Humans are fundamentally migratory. Stopping small boats won’t change that

Turning migration into a deathly obstacle course will not prevent people coming to the UK

March 22, 2023
A London demonstration focused on the Illegal Migration Bill. Image: Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
A London demonstration focused on the Illegal Migration Bill. Image: Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Much of the debate about the British government’s latest proposals to limit migration has been about whether they are practical and ethical. Those questions are necessary. But let us temporarily suspend those doubts and reservations, and suppose, for just one moment, that with its Illegal Migration Bill the government succeeds in stopping small boats from crossing the Channel. That other countries are magically willing to take the migrants in, that legal action against the law fails, that would-be asylum seekers are so put off by the new policies that they decide not to cross the Channel in small boats.

Would that stop migration? Probably not. What our recent and ancient history teaches us is that such measures are unlikely to have a long-term effect on inward migration. Part of the reason is that would-be migrants will find other routes. They have done so many times before. In fact, the current influx of small boats is a response to the closing down of other ways of entering Britain.  Determined migrants tend to be ingenious and willing to take risks that would be unthinkable for many of us. Will they use fake documents to enter by air, or return to being smuggled in by lorries, or attempt to cross the Irish border, or make longer sea journeys to unguarded coastlines? 

Humans, I’ve argued in my book Migrants: The Story of Us All, are fundamentally migratory—and we would do well to remember that. We are all migrants or descended from migrants. No other land mammal (except possibly the rat) reached almost every part the world long before we had a modern transport infrastructure. And we travelled on foot, or—dare I say it—in small boats. Travel to Britain, for instance, by plane or train or large ship—with passports and visas—has only been a possibility for more recent migrants. The ancestors of many British people travelled here in ancient times by sea, without prior permission. And many of them took risks just as great as those who are attempting to travel here now.

So what are the implications of this for the modern debate about migration? Well, first we need politicians to be more honest and realistic about their policy goals, accepting that it is almost impossible to stop migration. Perhaps the only way to actually prevent it is going down the North Korea or Eritrea route, whereby you make life so unpleasant for a country’s existing inhabitants that no-one wants to come. Second, we need to work with other countries to reach agreement on how migration can be managed. Remember how hard it has been for Britain to keep out migrants, and then imagine how much harder that task is for countries which are not islands. Third, we need to review the ways we weigh up the benefits of migration—by, for instance, reminding ourselves that the not-insignificant costs of the upbringing and education of future migrants have usually already been borne by poorer countries.

Instead, we have an almost surreal situation in which we need migrants to staff our care homes, to treat our patients, to pick our fruit and vegetables, but are unable to get them. The lack of an honest migration policy is, in part, damaging our public services and stalling our economy. And by turning migration into a deathly obstacle course, we have knowingly encouraged those who are willing to take great risks, who enjoy a challenge, who may be willing to break laws, who are able to slip in under the radar. And these then become the migrants who are demonised by a large part of the population—driving a deeper polarising wedge into British society.