EU Referendum

Immigration: political expediency


Just about every sentient being with a keyboard and internet access seems to be writing about yesterday's incident in the Channel, which means that there is very little new or original that can be said. Such is the prominence of the incident, though, that it would be otiose to write about anything else.

The one thing I'm not going to do though is call this an accident - the death of 31 migrants (so far reported), said to have drowned in the sea some five miles north of Calais. By common accord, it was only a matter of time before something of this nature was going to happen, which means that it can't qualify as an accident, by any proper meaning of the word.

That leaves the various actors and pundits to play out their grotesque versions of the blame game, each varying according to stance and political disposition. But it has to be said that the primary responsibility for the deaths lie with those who put themselves in harm's way – with the possible exception of the women and the young girl reported dead. They may not have been entirely free agents.

Many would profoundly disagree with this assertion but, if we are to believe in the concept of free will, and self-determination, then we cannot and must not absolve those who risked their own lives from the consequences of their own actions.

Certainly, it is said that people smugglers were involved in procuring the craft, and organising the perilous journey but nowhere have I seen it claimed that any of the passengers (apart from the aforementioned exceptions) have been anything other than volunteers, in the main having made substantial payments for their places.

Nevertheless, the case has been made that these are desperate people driven by extreme circumstances, and thus have been "forced" to take the risks they do. It may also be argued that, in view of the intervention of the authorities – British and French – that the risks were relatively slight, on the basis that rescue was fairly well assured in the event of mishap.

Despite all that, though – and whatever other arguments may be adduced - the people who drowned yesterday must have made their own calculations of the risks they were taking. That in this case they did not pay off does not change the calculus.

However, in law – English law, at least – it is well accepted that blame for any one incident can be apportioned to multiple parties, with relative proportions attributed. Thus, in holding that those who died were primarily responsible for their own fate does not necessarily (or at all) absolve others.

If one looks at the passage of people in flimsy craft across the Channel in terms of a health and safety issue – skirting for the moment the immigration issues – then blame can also be directed at the French authorities.

It has been said of the French (and by them in their own defence) that policing the beaches to prevent migrants launching their dinghies is very difficult to the point of being impossible. This argument, though, I don't even begin to accept.

For one thing, there is considerable experience in dealing with this type of problem. For instances, in April 2015 I wrote of the Spanish experience of boat-borne migrants and of the same outcome that the media are currently reporting, where in 2003 200 migrants were presumed dead after an overladen refugee boat had sunk in the Mediterranean.

The response of the Spanish, I wrote at the time, had been to strengthen their defences. They had already installed from 2001 a $140 million surveillance system called the Integrated External Vigilance System (SIVE), first in the Strait of Gibraltar and along the Andalusian coast, in the province of Cadiz. It was gradually extended to other areas of Andalusia, the Mediterranean coast and the coasts of the Canaries.

This system combined three elements: radar stations distributed along the coast (pictured), dedicated control centres where specialised agents could control the movement of the cameras and radars scattered along the coast and "interception units" (patrol boats, helicopters and vehicles) that received orders from the control centre.

Since then, technology has moved on, with the availability of reliable, high-endurance UAVs (drones), equipped with high-resolution cameras covering visible and infra-red spectrum, and synthetic-aperture side-looking radar which is said to be so sensitive that it can pick up fresh footprints in the sand.

Combine that with real-time, digitised environmental exception mapping, utilising the very latest in AI technology – which can quickly flag up suspicious movement - and it would be eminently possible to identify preparations for dinghy launches in time to prevent them from happening.

For sure, such systems don't come cheap and the Spanish budget for their operation between 2001 and 2006 was €106 million, while in 2005 and 2008 its total cost was €130 million. Given equipment price inflation, it would now be much more, but then – with the UK also contributing – cost is hardly a factor.

Where the Spanish also scored was in brokering a deal with Morocco so that any boat people who were picked up were immediately shipped back, sending a message to would-be migrants that investing in boat rides was a complete waste of money.

Translated into the Channel scenario, that would require the French government to give an undertaking to the British that any dinghy people picked up by the British would be accepted back in France, without question or delay. By that means, the same message would be conveyed – that investing in dinghy trips was fruitless.

Remember, we are not talking politics here, nor seeking to decide immigration policy or the treatment of asylum seekers. We are addressing this solely on a health and safety level. And both technically and procedurally, there can be no argument that the means existed to prevent migrants putting to sea.

On that basis, the one group that could not be blamed for this particular incident is the British. For a start, the dinghy sank in French waters and, as we've been seeing, the French police have hardly been diligent in preventing dinghy launches.

Had this dinghy made it to British waters, Border Force or RNLI vessels would have doubtless have intercepted the craft, and the occupants by now would be safely ensconced in the Dover reception centre, scoffing taxpayer-funded Dominos pizzas. Although such actions have been (and still are) highly controversial, we can feel particularly smug about pointing the finger in other directions.

It almost goes without saying that one of those directions leads to the people smuggling gangs, who are profiting mightily from their disgusting trade, but if the French were stopping the launches, and those who slipped the net were sent back, there would be no trade to be had. Nevertheless, these criminals bear a portion of the blame.

Despite all that, there are those of the NGOcracy - of which Pete writes so lucidly – who would have it that Britain was entirely to blame, through not providing a "safe corridor" by which migrants could seek asylum in the UK without putting themselves at risk. Pete effectively deals with this special pleading, which – when one looks for where the blame lies, outside that of the migrants – puts the ball firmly in the French court.

While obviously there are strong political influences at play here, make absolutely no mistake – the deaths recorded yesterday could have been prevented by technical and procedural measures implemented by the French, had they chosen to employ them.

Doubtless, the French may believe they had sound political reasons for not intervening, and it would not be the first time, by any means, that lives have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. But, in the tumult of breast-beating that we will see over the next few days, we should be in no doubt that the means to prevent these deaths were not employed.

Also published on Turbulent Times.