Tom Hunt is the MP for Ipswich.
Earlier this month, I visited the Rohingya refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. This is the second time I’ve visited the camp within the last twelve months. This time my visit was with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Bangladesh (APPG, Bangladesh). It’s the largest refugee camp in the world and both visits have had a profound effect on me – particularly my most recent visit, where I was able to spend more time talking one to one with refugees at the camp.
Over the past few years, I have been vocal in condemning illegal immigration. Primarily, that has meant the small boat crossings that have been taking place from France. There is no contradiction in being passionate about supporting the Rohingya refugees and taking a robust approach to stamping out illegal immigration.
The Rohingyas are a group of people who have been persecuted, driven from their homes, raped, and murdered for no other reason than being who they are. They have no wish to be economic migrants. When I spoke to them, they wanted to return home to live in their villages safely. But due to the despotic military junta in Myanmar, their hope of doing so at any time soon is remote.
It’s also unlikely that most of the refugees will be granted a pathway to citizenship in Bangladesh. We thus have a situation where over a million refugees, many women, and children, are living a life in desperate stasis, hopeless without a path to normality, and unable to even leave the camp. One can see from the eyes of far too many of these refugees the horrors that they have had to endure. I will never forget their torment and anguish.
When I returned from my recent trip, a number of people asked me whether visiting the world’s largest refugee camp had changed my views on illegal immigration. My response was clear: no, not at all. If anything, my views have actually hardened.
Like the vast majority of this country, I recognise that there are growing numbers of genuine refugees around the world. I also recognise that compassion is central to national values. So I want us to take our fair share of genuine refugees. Once they arrive, I want us to do everything to support and integrate them.
However, it’s also incredibly obvious to most people that there is a limit to how many refugees we can accommodate. A compassionate approach may be the right thing to do, but there are consequences. There is increased pressure on public services. I think most accept that we must have robust processes and controls in place. Being compassionate does not mean we should not also control numbers and ensure we’re only welcoming genuine refugees.
Anyone who believes in controlling our borders will agree with this approach. To ignore this basic reality and to refuse to confront it means that you either believe in open borders and unlimited numbers of refugees – and, if so, be honest about associated costs and challenges – or you believe that some of the most desperate and needy refugees in the world should miss out to those whose claims lack such legitimacy. Even worse are those individuals who claim to be refugees but are really economic migrants coming from safe European countries.
With a limit to how many refugees we can practically accommodate, would we rather accommodate some of the world’s most vulnerable, or the tens of thousands of individuals who have illegally entered our country? I know what my answer is. Every person who enters our country illegally from another safe European country and stays here limits our ability to show compassion to some of the most desperate people in the world. Those economic migrants who seek to rig the system are working directly against the interests of the most desperate and the most vulnerable.
The time has come for us to banish the scandalous small boat crossings to history, break the back of the people smuggling gangs, and prioritise the world’s neediest. This isn’t just the right thing to do for our public services, public finances, and voters. It is also the most compassionate option.
Yes, let’s be compassionate and take more than our fair share of the most genuine refugees across the world. Let’s extend the welcome we’ve provided to large numbers from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Hong Kong. But let’s make sure there is a system governed by firm processes that we can all have confidence in.