Colin Brazier: We've done virtually nothing to make coming to Britain less attractive to illicit migrants

'We are trying to be humane. But all we are doing is creating pull factors'

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Imagine the terror of being on a sinking dinghy. The sudden, dawning dread that the only thing separating you, and perhaps your children from oblivion, is half a centimetre of rubberized plastic filled with air.

And the panic when you realise that the air is no longer there, that your inflatable lifeboat is deflating. Too far from shore to swim to safety. Too far from rescue vessels to be picked up.

The hideous momentary realization that the promises of people smugglers; that this was routine; that this was easy; that this was a safe journey: were idle promises. Made by men who care mainly about money. Then the plunge into the freezing water, the hyper-ventilation, the loss of sensation, hypothermia and, finally, unconsciousness.

Who was responsible for this stupid loss of life?

If you listen to some of the ideologically driven charities, it was the fault of a callous British government. And, by extension, since our government is elected by us; it was our fault. They want us to believe that we, however indirectly, are to blame. What a gross and disgusting slur.

It wasn’t callousness that killed those migrants. If anything it was the want of it. If we’d been tougher on illicit migration, if we’d made it clearer to would-be migrants that it wasn’t worth risking their lives in the Channel, then those lost souls might be alive today.

They were warned not to come. But they didn’t take the warnings seriously. And nor, to be brutally frank, did many of us. It’s as if we believed that mass drownings were something which couldn’t happen in the narrow stretch of water separating England from France.

Almost twenty years ago I went with a film crew to the island of Lampedusa. Italian territory, just off the North African coast.

The local fishermen couldn’t sell their produce. Customers believed that so many migrants had drowned off the island’s waters, that to eat fish was almost to consume human flesh. Why didn’t we believe, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘expect’, that what’s been happening in the Mediterranean for years, could happen here?

I’ll tell you why. Because it felt like a desperate rhetorical ploy. When our Home Secretary, and others in government, repeatedly warned this could happen, it was dismissed as a political smokescreen. Words, to hide our inability to act. And, sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that.

We have done virtually nothing to make coming to Britain less attractive to illicit migrants. When they sit and ponder their future prospects, from a home in Kurdistan or Pakistan or Somalia, they don’t do so on a whim.

They are rational actors. And, viewed rationally, where else in the world is it possible to move and enjoy a quality of life that seems almost comically generous. The people smugglers who encourage them to pay $5000 to come here fill their heads with stories of free schools, free healthcare and free accommodation.

Those people smugglers aren’t lying. They may gild the lily. But what they say is basically true. If you come from a country where nothing is free, Britain looks like one where everything is free.

This has to stop. Migrants know that when they come here they’ll probably stay. It will take years for their asylum application to be processed. The system is hopeless and easily gamed, sometimes by a handful of people who go on to commit acts of terror. In the meantime, the taxpayer takes care of the bills for a hotel or medical care. We are trying to be humane. But all we are doing is creating pull factors.

If we want to stop a repeat of yesterday’s mass drowning, we must make coming here less attractive. Migrants waiting for an asylum claim to be heard must be detained, or moved to and held in a third country, if that’s what it takes. NGOs and charities who hold up human rights law as holy writ, say we can’t do this. I say we must.

As the former foreign secretary William Hague wrote in a largely ignored column earlier this year, if you think what we are seeing in the Channel right now is bad, wait until you see what’s coming. Africa’s population will increase by hundreds of millions and the African diaspora here will make Britain an attractive destination.

If we don’t take radical action now, in a decade we may look back at yesterday’s tragic events and think: what was all the fuss about.