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Last modified: 31 July 2015

Did the UK create today’s asylum seekers?


An unusually large number of people are crossing the Mediterranean in search of asylum in Europe. Almost all of them set off from Libya, but very few are Libyan. Syrians and Eritreans make up the majority of the travellers and although no boats reach Britain directly a very small percentage of them continue their journeys to Calais in the hope of reaching the UK.


I think that Britain should welcome more of these asylum seekers. I offer three main reasons. I also offer some conditions we should try and meet to keep them valid.

  1. We have a justice system that seems reasonably fair in granting or denying asylum. But it takes too long to process applications. We need to make decisions more quickly so that asylum seekers can contribute to our society or return to their countries of origin. Too many people are stuck in between.
  2. We have the capacity to accommodate more people. Our culture is welcoming and our cities have space to grow. Our economy is strong enough to invest in pleasant and productive lives for everyone. But we have too few homes. We must fix that problem.
  3. Many of these people are in desperate need. Many of the safe countries where asylum seekers arrive have over-stretched justice systems and economies that are weaker than ours. We should either accept direct transfers of asylum seekers from those countries and process and house them ourselves or we should increase payments to other countries in the EU so that they can accommodate new arrivals to Europe. If we continue to do neither it will be a stain on our history.


I'm not convinced that we should welcome more asylum seekers because we bear a responsibity for their awful predicament. Specifically in this case, because of our role in wars in the Middle East, our role in recent high food prices, and our role in causing climate change. I’ll take each in turn.



Foreign policy is really hard.

The Iraq war was a huge mistake. French-led intervention in Mali seems to have been a success. The arms we sell to Tunisia have generally had a positive impact. We’ll never know what would have happened in Libya if we hadn’t intervened, or what would have happened in Syria if we had intervened more. Few of the people fleeing Africa and the Middle-East are from Iraq and Mali where we did intervene. The majority are from Syria and Eritrea where we largely didn’t.

Our military policies bring stability when they work and chaos when they don’t. The net result is impossible to know. but I’m not convinced that we are such a force for instability that we are duty-bound to grant asylum to more people.


Food prices

Increases in global food prices are widely cited as a factor in causing the Arab Spring. I find that argument convincing. It is also reasonable to suggest that changes to the EU’s common agricultural policy and certain US efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions may have made the increase in food price more severe than it would otherwise have been.

First we’d have to decide that the Arab Spring was a bad thing. It’s too early to say that.

Secondly we’d have to decide that higher food prices are a bad thing, and I’m not sure about that either.

Many poor countries export food so rising prices are a benefit to many of the world’s poor. It is hunger not high food prices that are awful and both African and Worldwide hunger have been falling almost continuously for decades.

Whatever our role in higher food prices I see no reason to infer that we are responsible for increases in the number of asylum seekers.


Climate change

Global warming is happening and will continue. Europe and North America are largely to blame and we have a duty to reduce the damage it will do. I believe that our foreign aid is part of that. Another element is the scientific knowledge and technical assistance that developing nations receive and buy from us to increase their crop yields. Most of all, I think that we should be proud of our promotion of a global economic system that has seen the poorest parts of the world develop like never before through ever freer and fairer trade.

Climate change will cause human suffering in the future. Investments we are making now will reduce human suffering in the future. On balance I think we're probably a positive influence on world stability. Without information to the contrary I don’t think we bear a responsibility to take a greater number of people seeking asylum. We should take them anyway. Because it is right and because we can.

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