One sunny August day early in the new century I was sitting as duty FCO minister in the Foreign Office when an agitated David Blunkett came on the line from his holiday in Majorca. “Denis, please call up your friends in the Brazilian government and tell them to allow an RAF plane full of illegal Brazilian immigrants to leave Brize Norton and take them back to Brazil.”
David, who enjoyed his profile as a tough, muscular Home Secretary, had ordered a roundup of Brazilians who had come to the UK as tourists without visas. Their aim was to disappear into the black labour market. But when it comes to repatriation, the planes and ships of one nation cannot enter the airspace or territorial waters of another without permission.
I spoke to a friend, Brazil’s foreign minister, who said he had no objection to the illegal immigrants being sent home, but not on a military plane. It would be too humiliating for the returning migrants, he said. But that was exactly what David Blunkett, a genius at self-promotion, wanted.
Nearly two decades later, I welcome the efforts by British officials to get the French to patrol the beaches of Calais, to try and stop the rubber dinghies being launched. The French have agreed to mount these patrols, and asked for a fee — an amount that the average Tory party donor would regard as small change. It was cheap, smart intergovernmental cooperation showing that France and Britain can work together despite all the insults of our tabloid Brexit nonsense.
Alas someone — presumably from the entourage of the not-very-fit-for-purpose Home Secretary — has leaked the deal to the Francophobe Sunday Telegraph. So now Britain is calling up Admiral West from retirement to launch a reverse blockade of the Channel to stop this new “invasion” of refugees.
In fact, Britain has got off lightly in the refugee crisis that has had gripped Europe since the wars in the Balkans, the invasion of Iraq, the Taliban wars in Afghanistan, and the regime change interventions in Libya and Syria.
I first spotted the Kosovo refugees in my constituency of Rotherham in the 1990s. That was after the Major government refused to intervene in the Balkans to stop Serb genocidal attacks on Balkan Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. After Iraq, my Saturday surgeries were filled with refugees wanting help to stay in the UK. Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq followed by David Cameron’s identical errors in Libya and Syria have helped to create a giant uncontrollable flow of refugees.
Yet Britain is not even in the top ten of European nations in terms of refugees per capita. France alone offers asylum to nearly three times as many refugees as we do. When still an EU member state, the UK refused to take any share of refugees that came to Europe in the great migration of 2015. Instead, the pro-Brexit campaigners used pictures of sad refugees trudging through Balkan mountains on posters as an example of what would happen if we stayed in the EU.
I noticed in Rotherham how quickly the energetic, handsome young Kosovan men faded into the community, opened excellent cheap car-washing operations and married young South Yorkshire women.
Today, the proliferation of barber shops operated by Kurds or other Middle East refugees is an example of how today’s pitiful refugee quickly become an entrepreneur and adds value to the economy. Their story is just like that of the Jewish refugees who arrived in the 1930s despite claims in the tabloid press that they were unwashed and would take over the professions from the honest English dentist or doctor.
If you track the continental press, there are periodic illegal immigrant scares, whipped up by people like Marine Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, Matteo Salvini in Italy, or VOX in Spain. But if Britain keeps insisting on intervening to change regimes in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, the problem will just get worse.
Meanwhile coughing up £30 million to get the French to help us seems a bargain.