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While the UK government has stuck to spending 0.7% of the budget on overseas aid, our tough line on immigration sends a different message.
In all the coverage today of the sinking of the migrant boat off the coast of Italy – and with up to 300 dead, there will be a lot of it – one quote needs to stay at the forefront. “This is not an Italian tragedy, this is a European tragedy,” said Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano as he arrived on the island of Lampedusa. “Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy.”
Italy says it is facing a continual problem with these boats, as the ambitions of thousands who want to make a life for themselves are commandeered by the ambitions of crooks and traffickers willing and able to make a quick buck. Neither phenomenon will abate of its own accord.
There will be more days like this, more tragedies in places such as Lampedusa. The last decade saw welcome growth in the developing world as poor countries, principally India and China surged, taking 620 million out of poverty compared with 1990 and the UN’s millennium development goals helped galvanise international institutions. But the improvement has been patchy. Even in those countries where poverty has been impacted, many who have been pulled out of officially classified poverty remain vulnerable in terms of living and social conditions. They may not die of poverty, but it’s no way to live.
And what are we doing about this constant and inevitable knocking at the door of Europe? How do we reflect the truth that an undeveloped population – blessed or perhaps cursed with modern communications – will strike out for a better life in the developed world. We confront the problem with an unedifying hotchpotch of neuroses and political spasms that ensure we never truly see it in the round, never discuss it rationally and never get to grips with it.
David Cameron is to be hailed for sticking to his guns and allocating 0.7% of the budget to aid but let us never forget the drumbeat of rage and derision that envelopes him all the while because of this, his most domestically unpopular policy position. “We’re the mugs of the world, we’re spending money we haven’t got,” complained Tory MP Philip Davies in June, reflecting a body of opinion that will no doubt be shocked today but won’t begin to link what we do in the world with the wider goal of preventing more migrant tragedies.
Many who shout loudest in our ruling coalition make it pretty clear that they don’t like sending our money abroad. Neither do they seem comfortable having more migrants here. If the Lampedusa boat had landed safely, the next wave of stories would have warned of the hordes now heading across Europe; destination Britain. Those who arrived might have found themselves being urged to leave again by Theresa May’s immigration vans.
And through our shortsightedness, we aren’t even making sure that developing countries can help themselves. The Lampedusa boats were filled with Somalians and Eritreans, and yet right now Somalians in Britain face the loss of the mechanism whereby they were able to help relatives in their home country by sending home millions of pounds in remittances. Barclays is withdrawing from the market for fear of being accused of funding terrorism. Ministers know the decision will be ruinous – in Somalia particularly – but neither they nor Barclays nor the regulatory authorities can summon the courage or the vision to do anything about it.
So that’s the migrant quandary – we are damned by the right for sending aid, damned if migrants come here and there are limits on the extent to which they can help themselves. Let us grieve, but let us not puzzle as to why they take to the boats.