Richard North, 30/05/2014  

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On the day that Home Secretary Theresa May signals a "tough new line on EU migrants", we see a separate report that there has been an "eight-fold increase in the number of illegal migrants entering Europe".

There lies the ultimate nightmare for policy-makers, those who have to deal with real world conditions, where there is a trade-off between official and illegal immigration. Clearly, the more "liberal" the official policy, the less of a problem the "illegals" present – and vice versa.

Arguably, in terms of numbers, it may be (but is not always the case) that your illegal immigrants are fewer than those who would be attracted by completely open borders and open access to public, etc., services, but there comes a point where small numbers of illegals can be more resource-hungry, in terms of enforcement requirements, and more intrusive (in terms of the type of policing and services provision) than legal immigrants – who will contribute to the open economy.

What very often decides the level of inflow, though, is the balance between the so-called "push" factors – which turn settled populations into would-be migrants, and drive them from their homes – and the "pull" factors which attract them to one or other country, and not others.

In this context, our domestic politicians such as Teresa May will be doing their best to limit the "pull" factors, by making the UK in certain respects less attractive to would-be immigrants, both in absolute terms and relative to our neighbours. But, where the "push" factors are overwhelmingly powerful, even major changes in our domestic conditions, aimed at deterring immigrants, will have little effect.

And it is this that we are seeing in a recent article. It tells of Italian newspapers full of reports of countless rickety boats conveying thousands of desperate migrants to its shores.

Since the beginning of the year, over 38,000 "irregular" migrants have arrived in Italy, most of them coming ashore on the tiny island of Lampedusa south of Sicily. This is a significant jump from the 4,290 who made the crossing during the same period in 2013, but Italian officials have suggested that it represents only the tip of the iceberg.

Last month, we are told, the head of Italy's Immigration and Border Police agency was widely quoted in the media telling a parliamentary committee that 800,000 more migrants were poised to depart the North African coast for Europe, a figure which he later admitted was "not a concrete projection".

What comes over from the article, though, is the sheer desperation that is driving migrants, the enormous hardships they are undergoing and the huge risks to which they expose themselves, in order to seek a better life.

In the journeys taken by African migrants, travelling west and northwards from the interior, through the Lybian desert to reach the Mediterranean Sea and then Europe, more than 170 have died since the beginning of 2014.

How many died of thirst or hunger while crossing the Sahara is unknown, but one report by the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) describes the crossing as "even more dangerous" than the Mediterranean.

In just one incident in April, we learn, Sudanese Armed Forces discovered 600 mostly Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who had been abandoned by their smuggler near the Libyan border. Ten had died of hunger and thirst before the group was rescued.

Many of the migrants interviewed for the RMMS report recounted how members of the groups they were travelling with had died from lack of food or water during desert crossings. Once at sea in barely seaworthy boats, many more succumb - yet still more keep coming.

What strikes one, though, is the admitted lack of information as to the nature of the migrants, their origins, or what specific factors are driving them to make their hazardous journeys. 

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However, a survey of about 1,000 migrants conducted by the Danish Refugee Council late last year found that West African migrants in particular often wanted to remain in Libya to work and support their families back home. It was the prevailing insecurity as well as the increasingly difficult living and working conditions in that country that forced some of them to consider moving on to Europe.

But there are many other factors which are driving people from their homes in the first place, and without accurate, focused information on the nature of the "push" factors, we are hardly in a position to direct policy, and devise international measures in such a way that the flow of migrants will be checked at source.

And it is here that we are seeing both EU intervention leading to massive policy failures. For instance, member states are funding a US$41 million mission to help Libya better secure and manage its borders through the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM). However, the mission, now entering its second year, has been severely constrained and has achieved almost nothing. Effectively, EUBAM is to immigration control as the EU's CFP is to fishing.

Further up the chain brings you to the UNHCR and at that level, policy and intervention has been equally ineffective. The system is crying out for serious policy initiatives, properly-directed resources and a massive updating and re-writing of international law.

But as long as British interests are subsumed within the EU, we lack a meaningful voice on the global stage, where we might otherwise be driving real change and making the difference.

As a result, we end up with the likes of Melissa Phillips, a researcher with RMMS, who notes the absence of monitoring at Libya's southern land borders where the majority of migrants and their smugglers enter the country after perilous journeys through the deserts of Sudan, Chad and Niger. "There's a complete black hole of information on Libya’s southern borders", she says. "At the moment, the only reliable figures we have are for people leaving".

Like many, Phillips believes that trying to prevent people from reaching Europe is the wrong approach. "The problem is being looked at very much from a destination approach… but unless we look at transit and origin [countries], we're only looking at one part of the story", she adds.

"We're not understanding the scale and dimension of the situation in Libya and what's driving people out of their countries of origin and what can be done to assist them either there or en route".

Yet, back in the inner recesses of the "little Englander" mind, you don't get much smaller, more insular and, frankly, more ignorant, than former prime minister John Major who believes that David Cameron has a good chance of renegotiating EU immigration rules - his contribution to resolving the immigration problem.

This vain, rather stupid little man says Europe's national leaders recognise need for change. The UK, he adds, has allies in Brussels it did not have in 1990s. Therefore, he says, people might be surprised about what Cameron manages to achieve in terms of a new settlement with Brussels.

Even the loss-making Guardian, though, recognises that Mr Cameron faces a "tricky situation" with EU immigration because reducing the number of new arrivals is likely to require changing the fundamental right of citizens to live and work elsewhere in the bloc.

But, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Major says: "I think you may be surprised. Of course, nobody can be certain what will happen, but as the prime minister has said himself, free movement of people cannot be unqualified and I think that is very important … I think the difficulties that we're facing are difficulties that we're not going to be facing alone and I think that does begin to change the circumstances".

"Drivel" is something of a pejorative term, but it is difficult to describe Major's contribution as much else, as he says: "I can't predict what can happen. Free movement of capital, trade and people is one of the fundamentals, but I think that is an issue that will have to be addressed by governments other than us".

Major thus demonstrates his limited grasp on affairs, in describing three of the four "freedoms" as "one of the fundamentals". He then confines what passes for thinking to constraining free movement to "take up work, not benefits" - focusing entirely on narrow, nationally focused "pull" factors.

"I don't think you can have an absolute restriction on movements, but maybe you could qualify it in different ways and I think that is something that would find an echo in many European governments, as well as here", this towering intellect tells us.

The point, of course, is we have problems with the separate matter of free movement of capital, but this is being dealt with by the OECD in a review mandated by the G20. If we are going to get anywhere with the problem of migration, it is going to be at a similar level, where we have to deal not just with local "pull" factors but the "push" and "pull" equation. Then, with us working at that level, the EU will conform to strategies set out by such bodies.  We thus need to work from the top down. 

As it stands, "little England" looking upwards from a narrow national base, talking mainly (or only) to the sub-regional entity of the European Union, is going to achieve very little. Global Britain needs to get on its bike, and start making noises where it really matters.


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