Leading article

Asylum seekers are dying in British ports. It’s time we looked after them properly.

Our government lets its pious aid target distract it from more difficult – and important – duties

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

The tale is now familiar: shouts are heard from inside a freight container and police are called. A cargo of human beings is discovered, some gravely ill. This happened last Sunday along the Thames at Tilbury docks. Thirty-five Afghans were discovered. One of them, Meet Kapoor, was already dead. Days later, 15 Kashmiris and Eritreans were found on a lorry pulled over in Somerset, dehydrated but alive. Dozens of people are now being found each week in these kinds of circumstances.

It is not just economic migration: the Afghans found in Essex were Sikhs, for example, a group singled out for repression under the Taleban. Once they must have hoped that a stable government would emerge in Kabul, allowing for the return of the 1.4 million Afghans still in exile. But this did not happen, and Britain and America are pulling out, leaving a weak government. The Taleban is now so strong that it is focusing its attentions on Pakistan (and killing policemen in Karachi). Meanwhile, the jihadists in the so-called Islamic State are telling Christians to convert or face the sword.

Had police found Romanian stowaways in Essex, they could have been deported immediately, the case treated as pure criminality. But those on the run from religious persecution are a different matter: Britain has an obligation to protect them. That so many risk their life for the chance to start at the very bottom in a country like Britain is a humbling reminder of the privileges and liberties that we can so often take for granted. But it is also a reminder of our obligation to grant asylum towards the persecuted. It is an obligation that the coalition government keeps strangely quiet about.

Ministers like to boast about the cash they are spending in overseas aid. The government has set a target for it — £12 billion this year — and officials spend their days in a panic trying to think where they can spend so vast a sum. (There is still talk of making the target legally binding, thereby making failure to hit it some kind of crime.) Much aid money does reach the right places: on page 13, Paul Wood describes sheltering with Yazidis under a tarpaulin bearing the inscription ‘From the British people’. But much goes to less deserving causes, such as teaching ‘low carbon agriculture’ to Colombian farmers or building wind farms in Uganda.


It sometimes seems as if ministers believe the generosity of this spending absolves them from other duties — such as providing asylum and help with resettlement. When the scale of the Syrian civil war became apparent, Cameron’s government pledged more aid money than the rest of Europe put together. But only seven months ago did we set up a ‘vulnerable person relocation scheme’ for Syrians — and by the start of last month, it had processed just 50 people. No one is suggesting we take in the 2.9 million registered Syrian refugees, but we ought to do better than relocating a few dozen.

Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, is right to say that it is far better to deal with refugees in the area that they come from. The overwhelming majority of Syrians sheltering in Lebanon and Turkey will want to stay put, in the hope of returning. But as ever larger parts of the Middle East become no-go areas for Christians and other minorities, many have been forced to start looking for new homes. To its credit, the French government has offered asylum to persecuted Iraqi Christians. Australia’s government has said it will make 4,000 resettlement places available. Yet there has been no promise from Britain, except for the official line that we judge asylum on a case-by-case basis.

We have ended up taking a strangely small share of the burden. We now accommodate less than 1 per cent of the world’s displaced people; less than Sweden, whose government is a quarter the size of ours. This is not about straining public services — asylum was granted to just 5,730 last year, a negligible figure compared to the 400,000 who settled as immigrants. And if taking in more refugees is expensive, the money can come from the aid budget. Ugandan wind farmers will have to do without.

In some regards, Britain ought to be more concerned than most. The persecution of Iraqi Christians is an indirect consequence of deposing Saddam Hussein. We helped remove Colonel Gaddafi, but were less interested in helping Libya create a stable government. The resulting chaos has now led Libyans to flee to Italy and Malta in boats that are not necessarily up to the journey.

Now asylum seekers are coming here in ever greater numbers and taking ever greater risks. Security should be stepped up accordingly: we need more X-ray machines and heat-seeking scanners at Dover. But refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution, be they Afghans persecuted for their faith or Sudanese persecuted for their sexuality, should not have to rely on people-smugglers. If the Prime Minister were to follow the example of Tony Abbott in Australia and make it clear that he will accommodate those in genuine fear of persecution, fewer genuine refugees would die attempting to come here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • WFB56

    Sadly, Cameron will see no voting upside from this so no middle ground will be found.

  • Llamedos2

    Use ‘foreign aid’ to send immigrants back. There are no refugees suffering persecution on religious grounds these days. All the immigrants want something for nothing.

  • mrdavidjohnson

    How many civilised european countries did that lorry drive through to get to the UK?

  • LawrenceinArabia

    surely it would have been easier, quicker, and safer for these Sikhs to have travelled to India, which the Sikh homeland. why must England be expected to take ever greater numbers of the world’s disposed? where will it end?

    • myn

      It was just 5,730 last year (as mentioned in the article). Is it really that much of a burden for people who are truly running from such awful events?

      • LawrenceinArabia

        again, and this is a valid question – why England? it is not as if we border Afghanistan/Pakistan, unlike India!

      • Lady Magdalene

        Plus quarter of a million other immigrants. We have a population crisis, caused by mass immigration.
        Perhaps, if we didn’t have an open border to 500 million EU citizens and a population increase of 5 million in just 15 years, we’d look on a small increase in asylum seekers as acceptable.
        Successive governments and there policy of open borders and mass immigration have “poisoned the well” when it comes to economic migrants and asylum seekers.

  • IJMO_DS

    How many safe countries do they pass through to get here? They want to come to London because the English have been multiculturalised out of existence and there’s loads of welfare and human rights laws to obstruct any chance of deportation. None of them want to live in France or Belgium etc. None want to live in eastern or southern Europe. Britain is the most Muslim friendly country in the Europe apparently, I read the other day, with Italy the most hostile. Plus the Italians just let them go rather than sending them back. They know if they let them go and they are nasty to them and offer them nothing, they will head for another country. Plus where are we going to put them? It wont be in some posh areas where politicians and journalists live, it will be in areas like Newham, meaning less resources for the poor people already there.

  • Philip Alexander Hugh Thomas

    No, if they had found Romanian stowaways they would not have been able to remove them. Romania is an EU member state and Romanians have freedom of movement like everyone else in the EU- once entered they have a right to reside in the UK for 3 months- and indefinitely thereafter if they can get a job.

    • Dacus

      Quite right. Romanians have no reasons to come illegally in the UK but some retards at The Spectator don’t know that!

  • GraveDave

    But of all places in Europe they keep heading here. Why? Not rocket science is it. Asylum seekers are supposed to head for the first safest port. Okay, I know it sounds typically like something from the Daily Mail, but is there not some truth in it.
    Now I suppose we’ll hear about ‘family’ and ‘connections’.
    The stark truth is we cant keep doing it.

  • Lady Magdalene

    Asylum seekers are not supposed to travel half the world to choose the country they would like to be provided with a safe haven. They are supposed to stop in the first safe country they reach.
    Those are the terms of the international agreements we have signed up to.
    Afghanistan does not share a border with the UK, any more than Eritrea and Somalia do. The illegal immigrants from these countries have crossed several safe countries in order to ILLEGALLY enter the UK.
    We do not have an obligation to give them asylum.
    Why do the liberal Elite enforce the terms of international treaties/agreements when they work against the interests of the British people – and ignore the terms of international treaties/agreements when they want to impose their version of morality on us.

    • Patricia

      “Asylum seekers are not supposed to travel half the world to choose the country they would like to be provided with a safe haven. They are supposed to stop in the first safe country they reach.”

      If they were genuine asylum seekers, they would be grateful to stop at the first safe country they reach and not risk their lives by picking and choosing.
      Our hard-pressed taxpayers already shell out billions in foreign aid – if this isn’t working then the problems need to be sorted out at the root. We owe these people nothing.

  • edlancey

    Employing this dripping wet reject from the Telegraph is another nail in the coffin for the Spectator ran by the even more dripping Nelson who seems to think that since he has a Swedish wife we are obliged to accept every lying, headhacking scrounger who lands on our shores.

Close