If Brits can emigrate, why are some of them scared of immigrants?

Those who land on these shores, legally or not, are looking for the same thing as British expats: a better life

A migrant attempting to communicate with journalists is pinned at an immigration facility in Kent in November. PA Wire
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It started innocently. I walked my dog on a shingle beach in Kent and saw an empty dinghy used by migrants to cross over from France. I took a picture and posted it on Twitter, saying: “I can only imagine the degree of fear and despair which leads people to risk crossing the Channel on this in December. And I cannot begin to imagine the lack of empathy required to be Suella Braverman.”

Ms Braverman is the British Home Secretary who miraculously survived her various political mistakes – and whose “solution” to undocumented asylum seekers landing on British beaches was to continue the plan prepared by Priti Patel, her predecessor, to give a reported £120 million ($147 million) to Rwanda to accept them by the planeload. Her policy has failed. It’s unclear whether it can ever succeed.

Britain’s Border Force, meanwhile, does a difficult job. When it finds a dinghy, the migrants are rescued, the motor stripped out and the dinghy is either towed to shore or cut free to wash up on a beach. Children on dinghies in December sometimes suffer from hypothermia. They can be very ill. But what was most interesting to me was the reaction on Twitter to my fairly anodyne comments and the picture I posted.

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If Brits go abroad, it’s aspirational. But when the most desperate people in the world try to settle in Britain, some of my fellow citizens lose their minds

Most Tweets were sympathetic. Some were extremely hostile, mostly from anonymous Twitter users, those whose courage stops at actually identifying themselves. In one creepy tweet, the author claimed he had seen me “with my children” near a Tube station in a “trendy” area of “north London”. (And no, I have no idea what kind of weird person would find such information relevant, even if true.) Another claimed she was “terrified” by asylum seekers held in Kent. They are held temporarily on a largely disused airfield in what is a bit like a makeshift prison. But that “terrified” person’s Twitter bio also announced that she was anti-vaccination and thought global warming was a hoax, so her threshold for being terrified seemed a little odd to me.

Other hostile responses were from people who self-identified as “libertarians” or “anti-woke” or “Conservatives”. Some pointed out that the migrants “are in France. We try to go there for our holidays. It’s nice". France is indeed “nice” for those of us with passports and holiday money. For undocumented English-speaking refugees fleeing Taliban persecution in Afghanistan, where many Afghans worked for British military forces in the past 20 years, France is not always the place of their dreams.

Either way, what struck me about the hostile tweets wasn’t just the sad abuse, lack of empathy or bad grammar and spelling. It was the ignorance about the real issues involved – and that ignorance goes all the way to Ms Braverman herself.

Last week, she was stumped by a fellow Conservative MP who asked a simple question: what are the safe and legal routes for asylum seekers from (say) Africa, trying to enter Britain? In one of the most embarrassing televised clips involving a senior British politician I can ever remember, Ms Braverman was absolutely clueless – perhaps because she knows that there are no safe and legal routes generally available, hence the desperation from migrants.

A dinghy that previously carried immigrants found on a beach in Kent. Gavin Esler

Successive British governments have promised a “hostile environment” to those coming to the UK without proper paperwork. This threat has failed, too. A record 44,000 have arrived so far this year. Total net migration to the UK in the past year is about half a million. Successive Conservative governments have stoked up fear and anger about migrants without confronting the real issues – Brexit, as usual, being one. If the UK were still in the EU, France would be expected to take back some, if not all, of those who arrive in Kent on inflatable dinghies from the French coast.

Many of the Twitter complainers – according to their own Twitter feeds – voted for Brexit, the same policy that causes significant parts of the immigration problem they hate most. Meanwhile, according to the UK-based think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, from May 2020 “more than 5.5 million people from Britain live overseas and leave the country at a rate of around 2,000 a week".

British emigres do not sail to the EU or the Gulf or the US on home-made dinghies. The British abroad tend to call themselves “expats”, not migrants. But the sorry saga of the dinghy on the Kent beach reveals the bizarre attitude of some British people to migration. If Brits go abroad, it’s aspirational. We go for a better life. I lived in the US for almost a decade for that reason, and I felt welcome. But when some of the most desperate people in the world try to settle in Britain for the same reason – a better life – some of my fellow citizens lose their minds in fury.

From the British cabinet to a few Twitter nasties, we could solve immigration difficulties by honestly confronting the problem rather than stoking fear and making up fantasy solutions about planeloads of desperate people going to Rwanda.

Published: December 07, 2022, 9:00 AM