On the move: Small boats, big numbers


  • By Douglas Fraser
  • Business and economy editor, Scotland

The migration crisis goes beyond stopping dangerous boat crossings

  • Stopping those in unseaworthy boats from risking their lives in the English Channel is a very limited answer to a very much bigger challenge.
  • Migration offers opportunities and gains, but is often seen as a challenge.
  • The United Nations wants its members to focus more on the causes that have put more than a billion people on the move.

‘Stop the Boats Week’ was an attempt to dominate the news cycle with the UK government’s determination to tackle those arriving on England’s south coast in small boats.

If there was a plan, things didn’t go to it.

While the policy of sending such unwelcome new arrivals to Rwanda faces legal obstacles, attempts to put them on a barge in Dorset met bacterial ones.

The Bibby Stockholm floatel, moored at a Dorset quay, was found to carry the risk of legionella, and the small numbers who had been embarked were hastily disembarked.

All that and government disarray over the idea of sending migrants to Ascension Island in the south Atlantic, and no agreement either on the idea that withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights would be a clever way of solving the problem.

By week’s end, even the Daily Mail was deeply unimpressed and the Observer was quoting moderate Tories who think all this is going to do them electoral harm.

In limbo

Creating further disincentives doesn’t seem to be having much impact. This was the week when the total number arriving that way over the past five years reached 100,000. The 750 who arrived on Thursday was this year’s record.

On Saturday, six more people drowned when a boat capsized between Calais and Dover, and 59 were rescued.

There was, meanwhile, a further tragic reminder that desperate people in unseaworthy boats are far from being a challenge only for Britain.

Four survivors of a boat swamped by a wave after leaving the coast of Tunisia, said that 41 other people should be assumed to have drowned.

This year alone, the Italian authorities estimate that 78,000 people have made the Mediterranean crossing, their departure reportedly hastened by the unleashing of anti-migrant violence provoked by the Tunisian president’s rhetoric.

In Britain, the ministerial response is to say that there is a need to crack down on the people traffickers. On this highly-charged political battleground, that is one enemy and target on which everyone can agree.

The disputes otherwise focus on the activities of lawyers in support of their migrant clients, the impact on communities and the hospitality industry of hotels being used to house those in limbo, while Labour highlights problems with the slow handling of refugee applications.


Migrants had to disembark the Bibby Stockholm barge

For more context, it might also be worth taking the story further back to understand the pressures that make these people prey to people trafficking. There are reasons for being this desperate to leave Africa, and the embattled states of west Asia.

It has to do with growing populations, unemployment, civil unrest and the rise of authoritarian governments.

But a deeper insight into migration came recently from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

It has been tracking migration around the world, with an eye to the role of rural populations on the move.

China’s industrialisation has brought one of history’s biggest migrations into its cities. India is seeing urbanisation on a staggering scale, and faces projections of dozens of vast cities that will have to be created within a couple of decades.

The FAO aggregates this into more than a billion people across the world who are now or have been on the move. At least three-quarters of them were moving internally, and often from rural to urban living.

Many of its statistics predate the pandemic, which upended migration by sending many millions of people temporarily back to their home villages.

In 2019, it estimates there were 272m migrants who had crossed international borders. That includes the super-rich seeking tax havens, as well as those welcomed to their host countries with valued skills. Medics, professors and business leaders are migrants too. It doesn’t have to be a loaded word.

That is around one in every 30 people in the world living in countries other than the one in which they were born.

Displaced and insecure

The FAO highlights the link between internal and international migration. Those who have already uprooted themselves within their own country are reckoned to be five times more likely to make a subsequent move across international boundaries.

So if there is disruption within a country, economic or violent, it tends to start people on a longer journey. And the FAO argues that these ‘drivers’ of migration have to be tackled where they begin.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, nearly 80m people were forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution in 2019.

This includes nearly 26m refugees, more than 4m asylum seekers and 46m internally displaced people.


A group of migrants walking up the beach in Dungeness, Kent

Forty per cent were children and 80% of the world’s displaced people were in countries or regions affected by acute food insecurity and malnutrition.

A sign of how much rural poverty and insecurity is driving this comes from the share of money remitted back to families who stayed in the home village or farm. Some 40% of international remittances are sent to rural areas.

Misconceptions about migration tend also to suggest it is young men on the move. But on a global scale, almost half of migrants are female. One third of the total are aged 15 to 34.

Emigrant gains

Disasters, increasingly resulting from climate change, are becoming the main driver of internal displacement around the world. In the first half of 2020, even while trying to handle Covid, 10m people had to move because of them.

The evidence of extreme heat and flooding is mounting up, and only points in one direction: expect more migration rather than less. Population growth is pushing firmly in the same direction, fuelled by inequalities which pull people from the poor to the more prosperous parts of the world.

Migration is not new. It’s seen as politically difficult wherever it happens. Yet it also brings economic benefits. Migrants tend to be net contributors.

Look at the NHS workforce as just one example. And consider the impact British/Scottish people have had when they move to other countries.

The patterns change. The numbers increase. There’s little that points to its challenges subsiding.

Stopping small boats is an appealing slogan, and you can guess that an alternative route would be preferable also to those who risk their lives in them. But it’s a limited answer to a much wider and long term challenge.

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