Boat people became a popular topic thanks to communist dictatorships, first Cuban, then Vietnamese.
One can understand those desperate individuals. They refused to believe promises of a bright future awaiting their families and countries. Instead, they believed their eyes, popping out at the sight of mass executions, torture and general enslavement.
Unable to see the promised paradise beyond that, they put out to sea, steering their jerry-built boats and rafts through storms and machinegun fire. We don’t know exactly what their chances of survival were (low), nor the death toll (high). Communist regimes are reticent about revealing such statistics.
But we do understand why hitherto normal people would be prepared to risk their lives to escape the crushing blows of the hammer and the slashing swipes of the sickle. Communism has a way of turning normal people into daredevils – just look at all those Germans trying to scale the Wall in ways that weren’t so much death-defying as death-begging.
What I find harder to understand is the new generation of boat people, all those Muslim refugees braving the Channel. Hence the question in the title, which is especially apposite since one doesn’t hear of too many refugees taking their lives in their hands to sail in the opposite direction.
We may joust about the comparative merits of Britain and France till the refugees go back home. Yet the upshot of all those rhetorical thrusts and parries is predictable: there isn’t much in it. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, at least for newcomers to either place.
They are called asylum-seekers, not boat people. But asylum-switchers would be a more appropriate term. After all, if the law says they must seek asylum in the first safe country they reach, then it’s hard to argue that Britain is conspicuously safer than France.
So there must be a good reason for those people to put their lives at risk in illegal attempts to cross the Channel, which wouldn’t be my first choice of a waterway friendly to such adventures. More than 300 have already drowned – and yet thousands of others keep trying.
Over 14,000 of them have succeeded so far this year, much to France’s joy and Britain’s dismay. Such contrasting reactions are guaranteed to cause conflicts.
France’s desire to ship a large consignment of refugees our way is understandable. With 10 per cent of the population, the country already has more than its fair share of Muslims, merci beaucoup. On the other hand, our wish to keep illegal immigrants at bay isn’t unnatural either.
Every sovereign country has the right to decide whom to invite as its guests, and how many. That was one of the arguments in favour of Brexit and, at a guess, the most important one for most of those who voted for it.
One would think that the Royal Navy wouldn’t need France’s help to protect our borders. After all, it managed to discourage both Napoleon and Hitler from attempting an invasion. Surely it ought to be strong enough to stop a few unarmed punts?
Apparently not. Maritime law says we can’t just turn those boats around, and of course sinking them is out of the question. Hence the flesh is strong, but the spirit is unwilling. We may have the physical wherewithal to confront the paddle boats, but not the will to use it.
That means we need France’s help, which the French are reluctant to provide. They’d rather all those ‘women and children’, who on closer examination turn out to be strapping, unshaven lads, were our problem.
Given that reluctance, HMG, as personified by Home Secretary ‘Very’ Priti Patel, appealed to the innermost cockles of French hearts by offering to pay £54 million a year for France’s cooperation. The French kindly agreed to take the money, but so far the cooperation has been begrudging to non-existent.
As a result, the stream of Muslim refugees arriving illegally at our shores has received a boost, assisted by the clement weather in the Channel. Our uninvited guests are now crashing Britain to the tune of 800 a day, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.
Miss Patel has responded to the worsening situation by first threatening to withhold the £54 million, which after all wasn’t meant to be strictly a charitable donation. And then she ordered officials to rewrite maritime laws to allow Border Force to turn boats around.
Predictably, the French screamed bloody murder. Such heavy-handed tactics, they threatened, would have a “negative impact” on their cooperation, which has gravitated towards the negative end anyway.
Now, I’m no expert in the minutiae of either maritime or immigration law. But on general principle, I don’t see how the French can in good faith refuse to keep all those refugees, or indeed to prevent them from committing illegal acts (entering Britain uninvited is one such).
And I especially want to emphasise that the question in the title isn’t rhetorical. I’m genuinely puzzled why those unshaven lads find France wanting and Britain attractive. Is it the food? Employment possibilities? Language? More generous social services?
None of these seems a sufficient reason to brave the raging seas in canoes. Whatever we may think of France, it’s a far cry from Cuba and Vietnam. So I’d like to get to the bottom of this, and I’ll appreciate all the help I can get.