Like others, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for tabling this debate. It is important because the reluctance of parliamentarians to understand the public’s dismay at the flagrant loss of control of national borders is a democratic problem.
This discussion comes a day after a tragedy of unspeakable horror, but that horrendous incident must not be used to chill a frank national discussion, reviewing all sides of the debate and all opinions. Why has this issue of record numbers crossing the channel by boat led to popular fury and frustration? It is not, as some assume, proof of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment. Let us note that 99.9% of the British public have a track record of humane generosity in, for example, welcoming any number of Hong Kong citizens fleeing authoritarianism. There are many examples, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, explained.
I remember when some at the Home Office crassly interpreted the Brexit vote through the prism of racism and thought the hostile environment policy would be popular. Instead, leavers and remainers united in rejecting the cruel consequences meted out on the Windrush generation—still a top-down, shameful scandal—so let us not think this is racism. No, what is infuriating citizens about these channel crossings is not numbers or migrants. It is because they are told by too many in power that there is no alternative.
Over the last 20 months, the Border Force has looked helpless before a ceaseless flow of boats arriving on the shores of Kent, throwing up its hands with a series of “What can we do?” excuses. The Home Secretary talks tough, and tougher, but the public can see no change. This just seems like an abandonment of even the pretence of border control. It also makes a mockery of Brexit voters’ very firm expression of popular sovereignty—to take back control—if you cannot take control even of your national borders.
I do not pretend that practical solutions are easy but nothing should be off the table. I was impressed by an article by Sherelle Jacobs earlier in the week which weighed up a range of options. What we cannot conclude is that no matter what we do, nothing can stop the ceaseless crossings. I noted that a lot of people said today that nothing can be done unless we work with the EU—not happening. This fatalism and lack of choice make a mockery of politics, legislation and democracy.
Some here, and I might sympathise with this, think that the UK should offer to take greater numbers of asylum seekers legally. But then we need to convince the majority of our fellow citizens about this policy, not impose it on them as a humanitarian fait accompli. Priti Patel accuses would-be economic migrants of disguising themselves as asylum seekers. Perhaps that is true, by the way, as many pro-refugee NGOs have moralised migration so much that the only way you can justify it now is on the basis of suffering. This narrative where the only valid migrants are ones who show their scars and say they are fleeing persecution does them no favours. There is a valid case for economic migration; I am the daughter of economic migrants, in fact.
Those boats are not full of an indistinguishable mass of people. Some are economic migrants, some are good people and some are bad people—and some might be terrorists. It is naive to dismiss any worries about security by making them all out to be angels; it is actually condescending. Those nuances and the disputes get buried, if we moralise this discussion.
Controlling our borders is not interchangeable with closing our borders, but democratic decision-making is dependent on the borders that are secure. The problem is that those charged with controlling our borders seem to have given up on the mission. In his valedictory speech, the outgoing head of the UK Border Force, Paul Lincoln, declared:
“Bloody borders are just such a pain in the bloody ass.”
This seeming indifference to borders by a senior civil servant reminded me of the famous description by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, of the border agency as “not fit for purpose”. Now it seems that we are worse off, because we have a Border Force chief who lacks purpose altogether. If Mr Lincoln does not believe that enforcing the integrity of Britain’s borders is crucial, just thinks that it is a nuisance, and does not understand why borders matter, we are in trouble.
Let me state here: borders matter, because they are the basis on which national sovereignty—that is, democratic accountability—is realised. Maintaining the integrity of a community’s borders is essential for the conduct of democratic life. Borders are not just barriers; they delineate the geographic space within which a political community is constituted. It is where citizenship is forged and our rights are afforded. In our role as equal citizens—whether from different migrant backgrounds or not—we, as voters, control politicians, and that is realised through citizenship. We take on board our duties and responsibilities for our country and our fellow citizens that way. To quote the anti-fascist philosopher, Hannah Arendt,
“rights and duties must be defined and limited, not only by … fellow citizens, but also by the boundaries of a territory”.
Those bonds of citizenship, in which we take responsibility for the society in which we live, become stripped of meaning if there is no distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Citizenship becomes meaningless if you do not even know how many citizens live in a country.