9 BEYOND THE SEA
In the movie thriller Hell And High Water a small-town Texan waitress complains about half of her wages going to her landlord. Criticism of rentier capitalism is always welcome. Even when it comes from those reluctant neoliberals at the Observer. Last week, the not sure what he thinks about capitalism John Harris reported that a landlord rented a converted shed for £850 a week. This left the tenant £150 a week to keep her alive and be in good enough shape to earn a living. She may be cold in her hut this winter but at least the poor woman will save money on fuel. All of which adds to the puzzle of why more British are not tempted by the good life and discount hamburgers that waitresses enjoy in warm Texas. And if that is puzzling, some people are climbing into dinghies and risking their lives to cross the English Channel and reach the land where friendly shopkeepers have become grasping landlords.
The people on the boats crossing the channel are not intending to slip unnoticed into English society. Their objective is to be led to the nearest asylum centre, two-thirds qualify as asylum seekers and a lot of the remaining third are surprised to not qualify. The British Government so far has not rented a big warehouse in Calais and pretended to be a superduper job centre, one which could sort out who actually qualifies for UK residence. Sort out the paperwork and all the civil servants would need to do would be to put the migrants on a big and sturdy boat and take the lucky new Brits to their jobs as lorry drivers, fruit pickers, nurses and care workers. None of this requires compassion, nothing more than self-serving common sense, which is just as well because those that expect compassion from Pfeffel are usually left with regrets.
First, some numbers or, to be precise without being numerate, the lack of them and the mystery of why specific figures do not exist. Never quoted in the UK press or by Pfeffel and his mates are, one, what is the optimum population size or growth for the UK society and economy and, two, what is the level of immigration needed to maintain that optimum number. Pfeffel is not good with numbers, especially if someone else is paying the bill, and Pritti Patel, a Home Secretary currently setting records for being charmless, is not good with much at all. So no chance of a lead there. We have had heated arguments and in coastal hotels invasions of self-righteous thugs uttering Brexit cries of ‘take back control’ while beating up migrants . Yet few people are curious about those two somewhat important numbers. No doubt there are political sensitivities. In other words, rational thinking by elected politicians in modern Britain is a guaranteed vote loser. The Dutch have their own patriotic movements and their share of difficult characters. This has not stopped the government, though, from equating the relationship between the size of population and future demographic changes with a balancing tool called immigration. Of course, that would involve an awful lot of British people accepting the need for a continual supply of immigrants. Without anyone talking numbers in the UK there will be more stamping boots on the floor and not much else.
Pritti Patel is especially averse to numbers. This is the lady that insisted if hanging was introduced there would be fewer people executed by mistake than there are at the moment when no one is hanged. I know that two pluses make a minus but this is way beyond my algebra. It is logic as wonky as that at the end of the film Interstellar. For publicity and self-promotion Pritti Patel likes to wear combat jackets that make her look like an armed policewoman. With combat gear on her shoulders Patel has no need for numerical analysis. Rosa Klebb knew how to stamp her boots. The pair that she wore so memorably in the final scene of From Russia With Love would suit Pritti Patel quite well. That particular pair of boots had a retractable knife in the toe cap. But that is enough of her, Patel not Klebb who at least put a sardonic smile on the face of Sean Connery.
The UK had 31,150 asylum seekers last year. Germany, France and Spain managed a third of a million. Mainland Western Europe is where the wages and benefit rates are higher and their governments have programmes to build social housing. Migrants there have a greater chance of finding jobs as skilled workers in a high wage economy. Again not much effort has been made to understand why some migrants press on for Britain. Having relatives in the UK and knowing the language will be factors for some. Scrambling day after day to get by and being obliged to sleep in tents at the side of railway lines in a refugee camp in Calais must also compel restlessness in people. And after the efforts made to travel across Europe, going backwards is out of the question or appears to be. There is only one place left to go and it is the brand new emerging federation of four one-party states called Britain. Nor can we assume that all the decision making taken inside those cold tents was and is rational. Dreams intrude. Some folk might be inspired by a fondness for Premiership football. There is an irony here. More than one oddity wandering a coastal hotel corridor could right now be beating up a fellow supporter of his football team. TV programmes like Downton Abbey also create a false impression of life in Britain. This is why Americans hearing any working class English person assume they are listening to an Australian. And indeed a few migrants might even have a haunting and long-lasting memory of brief acquaintances with the English that just makes them feel good about the country. What is certain is that it has not been blonde haired and ‘not masturbated in ten years’ Pfeffel standing on a hill and waving them over, although the sexual conqueror does make promises.
A humanitarian disaster has been created by military conflict and a steady supply of oppressive dictators. Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria and Eritrea generate high numbers of migrants. And it should be no surprise to discover that the initial reaction to be being bombed out of your home is not to regard the event as an opportunity for career development. 86% of those people displaced by war settle in neighbouring low income countries. Like most of us, under pressure they look for the familiar. The UK has the sixth largest economy in the world and takes 1% of refugees. My research into packed dinghies in the middle of the English Channel is limited but in the newspaper photos the old are not at the front of the boats. Half of the refugees of the world are under 18 years of age, and 40% of all refugees are children. 8% of all those seeking an alternative homeland are children that travel alone. This suggests that although personal funds are important the places on the routes are being conceded to victims that back in the war zones and disaster areas are regarded as priorities, something like women and children first on the boats on the Titanic. Use that metaphor and children and pregnant women drowning in the open sea is about as bitter an irony as you can get.
The lottery we call life worked for me in a way it did not for my 19th century Greek ancestors. I was not obliged to seek refuge in another country. I can travel freely and certainly as far as Calais. There has been cooperation between the British government and the French authorities in the coastal port but it has focussed on security and keeping people out rather than completing a verification process that has to be completed eventually, This, if done in Calais, would prevent people risking their lives and in some cases dying. Political asylum is granted to those people that face persecution in their own country. The Daily Mail and men with boots can stamp their feet as much as they like but the 27 people that drowned in the English Channel did more than just die. Long before they died they were obliged to forfeit their rights.
A warehouse to process asylum seekers is not built in Calais for the same reasons no one wants to talk about a continuing economic need for migrants to settle in Britain. It would be seen as liberal and compassionate and bad for British fibre. Pfeffel does not want to be seen resolving a French problem even if it only means relocating or outsourcing some administrative task. There may be a lot of communication between the British and French but it does not help that most of it is generated by turf wars. And Macron regards Pfeffel as a clown and a knucklehead. Well, even the les gilets jaunes admit that Macron had to get something right.
There are British innocents that think the EU is a body created by pleasant and reasonable folk that can offer the brutish British salvation. Their scoundrels may not be a match for Pfeffel but the ones that they do have were not slow to put pressure on the airlines. Extra regulations insist on an additional evidence requirement for travellers from countries afflicted by war and rampant dictators, evidence that is not likely to be forthcoming from hostile regimes. In other words the EU has designed procedures that present obstacles to refugees that are seeking political asylum from oppression. This results in those that wish to travel and claim asylum being obliged to pay exorbitant rates to traffickers. The 86% that settle for life in neighbouring low income countries at least know that their fellow poor have been more welcoming. And are perhaps more civilised.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.