Everything that is wrong with the immigration debate in the UK was exposed in parliament yesterday.
Suella Braverman, home secretary and current punchbag for the right-thinking crowd, attempted to address the problem of illegal migration across the English Channel. ‘Some 40,000 people have arrived on the south coast this year alone’, she said. ‘Many of them facilitated by criminal gangs, some of them actual members of criminal gangs.’
This is indeed a serious issue. It’s bad for British society. It’s bad for those making the often treacherous crossing. And it’s a problem that appears to only be getting worse. In 2020, just over 8,000 people crossed the channel illegally. This rose to nearly 29,000 for last year. And by October of this year, the number had already reached 40,000.
Of course, many of those making their way into the UK this way are fleeing conflict and persecution at home. But many are not. Recent reports have revealed that Albanian men, aged between 20 and 40, now make up the largest proportion of those illegally crossing the Channel. From the beginning of this year to June, Albanian men made up 18 per cent of all crossings, or 10,000 people. Whatever one may think of Albania, it is not a war-torn country. These young men are not seeking refuge. They are being ferried over by Albanian criminal gangs, which often also trade in drugs, guns and prostitution. Dan O’Mahoney, UK Border Force’s clandestine threat commander, said last week that many of these men come to the UK purely to work in the criminal underworld, before returning to Albania.
Yet Braverman’s opponents, inside and outside parliament, have ignored all this. They concerned themselves yesterday not with the serious problem of illegal channel crossings, but with the language Braverman used to describe it. What bothered them most was not the fact that 40,000 people have illegally entered the UK in a dangerous and uncontrolled fashion, but that Braverman called this an ‘invasion’.
Now, throwing around words like ‘invasion’ when talking about immigrants – many of them coming here in difficult circumstances – is deeply unpleasant. It’s up there with David Cameron’s description of illegal migrants as ‘a swarm’. No one’s understanding of the issue is helped by this kind of inflammatory talk.
But by focusing on this word and this word alone, too many of Braverman’s critics appear to be tone-policing the debate rather than actually engaging in it. Referencing the petrol-bomb attack on a migrant centre over the weekend (carried out by a man suffering from ‘severe mental-health difficulties’ who then hanged himself), shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused Braverman of being ‘highly irresponsible’ with her language. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said Braverman’s comments were ‘heinous’ and claimed she was ‘putting lives at risk’. Refugee Action said Braverman was endangering people.
This disingenuousness is depressingly typical of today’s debate over immigration. Whereas those in favour of liberal migration in the past actually bothered to make arguments, the issue now serves another purpose entirely for members of our not-so-liberal establishment. It is a chance to virtue-signal, to indicate to others that they are good people. People who care. People with compassion. Not like Cruella Braverman and the evil Tories.
In this way, the very real problem of the small-boats crossings is sucked up into and warped by the culture wars. It’s turned into yet another opportunity for the smart set to demonstrate just how morally superior they are to ordinary people. To the ‘xenophobes’ who think, as Braverman does, that ‘the system is broken’. To the ‘bigots’ who feel that ‘illegal migration is out of control’.
This demonising portrait of those worried about illegal immigration – which according to surveys is most of the general public – misrepresents their concerns. Most British people are not bigoted or xenophobic. They are not even opposed to immigration – as the most recent British Social Attitudes survey showed, more Brits have a favourable view of immigration than ever before.