My Lords, this debate takes place under the sombre cloud of the tragic death of 27 migrants off the French coast yesterday. I join noble Lords in offering my sympathy, prayers and condolences to them and all their friends and relatives.
But, if our sorrow is sincere, we must redouble our determination to find ways to stop and discourage people attempting these dangerous crossings. The approach of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is to provide a safe and legal way to apply for asylum from abroad—for example, by applying to an embassy or some specific tribunal abroad.
But this simply would not work. Anyone who was refused or knew they would be refused asylum if they made such a claim would still have exactly the same incentive as now to enter the UK illegally by boat or on the back of a lorry, so it will not stop the boats attempting this perilous journey. If anything, it will add to the problem, since many more people will apply for asylum if such a simple route is established, with plausible claims that cannot be disproved, especially if we accord such claimants the same rights to legal aid, appeal and judicial review, and in the refugee convention, immigration Acts, human rights Acts, modern slavery Acts and so on. If we can dispense with these for claims made abroad, it is not clear to me why we need to retain such rights for claims made within the UK, and vice versa.
Those rights for claimants and the concomitant responsibilities that fall upon British taxpayers have grown up as the courts have explicated the 1951 Geneva convention and the 1969 protocol using subsequent human rights legislation. But those conventions were negotiated before cheap mass transit, mass communications and rising living standards in developing countries. Remember, it is the better off who migrate from developing countries; the very poor cannot afford to and cannot pay the smugglers. My first career was working in developing countries on development projects, and it was always the middle classes who were able to escape, not the poorest. All those things have made mass migration possible in a way that was not envisaged when those conventions were negotiated.
If anyone doubts the potential scale of those who would seek asylum if they could, without running any risk to themselves, look at the response to the United States diversity visa lottery. Every year, the US offers 50,000 visas to a different selection of countries that have no tradition of migration to the United States. In the last year for which I have the figures, 13% of the Albanian population, 7% of the Uzbek population, 8% of the population of Ghana, 14% of the population of Sierra Leone and 15% of the population of Liberia applied for those visas—in all, 20 million people from this small selection of countries to which they were made available. Similar numbers would undoubtedly want to live in Europe and the United Kingdom, if we gave people the chance to enter, at no costs to themselves, the lottery of our asylum seekers—and it is essentially a lottery.
I sincerely hope that the Nationality and Borders Bill will provide a way of removing the chief magnet that draws migrants across the channel at great risk, which is the virtual certainty that, once here, they will never be deported. But I fear it will not. This will be possible only if we, together with other like-minded countries, insist on renegotiating and, if need be, resiling from the Geneva convention and replacing it with something relevant to an age of mass movement. If we are not prepared to take this or whatever action is necessary to remove the magnet of certainty once you get here, yesterday’s tragedy will be just the first of a never-ending series of disasters, and we will be to blame.