Should the British government grant asylum to every migrant and refugee from the Calais “Jungle” camp?

The Calais “Jungle” was a migrant and refugee camp close to the northern French port. The camp experienced a surge in its migrant/refugee population in 2016; it housed somewhere between 6,500 and 9,000 people. Some projections for September 2016 were as high as 10,000 persons. L’ Auberge des Migrants reported in July 2016 that most of the inhabitants of the Calais camp were from Afghanistan (36%) and Sudan (32%), followed by Pakistan and Eritrea (both at 8%). These people remained at the Calais camp, hoping to crossing into the UK illegally via the Channel Tunnel or the Port of Calais.

The French authorities “evacuated” the camp in October 2016, citing humanitarian reasons, dispersing former inhabitants across “welcome centres” in France. There, they can apply for asylum in France. The UK, as a general rule, does not take adult migrants/refugees from the Calais camp, and insists on the Dublin regulation, according to which the asylum seekers are to apply in their country of arrival, within the EU. After the demolition, it allowed 200 unaccompanied children to enter its territory (out of 1400 at the Calais camp).

Often, when debating the government policies towards migrants/refugees, discussions centre on costs, benefits, and practicalities of allowing immigrants into the country. Generally, the right of sovereign, democratic countries to control their borders is taken for granted, and the underlying moral principles are rarely examined.

But, on what is this right of exclusion based? Is the UK right to exclude anyone willing to immigrate? Has the UK done enough during the refugee crisis? Should it take in more people, including those from Calais? We will explore four very different viewpoints.

The case for open borders

Most think that sovereign states have the inherent legal and moral right to exclude non-citizens, and that they can exercise this right with the aim of protecting or furthering their own national interests.

Many in the UK support even stricter border controls and increased restrictions on immigration. For example, a YouGov poll found that 70% of the respondents thought that the rules governing immigration from the EU were not strict enough and that they should be strengthened in order to reduce immigration. When asked the same question in regards to immigration from outside the EU, 73% thought that stricter rules and tougher controls should be put in place.

However, are states morally justified in controlling their borders, and excluding non-citizens/non-residents?

Joseph Carens, a professor at the department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, says not. He compares current migration controls to medieval European feudalism. One’s country of birth dictates one’s life chances, just as being born a noble or a serf did, centuries ago. So, we in the West are in fact just protecting entirely unjust “birth rights”, as the nobility did via feudalism in the middle ages. It is almost universally accepted that the feudal system was morally unjustifiable, so what does this mean for current immigration law?

If we think people are morally equal (most do), and that people should be able to live as they want, providing they don’t harm others (an uncontroversial notion), Carens appears to have a good case. Specifically, his most powerful argument is that restricted migration is entirely incompatible with equality of opportunity, a principle cherished by Western socialists, liberals and conservatives alike.

The inequality in life chances between those born in rich Western countries and those born in poor ones is startling. Branko Milanovic, an expert in global inequality, finds that 60% of your income is explained by the country in which you earn it. In his words, “If you want to be rich, you’d better be born in a rich country (or emigrate there).” Only the poorest 1% of Americans, the nobility, earn as little as the “poorest” 90% of Indians, the serfs. The key factor maintaining this is the inability of Indians to move to America.

Opening the borders would be equivalent to giving up these birth rights. While it would not solve all global inequalities, it would at least help address some of them. For now, a system of open borders, while political suicide for any Western politician, seems only fair.

Returning to Calais, the numbers trying to enter the UK from France now seem trivial. Accepting the open borders case, it is obvious that Britain should accepts those desperate enough to cling onto lorries and trains to enter it. In refusing to do so, the British government is only perpetuating unjust inequalities. Thus, it should accept all migrants and refugees from the Calais camp.

The UK should accept its fair share

Another argument for the UK accepting all residents of the Calais camp is that it has not taken in its fair share of refugees and migrants.

In 2015, the number of forcibly displaced people reached a record high, surpassing the number after World War II, according to a report published by the UN High Commission for Refugees. Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa (notably Syria), political instability, and dire economic prospects were among the driving factors behind the rise in the movement of people. There was a total of 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons, of which 21.3 million were classified as refugees (as opposed to internally displaced or stateless persons).

Of the 21.3 million refugees, 86% were hosted by low and mid-income countries. Turkey was the top host of externally displaced persons, with 2.5 million refugees, followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan. Lebanon had the highest number of refugees “per capita”, hosting 183 persons per 1000 inhabitants. Around 4.2 million refugees under the UNHCR mandate, about 26% of the global total, were hosted in the “least developed countries”.

In 2015, the flows of people attempting to reach and seek asylum in Europe increased significantly. The media, political elites, academics and the general public across Europe started using the term “Refugee/Migrant crisis” to refer to this development.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, 1.3 million persons applied for asylum in one of the 28 EU Member States. The majority of refugees arrived (and continue to do so) through peripheral EU countries, such as Greece, Italy and Hungary. Germany has, since 2012, received the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe. In 2015, it received 442,000 asylum applications, followed by Hungary (174,000) and Sweden (156,000). The UK received only 39,000.

The distribution of refugees across EU countries has not been equal. Despite having the largest population in the EU, Germany was above the European average of per capita applications (540 applicants per 100,000 inhabitants). Hungary had the highest ratio, with 1,700 per 100,000 people, followed by Sweden, with 1,600. The United Kingdom had one of the lowest, just 60 per 100,000 people. Despite the ensuing crisis, in 2014–15 the UK took in fewer refugees than in the past. It fell short of its fair share (per capita, adjusted for wealth) by 85,000 per year. And that is only in comparison to other EU countries, which we have seen are nowhere near the biggest hosts (Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon etc.).

As the UK is not taking up an equal share of burden, it should receive at least the population of the “Jungle”. The highest estimates of this population were around 10,000, which still falls way short of the numbers being taking in by other countries, some of which are considerably worse off.

The UK should accept only refugees, not economic migrants

UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ — Which is right?:

David Miller, a professor in political and social theory at the University of Oxford, thinks that countries have a duty to admit refugees, but not economic migrants. He argues that national governments are free to select policies in the best interests of the country, taking account things like economic growth, cultural diversity, population size, the age distribution of the current inhabitants, etc. For him, immigration is just like any other policy area — it is a question of the prosperity of the nation.

However, he admits that refugees are an exception to this rule. This is because refugees are fleeing persecution. So, their human rights can only be protected by leaving their country. In this case, a country like the UK has a duty to admit these people and provide a minimum decent standard of living. Crucially, though, these refugees are not expected to stay permanently — once their homeland is safe to return to, they will do so.

A legitimate question is, if this is an issue of human rights, does this protection not fall on all humans, and not just on the UK or any other one country? The short answer is yes. However, refugees must be received in one country or another, and a good principle is for them to be given the right to asylum in the first country in which they apply. This avoids countries shirking their responsibility and passing refugees around like an unwanted nuisance. (The EU has attempted a relocation scheme across 25 of its member states. But, as the UK has an opt-out of this scheme, it will not be discussed further here.)

Concerning the other main category of migrants, economic migrants, this principle does not apply. Most people can lead a life without their fundamental human rights being violated, in their presence country of residence. Those who cannot, and seek asylum, are refugees. Therefore, countries do not have a duty to take any economic migrants whatsoever.

For this reason, political leaders have emphasised the need to distinguish between economic migrants and genuine refugees. Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2016, “We need to improve the ways we distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution and economic migrants.”

Countries have, in fact, the right to select the economic migrants who will most benefit their populations. Canada and Australia have plugged skills gaps over many decades through attracting skilled migrants with significant benefits, such as permanent residency. The UK even has a Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, which aims to do the same thing.

These policies only apply to the question at hand insofar as the migrants formerly at the “Jungle” camp have the requisite skills to be deemed useful to the UK. If not, they are likely to have low-paid jobs, or even be unemployed, and therefore cost the state more money than they contribute in tax due to healthcare and benefit entitlements.

As David Miller points out, as soon as an individual is inside the borders of a country, their status changes. The country now has a duty to protect them to some extent (e.g. from violence or emergency health problems). Therefore, economic migrants have some potential cost and this must be considered.

The British government has a duty to protect its own citizens first

For some, the principle of the duty to admit refugees is conditional. This is because the UK government has a duty to protect its citizens first, and worry about others second. Most people would agree with this to some extent, of course, but for these people, it overrides even the fact that refugees’ human rights are being violated if they do not flee their home countries.

In the UK, the biggest proponent organisation of this view is the UK Independence Party (UKIP). With 13% of the vote at the last General Election and 27% at the European Parliament election the year before, they clearly represent the views of a significant portion of the British public. UKIP’s constitution states within its primary Objective that “[UK] governance shall at all times be conducted first and foremost in the interests of the United Kingdom and its peoples”.

In terms of Syrian refugees, UKIP have emphasised the risk from refugees being admitted, who have been radicalised by jihadi terrorist groups, and who may not even be genuine refugees. This concern increased greatly following the 13th November 2015 attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed. In response to these attacks, there was a marked shift in UK public opinion towards refugees.

YouGov reports that, in September 2015, 36% of Britons supported the UK admitting more Syrian refugees. This fell to 20% on 16th-17th November. The number in favour of admitting fewer increased from 13% to 23% and those wishing to admit none at all increased from 14% to 26%.

There is a clear causality here: many Britons fear that admitting more refugees increases the risk of a deadly terrorist attack. This overrides any belief that they have in the duty of the UK to grant asylum to Syrians fleeing persecution in their own country. Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP, emphasised this point as recently as the 7th December 2016, when commenting on President Barack Obama’s decision to admit more refugees into the USA:

“We can find room in our hearts for genuine refugees… [but] we have no means to vet whether these people have terrorist links.

“Of the eight men that committed those atrocities [in Paris], five of them had gotten into Europe crossing the Mediterranean posing as refugees.”

For those who believe that UK government’s responsibility is supreme, and that refugees pose a significant terror threat, the British government has a duty not to admit any former “Jungle” residents.

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