Nick Cohen endorses “authoritarian measures” to deal with “illegal immigration”

by Chris Bertram on February 8, 2016

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.

He continues

> 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.)



Pam DeLargy 02.08.16 at 2:17 pm

Thank you for this important response to Cohen’s rather oddly set out argument.
I had all the same concerns… And the same confusions about what, exactly, he was setting out as evidence for his case.

( re Calais, I suspect that if he went over a year ago, then he probably did not meet Syrians since they only started arriving. The earlier Calais migrants were largely those who had come through Italy . But I was curious whether Cohen would not consider Sudanese from Darfur as “bona fide” refugees)


Daragh 02.08.16 at 2:38 pm

Surprisingly enough, I think you’re being very unfair to Cohen hear, and being a touch selective in your citations. Cohen’s point is that this strategy will continue to be effective if liberals aren’t willing to accept a) most people in democratic nation-states want to be able to set the terms on which the state accepts migrants (of all kinds) b) in order to get said people to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees, they need to have confidence the immigration system is otherwise functional c) if this is not done the right wing backlash (already started) will get much, much stronger d) damning people as Nazis for being wary about migration is a pretty self-defeating, as well as unpleasant, rhetorical strategy that will only push more people away from accepting more refugees.

In other words, liberals (such as myself) would dearly love the UK to accept more refugees, even provide a German style open door. We’re in a minority. We have to accept that and work to convince other voters instead of sneering at them, and a non-negotiable component of

You can object to Cohen’s terminology, or even the idea that nations should control inward and outward migration, but prefacing the whole thing with a paragraph seemingly designed to preemptively delegitimise him (‘he writes for the SPECTATOR?!?!? What a swine!’) and then adding a number of incidences where the Home Office has publicly screwed up, for various reasons doesn’t really add up to an argument. That’s not to diminish the pain and suffering these screw ups cause, obviously, but ‘bureaucratic ineptitude is a thing that happens, for reasons fair and foul’ is not to my mind a strong argument against ‘immigration laws should be enforced stringently, if we want the electorate to support accepting more refugees.’

He’s also quite right in pointing out that both Corbyn and his entire team have been disgraceful on Putin and Ukraine. Apparently when the people rise up to drive out a corrupt autocrat, and are militarily punished for it by an openly neo-imperialist kleptocracy, the only culprits anyone can reasonably <a href=""blame is NATO. This would be pretty disgraceful in ordinary times, but given that Putin and his Syrian clients are actively working to stoke and maintain the refugee crisis, in order to destabilise Europe and empower far-right forces with whom the Kremlin has strong links, it strikes me as particularly egregious example of the hypocrisy and moral idiocy that defines the Labour leadership these days.


Dipper 02.08.16 at 2:45 pm

There are millions and millions of people all over the world who face persecution, starvation, and other appalling things.

Is it your proposal that the UK opens its doors to absolutely anyone who falls into that category? And if so how many tens of millions do you think will come?

Don’t you think that rather than requiring them to bribe officials, take perilous journeys, we should go and bring them here safely?

Will you take an individuals word as sufficient proof of age/nationality/eligibility under humanitarian circumstances or will you require independent verification?

Will all family members be allowed to join a persecuted individual on a permanent basis? And will they have to provide proof of kinship or will their word be sufficient?

One of the reasons many people are deeply distrustful of the left in Britain is its persistent refusal to take hard decisions, to frame every problem as one solely of conscience and principle without regard to the likely costs and outcomes of any proposed actions.


Gary Othic 02.08.16 at 3:10 pm


“damning people as Nazis for being wary about migration is a pretty self-defeating, as well as unpleasant, rhetorical strategy”

A point for which I have some sympathy, but given that Nick Cohen is minded to accuse everyone who doesn’t agree with his views as being fascist sympathizers I think he has a lot of cheek to whine about people calling him names…


JoB 02.08.16 at 3:14 pm

When Merkel ‘opened the doors’ based on all kinds of existing limiting criteria (which @3 conveniently ignores to acknowledge) she was damned by the right regardless of the initial public enthusiasm. A couple of months later, we should feel ashamed to suggest that there are other opinions than the one advocated all along by the right. More, if we really care for the left then we should stop resisting the same public opinion that was so unimportant to the right initially.

It’s a super example of propaganda if in such a short time you can have your opponents so much on the defensive. It’s not about war compelling refugees to come here but it’s about open doors policies making it attractive for traffickers to smuggle poor people here. It isn’t about the ones that have a right to be protected but about those who ride along knowing in advance they can’t be accepted. It’s not about European states not agreeing to organize the movement in a correct fashion, it’s about the EU messing up once again. It’s not about the walls we build but about Turkey taking our money and doing the same the UK does under pressure of public opinion.

33 people drowned today. Start convincing the public it’s somebody else’s fault :-(

Hard decisions? Don’t make us laugh. The right has strung along cowardly decisions and that is precisely the reason why something already bad just gets worse and worse.


organic cheeseboard 02.08.16 at 3:43 pm

what, exactly, he was setting out as evidence for his case.

As usual, it’s ‘evidence’ cherrypicked from a very brief personal encounter, because to look for actual facts would undermine the case he’s already decided on. This, totally coincidentally, just like every single other week involves ‘The Left’ supposedly, though often fictionally, ‘doing something’ he disapproves of, and Jeremy Corbyn being a twat.

I’d also have a lot more time for this kind of argument:

We have to accept that and work to convince other voters instead of sneering at them

were it not for the fact, as someone mentioned above, that Cohen absolutely revels in insulting anyone who disagrees with him as a racist, Fascist, misogynist, Stalinist, anti-semite, you name it, Cohen has thrown the accusation at ‘the Left’. It’s very hard for people who Cohen has in the past called all the names under the sun, while completely misrepresenting their beliefs, to be lectured by him on politeness and sensitivity to the arguments of others. Cohen is possibly the least persuasive writer in Britain – unless you already agree with him he’ll never change your mind, so for him to insist on the importance of changing minds etc is pretty weak stuff.


Neville Morley 02.08.16 at 3:59 pm

Cohen doesn’t sign up directly to the “Britain is FULL!” rhetoric – but his argument to the effect that “lots of ordinary people think that Britain is FULL, and we need to respect their views” leaves him, in practical terms, in exactly the same place.


Daragh 02.08.16 at 4:00 pm

On Cohen’s caustic denunciations of ‘the Left’ – yep, sometimes he can be pretty hyperbolic, but it is worth mentioning that a) Corbyn’s team includes a man who is very much a Stalinist and has written articles downplaying the Terror and extolling the benefits of life in the GDR b) Corbyn himself has been happy to associate with anti-semites, racists and fascists so long as they can give some form of halfway credible defence of themselves as ‘anti-imperialist’ c) that STW, an organisation that Corbyn is very strongly associated with, has published multiple articles on subjects such as ‘what to do when an arguably fascist dictator seizes Crimea’ (A: Support him, because the Americans are bad), ‘what to do when the adherents of a genocidal tyrant carry out terrorist attacks in Iraq’ (A: Support them, because the Americans are bad), and of course ‘who is to blame when a totalitarian dictatorship run by an obvious psychotic starts letting off nuclear weapons’ (A: The Americans, because they’re bad.)

In other words, ‘The Left’ in the UK could gain a lot more credibility, and not just with Nick Cohen, if it could bring itself to repudiate the kind of moral and intellectual idiocy above. Instead, Jeremy Corbyn (who I don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider The Left’s political avatar in Westminster) doubles down on all of the above.


Dipper 02.08.16 at 4:01 pm

@5 and your plan is what? How many do you think we should take? On what criteria?

no-one, absolutely no-one, on CT, ever answers a question about implementation.


Dipper 02.08.16 at 4:12 pm

@7. re Britian is FULL – What’s your number? 70 Million? 80 Million? 100 Million?


nick s 02.08.16 at 4:45 pm

In other words, ‘The Left’ in the UK could gain a lot more credibility, and not just with Nick Cohen, if it could bring itself to repudiate the kind of moral and intellectual idiocy above.

Well, it’s always worth mentioning that Nick Cohen was an advocate for dropping freedom bombs on Iraq while serving as chief cheerleader for Ahmed Chalabi in the London press, so the approval of such moral and intellectual midgets is worth approximately one picofuck.


Alex 02.08.16 at 4:55 pm

If you can’t find a way to persecute someone by economic means, you’re not trying.


JoB 02.08.16 at 5:32 pm

Some numbers:

Not quite in @Dipper’s scare-mongering range. Nor does shouting for a maximum really mean anything when Turkey alone has almost triple the refugees the EU has. If we would register close to Syria (and thereby avoid the current mix of refugees and pure economic immigration) we’ll have a lot of time before we double our number. Hopefully the time it takes to do something about the war itself. Anyway, it’s safe to say from the UK that it is full but it’s not looking like the fences and the chaos are leading to any reduction of those trying to come over to the EU. So the current approach is failing by the standards set by those favoring the approach of keeping these people outside. So what’s the plan there: to drown them, starve them or wage war against them until they flee back?

@Daragh: if this is just a way to score points against Corbyn, well, just call people who’re not agreeing with you Stalinists and be done with it. Or call them softies, whatever you’re fine with when you’re convinced that people disagreeing with you will call you names (it’s not something I’ve seen being done here or, in fact, not a lot of that anywhere).


Chris Bertram 02.08.16 at 5:56 pm

I deliberately focused the post quite narrowly, just to make clear how confused and incoherent Cohen’s engagement with the basic concepts in the article is. I’d be grateful if commenters restrained themselves to more or less the same degree. So long comments about Cohen versus Corbyn and Stalin are definitely OT. We also do our best at CT, consistent with the desideratum of letting people have their say, to maintain quality control. Dipper, with his general “would you let them all in then?” garbage has fallen below the threshold and may not comment further in this thread.


steven johnson 02.08.16 at 6:08 pm

As a foreigner to England, it seemed to me that the influential papers in England (in descending order,) the Times (for its semi-official nature as the paper of the natural ruling classes); the Sun (billionaire demagogy aimed at the lower classes on behalf of the unnatural ruling class); the Guardian (the guardian of upper middle class sensibilities, which vanity defines as the Left.) Is the Observer a genuine newspaper? Is Nick Cohen really a part of the acknowledged conversation like a David Brooks? Or to rephrase, is this guy a teapot in a tempest?


Dipper 02.08.16 at 6:15 pm

[aeiou] Dipper, with his general “would you let them all in then?” garbage

I never said that. I asked specific questions.


Phil 02.08.16 at 6:26 pm

If they won’t go, drive ’em out. Put them into cattle trucks and drive ’em out. … Well, what else are you going to do if they won’t go? … Oh, think of it. Think of it! Hundreds of people – no, thousands of people, hundreds of thousands – rounded up from their stinking slums and smelly ghettoes and driven into big holding camps … They won’t want to go! No – we shall have to push, and prod, and hunt ’em down! They’ll fight, so we’ll have to shoot ’em, and CS gas ’em, and smash down the doors, eh? Put barbed wire around them, searchlights on the corners – haha! Think of all the hate they’ll feel. Think of all the violence. Think of all the pain and the degradation, and in the end, the shooting! And the riots!
– ‘Martin’, Brimstone and Treacle (Dennis Potter)


Yankee 02.08.16 at 6:29 pm

The sustainable solution to The Migrant Problem would obviously involve making the place they come from an attractive place to live (assuming depopulating it utterly is unacceptable). Would that that were an “economic” question, rather than … the other kind.


Daragh 02.08.16 at 6:32 pm

“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. “

That’s quite a lot of free kicks to get in before defining the motion and asking us all to limit our comments to derision of an 800 word newspaper column for it’s lack of linguistic precision and academic terminology.

More to the point, you do bring up Nick Cohen’s recent rhetorical battles with ‘The Left’, primarily as a stick to beat him with. Other commentators have specifically used his habit of denouncing certain people as Stalinists as an excuse to ignore him. Given that Cohen has been pretty consistent in his definition of ‘The Left’ with the current Corbynista tendency and it’s fellow travellers, and that this group does include actual Stalinists in senior positions, I think it’s reasonable to point that out in order to rebut the point.


Chris Bertram 02.08.16 at 6:37 pm

Now that you have, Daragh, consider your quota filled.


bexley 02.08.16 at 7:11 pm

@ steve johnson. The Observer is the sister paper to the Guardian. The Guardian is published Monday to Saturday. The Observer on Sundays.


Gareth Wilson 02.08.16 at 7:18 pm

Thanks for including lots of specific examples of particular immigrants in the original post. It really helps to understand the issue. Do you have any examples of immigrants that you do want to deport?


Asteele 02.08.16 at 8:27 pm

When I heard Corbyn appointed a Stalinist I was excited, but it turns out it was just someone who said something about how not everything the Soviet Union did was evil, a seemingly uncontroversial point.


novakant 02.08.16 at 8:56 pm

Why should anyone listen to an unrepentant Iraq War supporter?

And why is the Guardian publishing this pathetic troll? (not that I have many illusions about the Guardian …)


novakant 02.08.16 at 8:58 pm

ok, I’ll answer the second question myself:



Guano 02.08.16 at 10:24 pm

It is difficult to be focused about an Nick Cohen article, because it always contains a large number of tangential jibes (usually not backed up by evidence). And I am never very sure whether the main point of his articles is these tangential jibes or the main theme.

One of the tangential jibes this time was “Russia is causing instability”, a talking point that has popped up in quite a few places recently. Presumably Nick Cohen hasn’t noticed that some of his own favourite invasion kicked off the instability in that neck of the woods.


kidneystones 02.08.16 at 11:42 pm

@ Why is the Guardian publishing…?

For the same reasons, I assume, that CT principals and commenters who also supported the war are provided with a podium from which to reflect upon and/or denounce their decision. I’m happier to read the former for any number of reasons.

I generally agree that the immigration issue is overblown and that western civilization, if we can call it that, is in no danger from contact with Islam. If anything, Islam represents less of a threat now than it did even five hundred years ago.

The historically ignorant, however, seem to have constructed a world view (perhaps from too much Rousseau) in which all evil results from western colonialism, that man is born innocent of ‘evil’ or ‘naturally good,’ and that theocracy must be combated on every front except when practiced by people other than ‘Christians.’ Economic disparities do exist, the world is not ‘fair’ and never has been. Slavery, violence, war, oppression, institutional sexism, child labor and abuse, are the historical norm and have been for an extremely long time. These practices are in no way unique to western society.

Pretending that Nick Cohen lacks conscience seems a remarkably stupid and uncharitable position. If anything, he suffers from the opposite. The rationale for the war in Iraq included ‘ending the suffering of the Iraqi people brought about by sanctions’ and other ‘make the world a better, safer place.’ I’ve no doubt, for example, that many Republican isolationists couldn’t care less about the plight of the Iraqi people. But they, like many on the left, allowed themselves to be pushed/panicked into supporting a really bad idea because (perhaps) they felt ‘some action must be taken’ and other reasons.

The best reason to read Cohen, and I did, is to re-familiarize the ways in which sometimes sensible people convince themselves that doing really stupid things is the right approach. I


steven johnson 02.09.16 at 12:58 am

bexley@21 Thank you.


DanielH 02.09.16 at 9:50 am

I love curries, but polls show people prefer pizza. Curry advocates must add cheese and pepperoni to all their curries.

It is obvious that this approach will win over pizza lovers, so I will not offer any evidence to this effect.

I say the above, of course, entirely out of my deep commitment to and appreciation for curry.


JoB 02.09.16 at 11:00 am

@29 – LOL

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