It has been a rewarding few days for collectors of Brexit ironies. Having told the country that turning Britain's back on Europe was the way to 'take back control' of immigration, the UK Government proudly announced that it was tackling the most acute immigrant issue… by going to Paris to sign a bold new partnership agreement with what Suella Braverman would presumably call, in line with her recent description of the European Court of Human Rights, some foreign country (namely, France).
Strictly speaking, the sorry souls who risk their all in the Channel – or, to avail ourselves again of Ms Braverman's infallibly objectionable vocabulary, who are 'invading' the south coast of England – are not those that Brexit enthusiasts back in 2016 were so eager to exclude. Those were the itinerant workers from countries like Poland and Slovenia who arrived after EU Enlargement, often toting advanced skillsets, worked hard, and sent the money they earned back to their families at home.
The problem is that they were at least as useful to Britain's economy as Britain was to theirs; which is why, on the same day that Ms Braverman was off on her away-day to the foreign country, one of the big two employers' organisations, the Confederation of British Industry, was pleading with ministers to allow more EU migrant workers from Eastern Europe into the UK.
'A desperate lack of workers is inflating wages and stopping firms growing,' the CBI said. 'It is far more important to change that than partisan efforts to simply repeal EU laws which won't make any positive difference to most firms.' According to the Sunday Time
s (and denied by Downing Street), the UK Government is quietly looking to forge a closer 'Swiss-style' trading alliance with the single market, while continuing to rule out a return to freedom of movement. Here were informed voices explaining how tightly the two topics are intertwined. Meanwhile, a survey by the other half of the employer 'big two', the Institute of Directors, says that nearly half of British firms are still finding Brexit's consequences for trade 'challenging': that's management-speak for bloody difficult
Finally, completists should track down a Sunday Telegraph
feature in which Robert Jenrick, Ms Braverman's junior minister and evident semantic soulmate, promised an end to migrants entering 'Hotel Britain' to go 'asylum shopping'. Dispel any thoughts you may be having of the Dorchester and Harrods. Turn instead to the independent inspector's report on the Manston assessment centre in Kent, a place of cursory furnishings, tents and chemical toilets, where no more than 1,600 people from the boats are supposed to be held for a maximum of 24 hours prior to dispersal. At the end of last month 4,000 people – including young children – were there, some for more than a month. Others had been shunted off to B&Bs or to the prison-like detention centres, like Gartnavel in Lanarkshire, where those whose claims have been rejected are held pending deportation.
By this summer, the backlog of asylum claims was approaching six figures. Close to 65,000 claims have already been lodged this year. Too little is made of the fact that a high proportion of those who do reach assessment are found to be genuine refugees, forced to turn to the smugglers for want of lawful routes into the UK. Why do so many choose Britain? Anyone who thinks it is because of a lavishly generous benefits system has neither looked at European comparisons nor been a claimant themselves. More often it is because the migrants' itinerary is controlled by the smugglers, or because they want to join family there, or because English is their second language.
All the same, the plain fact is that the human tide into western Europe from Africa, the Middle East and Albania is by no means solely, or even predominantly, a British problem, however preposterous Britain's exposure has been made to look by the foolish boasts of the Brexiteers. It is a deepening crisis across the EU, and several member states are finding it every bit as intractable as Britain has. It is also, consequently, an increasing source of acrimony between them.
These past few days have produced a startling example in the incendiary row between France and Italy over the Ocean Viking, a ship operated by a European NGO which rescued 234 desperate people from the Ionian Sea between Libya and Italy. For three weeks, Italy's ultra-right government refused to let it dock, despite conditions aboard deteriorating and the health of some passengers turning critical. Dialogue, reportedly acerbic, between Emmanuel Macron and new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni failed to budge Rome's obduracy. Undiplomatic language was exchanged. France called it a breach of both trust and international law, 'irresponsible and inhumane'. Meloni called the French response 'aggressive… incomprehensible and unjustified'.
Eventually France brought the Viking and its wretched passengers ashore at Toulon. Eleven other EU countries immediately offered to accept two-thirds of the passengers in 'solidarity', as a communautaire snub to Meloni. It will do her no harm with her Trumpian base: nor will decency necessarily prove a net gain for Macron in assuaging French domestic opinion. The French Government is navigating what it hopes is a delicate path through a torrid issue, speeding up the expulsion process for 'illegals' deemed unwelcome, but at the same time proposing a new procedure to legalise residency for those who work in sectors with recruitment shortfalls.
It is all grist to the agitators' mill. Inevitably, France's own far-right siren, Marine Le Pen, has waded in, accusing Macron of something called 'shameful immigrationism' and declaring France to be 'dramatically' soft on immigration. One of her MPs, Gregoire de Fournas, earned a suspension and docked salary from the Assemblêe Nationale for shouting 'Go back to Africa' at a black (French) opponent. Even in the most liberal democracies, there are always some people to whom any immigrant (I speak as one myself) is potentially a red rag: yeah, even unto the nth generation.
Which, in turn, stops the show of solidarity from being quite as impressive as it might appear. The EU has been struggling for much of this year to institute a relocation system that would share asylum seekers fairly across the Union, and so ease pressure in front-line states like Italy. It is meant to apportion 8,000 people a year. So far, just 117 have been transferred. Now the Ocean Viking row has led France to shelve an offer to accommodate an eventual 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy. Progress towards a common EU policy on migration is at best stalled.
Perhaps the only aspect anyone finds easy is to forget that these bleak statistics are all human beings: despondent men and women, shivering grannies, terrified children. Amid all the expedient rumours about legions of Albanian footpads flocking west with criminal intent, the question too rarely asked is this: if migrants can believe that the best option available to them is entrusting themselves and their families to crowded boats sent across perilous seas by larcenous villains, what must the alternatives available to them look like? And this is before you factor in the licensed hostility that can await those few who do make it through a process stacked heavily against them. Imagine the life they leave behind, if the one they choose seems so much better.
'I pity the poor immigrant,' wrote Bob Dylan, 'whose visions in the final end must shatter like the glass/ I pity the poor immigrant when his gladness comes to pass'.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster