Think carefully about immigration

RW Johnson says politicians who don't control their borders will be punished at the polls

The British government’s announcement of its plan to transfer illegal immigrants to Rwanda while their claims to asylum are processed, has been met with widespread denunciation. Even in South Africa a number of prominent voices have been raised against it. But stop and think.

First, remember that Africa’s population is predicted to rise by over a billion in the next generation. There is no way that African states will provide all these extra people with housing, jobs, education, health care and so on, so it is certain that huge numbers will attempt to migrate both to South Africa and to Europe. Research shows that more come our way than to Europe. This is not surprising: there’s no sea to cross and our borders are porous.

There is absolutely no way that either South Africa or Europe can or will accommodate this human flood. This is not a moral issue: the fact that the birth rate is so high in, say, Chad or Niger, doesn’t obligate either Europe or South Africa to admit more immigrants. Even if we wanted to accept them, we simply can’t.

Last year 28,000 people crossed the English Channel illegally in small boats, seeking asylum in Britain, and 60,000 were expected this year. They all claim to be refugees but in reality they are mainly would-be economic migrants. Quite a few also claim to be from war-torn countries when in fact they come from peaceful but poor countries. But they are not themselves that poor: they are, by definition, people who have the money to pay people-smugglers handsomely for their services.

Mainly these would-be migrants are young men, though many of them claim, absurdly, to be children in the hope that this will ease their admission. They are mostly also unskilled, a serious problem because advanced European economies have few openings for unskilled workers. If admitted many of them will, inevitably, have to live on welfare or even – whisper it softly - crime.

Opinion polls show that large majorities of British voters are strongly opposed to allowing in such illegal migrants. The country admits large numbers of legal immigrants every year and also gives asylum to many real refugees. Few people see any reason to reward the efforts of people-smugglers.

By announcing the new “Rwanda option” the Tory government has effectively set a trap for its opponents. Many of them will explode with righteous indignation against this plan but the Tories will simply demand how, then, would they stop illegal immigration ? If they have no answer to that the polls show that the voters will punish them heavily.

This is, of course, a world problem. Donald Trump has built his political career on the fact that, despite all the celebration of their being a country-of-immigrants, most Americans disapprove of illegal immigration. If Biden ignores this, he will lose. But wherever the Third World has a frontier with the First World the problem is the same. Large numbers of Africans are, for example, trying to get into Israel: whatever complaints the Palestinians may have, these Africans are only too keen to join them.

The oddity is that few of those who are busily denouncing Boris Johnson’s new “Rwanda option” have got anything to say about the Australian example, on which it is based. Australia has a delicate environment and already there is concern at the stress which population pressure puts upon it. The Australian government has already announced plans to reduce annual (legal) immigration numbers.

But the problem, of course, is that there are over 200 million poor Indonesians who would like to settle in far richer Australia. Many of them attempted to come by boat and this Australia would not allow. Instead it was decided that nobody who attempted to enter Australia illegally would ever be allowed to settle there and that the “boat people” would be sent to Nauru and to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The system is effectively policed by the Australian navy.

When this system was first introduced it was passionately denounced as inhuman. This outcry has now gone very quiet because the system has worked so well. Illegal immigration has fallen virtually to nil. Almost no boat people try their luck any more since they know the likely result. So there are very few new entrants going to Nauru or Manus. The system has been in force for a decade and appears to have gained wide, bi-partisan support. It would take a very brave or foolish Opposition party to try to change it.

It is worth bearing this in mind. Currently we are told that the Tory government’s “Rwanda” plan will be challenged by all manner of human rights lawyers, NGOs, liberal churchmen and so on. But if the Australian model is accepted, then why object to the Rwanda option ? After all, Rwanda promises not only to house and feed the would-be migrants but to offer them employment opportunities as well. Already Rwanda has had a not dissimilar arrangement with Israel and 130,000 migrants have been through the system.

Rwanda also tells all would-be migrants that they are free to leave any time they want to and that is exactly what most of them have done. However, that cuts several ways. There is no doubt that Rwanda is a peaceful and well-ordered country. If the would-be migrants really were seeking asylum from persecution – as all of them claim to be doing– then they would presumably be pleased to find themselves housed, fed and given jobs in a place where they were free from persecution.

The fact that they desert Rwanda so quickly suggests they were not telling the truth. The fact is they wish to choose a very specific destination. After all, those who cross the Channel in small boats are all deciding that they want to go specifically to Britain, although France is at least equally attractive, prosperous – and warmer. Again, this suggests that it is foolish to treat the asylum-seeker problem as one of human rights. There is simply too much lying. And there is no such thing as the right to go and live in any specific country that you happen to choose.

We do not know where migrants go after leaving Rwanda. Some will probably return to their old homes. And some will try again to sneak into Britain, though the Australian example suggests that many will feel discouraged. And some will try to come on to South Africa.

It will be interesting to see how Boris Johnson’s “Rwanda option” policy works, assuming it is given a chance to do so. One should realise that with a constantly nagging problem like illegal immigration, what people are looking for is a solution which will simply make the problem go away. Once the Australian policy achieved that all the early indignation that it had generated tended to fade away.

The same was true with Trump. Although he never finished building his Wall he erected so many obstacles to illegal immigrants that their numbers fell away very sharply. His supporters counted that as a win. The fact that under Biden illegal immigrants have again been pouring into the US is going to be a major problem for the Democrats in the mid-term elections.

And that is now. But the approach of a recession and higher unemployment will supercharge the issue. This is the quandary that those who favour relaxed immigration laws are reluctant to face: their biggest problem is democracy. For whether one is talking about Britain, the US or South Africa a large popular majority is going to vote for tight immigration controls. Advocating human rights for immigrants is fine but the locals have their human rights too – and they’ll use them. As South Africans know, the alternative to heeding their opinions is violence on the streets.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.