It is a sad law of politics that just because a problem exists, it doesn’t mean a solution exists. In the Home Office, this law is more prevalent than anywhere else. The tragedy of 27 deaths in the English Channel last week illustrates horribly how true this is.
Some of my colleagues on the Conservative backbenches agree with the section of the public that believes the government is not being, in some undefined way, “tough enough” on the issue. This is palpably unfair on the home secretary in particular, and the government as whole. They want a solution as much as anyone for political as well as normal decent humanitarian reasons.
There is no single act that works in this instance, but there are a series of options. These divide into short-term measures which should be implemented immediately, and more long-term plans which will take months and in some cases years to come to fruition, but will be needed to give a sustainable hope that this crisis will not be permanent.
For the immediate future, the only remedy lies on the beaches of northern France. The policing effort put in to stopping this activity, which is of course organised by some of the world’s nastiest criminal gangs preying on the most vulnerable people, may have been considerable, but it is not enough.
For a start, the use of drones and other aerial surveillance would give the authorities a chance to know immediately where a particular operation was gathering, and therefore the ability to deploy police there in time. Whether this is done by French or British officers is a second-order issue. If the French police don’t have the resources, the UK can and will help out. Both countries already allow each other’s immigration officers to check passports on the other side of the Channel, so this is legally possible. Sovereignty should not be an issue here.
What this would require is a greater willingness to act together than is currently available. The wider background of Anglo-French coldness, which is currently severe and getting worse, needs to be reversed, in the interests of both countries. The last couple of days have been a diplomatic disaster. Now is not the time for displays of wounded amour propre, in either language. Careless talk costs lives.
For the longer term, the idea of adapting the Syrian scheme, where refugees came to Britain legally from the area to which they had originally fled, is a good one. There is no reason why this cannot be applied to other countries suffering turmoil and would provide the other side to the coin of new restrictions on illegal entry in the borders bill currently before parliament. It would demonstrate that the UK was not shirking its responsibilities as a global player and would therefore justify tighter rules in terms of refusing entry to those who were trying to break or ignore the existing laws of the country.
This kind of strategy, which combines a realistic and compassionate approach around the world with greater protection of our own borders, will be needed. Most importantly it will save lives, but it will also lower the political temperature around immigration more generally.
It will also be needed because of a fact that I almost hesitate to point out to more delicately minded Observer readers. This is that Britain – post-Brexit, Tory-voting Britain, Boris’s Britain – is a greatly attractive place to live. People who have reached France or other prosperous western democracies are still desperate to come to the UK. Because we live here too, we don’t want that desirability to change. So let’s have an asylum system that can cope.
Damian Green is a former immigration minister and chair of the Conservatives’ One Nation Caucus and MP for Ashford, Kent