of his columns are tedious and self-referential, I think Parris understands this, a perception which marks him out from the run of the mill commentator who thinks we can be bludgeoned into line by dint of a hectoring tone.

Thus armed, he addresses two subordinate points. First, he wrote:
… with the partial exception of China, most countries where persecution is most oppressive are poor; and most countries where individual rights are most respected are rich. This has resulted in a hopeless tangling of human motives: there exists no categorical distinction between wanting to be richer and wanting to be safer, but asylum and immigration tribunals must attempt that distinction, because economic motives supplement and supercharge the quest of many of the world’s four million asylum-seekers.
Second (and in consequence), he tells us, British policy on asylum-seeking, is to thwart the intention, while keeping to the letter, of the 1951 Convention. This, he says, had a transparent purpose: to enable and facilitate, after the Second World War, the resettlement in friendly countries of displaced peoples fleeing serious persecution at home. But, in the world of 2021, such a tidying-up is impossibly open-ended.

Out in the world, billions are oppressed by both poverty and persecution, potentially billions would take the chance to move, and with modern means of transportation potentially billions could. So, with an irritated nod towards our international treaty obligations, we put every possible obstacle in their way. And our rich neighbours do the same.

The long and the short of it all, according to Parris – to paraphrase a lengthy argument - is that the 1951 Convention is no longer fit for purpose. And the reason, he argues, is because it sets up a false moral framework to which we do not in our hearts - or lives - adhere. "It posits an equal duty on the part of all to care for all: a duty blindfolded against our particular relationship with individuals who seek our help".

Real life, he goes on to argue, recognises no such duty. It sees levels of obligation: first to family, then in declining order to friends, neighbours, community, country and mankind in general.

Then we get to the punchline: "We cannot offer an implicit invitation to the whole world’s oppressed but may (for instance) feel special obligations to our former servants in Afghanistan, or threatened citizens in our old empire, such as Hong Kong".

And that's the truth of the matter, although Parris actually misstates the case. The original Convention related to events occurring before 1 January 1951, and therefore, limited states' obligations. It also gave the option to limit the scope of the instrument to Europe.

What then did the damage was the 1967 Protocol which removed the temporal exemption and any geographical limitation. With that, we forged an unending commitment to accepting peoples from anywhere in the world who could meet the definition of refugee. What Parris then says fits this to a tee: a treaty blind to the hierarchy of obligation that individuals and nations can see, cannot be timeless, he assets.

But what he then suggests probably will not work. Britain, he says, "should not act unilaterally but start exploring other minds, other governments", positing that: "The 1951 Geneva Convention is out of time".

Actually, it is the Protocol we need to get rod of, and that is surprisingly easy. Article IX on "Denunciation" simply requires a notification addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Such denunciation shall take effect, the Article says, one year from the date on which it is received. And, with that, it's over.

In practical terms, this would probably achieve very little. Economic migrants would still rock up on our shores, and the French would continue to play their shitty games. And, in the end, we would probably allow many of the undeserving to remain, simply because it was so difficult to get rid of them.

But, in the absence of the Convention, we would be able to rewrite our laws, and alter our procedures – a provision which should then extend to the European Convention on Human Rights. And if the outcome would not be very different in the short-term, at least they would be our laws, and not a set of international tools that can be manipulated by activist judges and partisan NGOs.

That would, to an extent, restore a sense of control to the system, and do much to return a sense of fair-dealing that would rebuild the public consent which is currently lacking. And, with the pretence stripped out that we can be the resort of any migrant who fancies living here, we can talk to our neighbours to craft a more sensible international code for real refugees.

Also published on Turbulent Times.