Afew years ago I interviewed the wily Canadian snooker player Cliff Thorburn. He told me (I think seriously) that he has a recurring dream in which he lays an “unbreakable snooker”: a situation in which, no matter the escape route chosen by his opponent, they will end up in a far worse position than they started. “Wouldn’t that be something?” he said with a mischievous glint.
I suspect that when it comes to asylum, most western nations feel as if they are trapped in an unbreakable snooker. No matter what is tried, no matter what policy is pursued, the problem seems to become more fractious and our societies more polarised. Wild-eyed politicians talk about breaking the law, about ignoring the courts, about resiling from treaties. Little wonder that liberals fear asylum is like a ticking time bomb, although without ever quite acknowledging their own part in the impasse.
How did we get here? Perhaps a good place to start is to acknowledge the basic maths. At present there are tens of millions of people who qualify as refugees, far more than the West could ever accommodate (at least while remaining the West). Moreover, this statistical mismatch will only grow in the coming years, not least because of climate change. That is a situation that wasn’t envisioned or even contemplated by the original drafters of the refugee treaties when the global population was far smaller and asylum a very different proposition.
Imagine, for a moment, a young man living in southern Tanzania or war-torn Sudan hoping for a better life. In 1951, when the refugee convention was signed, the idea of getting to the West would have been unrealistic, perhaps unimaginable. Europe was a faraway place, remote and ethereal, an Oz hovering on the edge of consciousness. Today Europe is tangible, indeed tantalising, marketed by people-smugglers to the 600 million mobile phones in Africa every day, with travel routes, prices and false promises of milk and honey.
The West’s response to this so far has been an exercise in carefully choreographed hypocrisy. Aware that our obligations are triggered only if refugees make it to our shores, we have erected barriers to stop them getting here. The EU pays billions to Turkey and north African “transit” nations to stem the flow. Tony Blair was a pioneer of these dark arts, colluding in a policy in 2004 to lavish lethal weapons upon Colonel Gaddafi in return for his closing the Libyan border to the sub-Saharan exodus. I’d love to hear Alastair Campbell addressing this in his (often excellent) podcast.
None of those policies are illegal, by the way, because they do not violate the letter of the relevant treaties, but I hope we can admit that they make a mockery of their intention. The objective was to provide sanctuary to the world’s vulnerable, but the practical consequence has been that those who make it through the obstacle course are mostly fit young men with the money to pay the people-smugglers.
But that is only one of the concerns. You may have noticed that China, Iran and North Korea don’t have much of a refugee problem. These nations — where women are battered for lifting the hijab (Iran) and torture is commonplace — are net exporters of migrants. People are desperate to escape these despotisms, not to arrive there. This means that global instability is asymmetrical. The autocratic axis has every incentive to stoke conflict as a geopolitical weapon, knowing that desperate people displaced by war and suffering will seek out western Europe.
Think of it this way: Putin could never hope to destroy Europe by force, but he certainly noted that the perpetuation of the Syrian war led to a flow of refugees that temporarily put an end to open borders in the Schengen area, sat partially behind Brexit and fuelled the rise of the far right across Europe. Consider, too, the more recent coups across the Sahel, the manoeuvring of the Wagner Group across Africa, the way China is gearing up for proxy wars in the developing world. Think — at a broader level — of the growing belligerency of the autocratic axis across the planet.
I’m not saying that igniting refugee flows is the sole motive of these tyrants but I am saying that it is a factor, particularly in the calculus of President Xi, who regards asylum as the Achilles heel of the West. It is also why I wasn’t surprised when China recently announced it was approving new coal power projects at the equivalent of two plants a week, making a mockery of its climate commitments. One part of the reasoning is to do with short-term energy security but another is the assessment that climate change will place intolerable burdens on the West as people flee here — but not to China.
While this background may feel depressing, it also highlights a possible escape route from the snooker. For you may have noticed that all the unintended consequences associated with the refugee system can be traced back to the principle of non-refoulement — the legal bar on deporting people anywhere they might face persecution. This is the principle that creates the incentive to get here in the first place; that cements the business model of the criminal gangs; that offers diabolical incentives to the world’s despots. It is also the principle upon which the British government lost in the Supreme Court last week over its Rwanda policy.
And it is why it seems to me that the only tenable way out is to remove this principle from all treaties and domestic laws. After all, if every asylum seeker who arrived here illegally knew they would be sent away immediately, they would stop coming. Who wants to pay a people-smuggler £5,000 to get here if they can’t stay? We should also introduce identity cards to thwart those who think they can slip into the nation without anyone noticing to work in the black economy.
Such an approach would enable us to show real rather than fake compassion. The UK could offer more places for refugees if we wished, but instead of young men who had jumped the queue, we could take people at source after checking that they were not jihadists or fanatics. I would also love to see us investing more in their integration.
Wouldn’t this be superior to the grotesque travesty that is in operation today? Would it not enlarge human rights and global welfare? Wouldn’t it be a powerful setback to criminals and despots who care nothing for human life? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we breach our treaty obligations or defy our courts; it is shameful that Rishi Sunak was unable to condemn the horrendous Lee Anderson for suggesting we do so. No, it is for the West as a whole to reimagine the conventions that were enlightened in their day but are now having consequences diametrically opposed to their intent.
You may protest that this is a huge legal task, that the principle of non-refoulement has burrowed deep into our conventions and laws, that it will be treacherous to unravel. But let me retort that unless the West is able to amend and update legal principles that are no longer fit for purpose, we are not as enlightened as we think. That, at least, is my proposal to solve the asylum crisis, to escape the snooker, and wrestle a divisive issue away from the hypocritical left and the rabid right.
Indeed, the future of the West just might depend on it.