The English columnist Nick Cohen had a piece on immigration in yesterday’s Observer. For those who don’t know his work, Cohen is a former left-wing radical journalist who has now renounced “the left” for its supposedly regressive views and who, post-epiphany, lashes “liberals” and others in the pages of the Spectator and Standpoint. A Paul Johnson for a new generation.
His latest effort is full of his trademark jibes that “the left” is soft on Putin, together with swipes at stock figures such as the “no-platforming student dogmatist”. But let’s leave the fluff and the fury aside and concentrate on the substance of his piece. The column begins at Calais, a place where Spectator writers have traditionally believed that many bad things begin. Cohen recalls a visit there last year and that he couldn’t find any Syrians. We might notice that lawyers and charities have been more successful in finding Syrians than Cohen was, but no matter. Who, then, did he find? “Eritreans, Nigerians, Ethiopians and Sudanese.” Okay.
What were the people from those countries doing there?
An arc of instability surrounds our continent. In Nigeria, Boko Haram still operates and the collapse in the oil price has wrecked the economy. In Chad and Niger, global warming has turned farmland to desert. Warlords and their barbaric militias have pushed civilians to the edge of starvation in Sudan. Eritrea remains a police state from which the young want to flee.
Cohen then writes several paragraphs about this generalized instability and how more and more people are going to come (and how Putin bears much of the blame) before suddenly addressing a vital distinction:
If liberals want to defend refugees in these dark times, they are going to have to ditch prejudices that have become a self-defeating menace. The first is the waffle you hear everywhere that there’s no difference between refugees and economic migrants.
By blurring the distinction between genuine refugees and economic migrants, liberals let their governments off the hook.
Now, I don’t know about “the waffle you hear everywhere” about there being no difference. There is a case to argue about whether the moral claim of the desperately poor to sanctuary is similar to that of victims of persecution. That strikes me as something we might have a properly informed discussion about rather than dismissing it as “waffle”, and maybe Cohen could have informed himself better by doing some reading on the subject. For example, Kieran Oberman’s article “Refugees and Economic Migrants: A Spurious Distinction”. Still, let’s grant Cohen his claim that there is a morally significant difference.
Who then are the “economic migrants” to whom he refers? A casual reader might think that this means the “Eritreans, Nigerians, Ethiopians and Sudanese” who featured earlier in the piece. But the Eritreans, who Cohen himself describes as fleeing a police state, fit the definitions of the 1951 Refugee Convention pretty well, despite attempts by the UK’s Home Office to claim otherwise, attempts that have not fared well on appeal. When I challenged him about this on twitter, Cohen invited me to google “Nick Cohen Eritrea”. Fair enough. It must be the Nigerians, Ethiopians and Sudanese, who are the “economic migrants”, though presumably not the gay ones even there.
As the column draws to a close the categories proliferate along with the unclarity about who belongs in which box.
“Britain has accepted economic migrants by the millions.”
That helps. So now we’re talking people who have taken advantage of the EU’s provisions for free movement of labour, or non-EU citizens who possess a Tier 2 visa and not about Nigerians or Sudanese at all.
But then “bogus asylum seekers” and “illegal immigrants” are added to the dramatis personae:
[Ordinary citizens] will have real concerns that lying applicants and sharp lawyers can rig the system. They will only welcome genuine refugees if bogus asylum seekers are speedily removed. If you look at all the different nationalities who make it to Calais you can see that the migration crisis will continue, whatever happens in Syria. The longer it continues, the more acute the liberal dilemma will become. If you want to be a true liberal and persuade your society to accept genuine refugees, you must accept authoritarian measures and agree to the rapid expulsion of illegal immigrants.
So let’s discuss those two residual categories a little, starting with the “bogus asylum seekers” (a stock phrase much in use since the Blair government, if not before). A refugee is someone with a valid claim under the 1951 Convention. Not everyone who flees to Britain as result of dreadful events in their home country will have a valid claim. Does that make them “bogus”? Not necessarily. “Bogus” implies some deception is involved and people fleeing for their lives are not experts in refugee and asylum law. They may believe that will find a place of refuge and not be intending to deceive anyone. So there may be many people whose asylum claims are correctly refused in law, but who are not bogus. As a campaigning journalist Cohen also ought to be aware that decision-making in the Home Office is of very poor quality and that many people with valid legal claims are refused. Cohen’s rather nasty reference to “lying applicants and sharp lawyers” certainly reflects some public perceptions, but in reality many people, trauma and torture victims, are disbelieved by the Home Office because of inconsistencies and lacunae in their accounts, discrepancies similar to those which we now know ought not to discredit, say, rape victims. The poor decision-making by the Home Office is reflected in the fact that a high proportion of appeals are successful, but can we then conclude that all those who fail on appeal are “bogus”? It isn’t clear that we can. There will be those, such as, for example, the Nigerian LBGT activist Aderonke Apata who are stigmatized as liars by the Home Office and disbelieved by judges for whom the case seems strong. Perhaps Cohen should ask Peter Tatchell about Aderonke’s case.
So what about those “illegal immigrants” against whom Cohen is keen to direct “authoritarian measures” in order to ensure their “rapid expulsion”? I don’t know whether Cohen has in mind here the Daily Mail stereotype of the person in the back of the lorry. But if he does, then that’s a poor guide to the social reality: most people who are “illegal immigrants” entered the country legally but no longer have a valid visa. (Unlike Cohen, I don’t much like the term “illegal immigrant” but I’ll let that pass.) They might include those like the NHS therapist Harley Miller, whose leave to remain was cancelled by the Home Office after ten years in the country (and who has won her case). They could include Thomas Podgoretsky, a grandfather who has lived in the UK since the 1960s and now faces separation from his family. Or perhaps Myrtle Cothill, a sick woman in her 90s who is being cared for by her daughter. And then there are many people who are hanging on in the UK with their partner or children, but where the UK partner lacks the income to sponsor a spousal visa. All of them “illegal” and all, apparently, fitting subjects of “authoritarian measures” to secure their “rapid expulsion”.
And as for those “authoritarian measures”, I’m surprised that those already in place don’t go far enough for Cohen’s tastes. The UK is the only country in Europe which practises indefinite detention for migrants. Some people languish for years in prison-like facilities managed by Serco or G4S. No doubt Cohen regrets this (wanting their “rapid expulsion”) but many people cannot be removed from the country because the state they came from (example Zimbabwe) won’t take them. Britain has now put in place many measures to create a “hostile environment” for irregular migrants, criminalizing them and anyone who might give them work or rent them a dwelling. Under the latest measures, families whose asylum claims are rejected stand to be cut off without any support, even where there are small children involved. And if Cohen wants to learn about authoritarian measures that might have disturbed the conscience of the civil-libertarian journalist he once was, he could google “Operation Nexus”.
(The stories of Aderonke Apata and Harley Miller are among those told by the campaigning journalist Emily Dugan in her fine new book, Finding Home: The Real Stories of Migrant Britain which I strongly recommend.)