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Processing migrants on a distant island isn’t a crazy idea: it’s the sort of leftfield thinking the UK needs more of

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
Processing migrants on a distant island isn’t a crazy idea: it’s the sort of leftfield thinking the UK needs more of
Facing ridicule for even considering the idea of processing UK migrants on remote South Atlantic islands, at least Home Secretary Priti Patel has encouraged some original thinking about a problem that no one else has solved.

While the liberal sharks circle Home Secretary Priti Patel for daring to even look at housing immigrant processing centres on a pair of remote islands in the Atlantic Ocean, whoever came up with the idea should be promoted immediately.

For it is a brilliant display of the sort of leftfield thinking that Boris Johnson and his team are insisting must be the new way of doing things in the civil service. To simply shout it down shows not just a pig-headed resistance to change, but an inexplicable refusal to consider practical solutions needed to address the more difficult problems we face.

Face it, the old ways of addressing illegal immigration to the UK no longer work. Not when you can have more than 5,000 people so far this year managing to successfully cross the busiest shipping lane in the world in a variety of vessels – some seaworthy, some barely – while holidaymakers sit on England’s southern beaches, eating sandwiches and witnessing them land, disembark and disappear into nearby communities never to be seen again.

Another cuppa, dear?

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And those who come via other means, fleeing persecution, war and torture, face the potential for violence and death at the hands of ruthless people-smugglers charging them their life savings for an escape route. They run the very real risk of having the life crushed out of them in the back of a lorry, before they are abandoned in a layby somewhere in Essex by the coward who took their money without a minute’s thought for the fellow human beings he was driving to their death.

No, the old ways do not work.

And sure, the idea of offshore processing of asylum seekers is not universally popular. But Australia has certainly given it a shot.

It reached agreements with two of its island neighbours, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the world’s smallest island nation, Nauru, in the Pacific, to house processing centres on their sovereign territory, the only country in the world to outsource its immigration problem. 

Australia has a third centre on Christmas Island, one of its external territories in the Indian Ocean, but this is not used for immigrants seeking asylum.

The human rights issues surrounding these offshore camps have dogged them since day one. Run by private contractors, there have been allegations of poor treatment of detainees and inhuman conditions. However, despite an investigation by the International Criminal Court into their operation which identified them as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”, it decided to take no further action. Still, it’s not an ideal situation.

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But nowadays, we are not talking big figures here. At the end of July this year, there were 181 people in the PNG centre and 180 on Nauru.

In comparison, Home Office figures announced this week put the UK asylum accommodation population at 60,000. So beware the boomerang before slagging off the Aussies for their approach. While tough and controversial, it seems to have worked.

Closer to home, it’s no secret that the European Union – remember it? – pays Turkey billions of Euros to keep migrants from the war-ravaged Middle East in its border camps to prevent them crossing into Greece. Or that at its detention camps in Niger, officials try to discourage those desperate enough to want to attempt a transit of the Sahara. Even the EU deal with the cash-strapped government of Rwanda to take in Libyan refugees raised a few eyebrows when it was agreed.

And Italy has been accused of negotiating with Libyan warlords to try to stem the flow of boats across the Mediterranean, in their own take on doing what needs to be done.

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These are all bespoke solutions created out of a common need to do something about illegal immigration. Are they all fair, humane or even moral? Each can argue its own case. But instead of leaving those wretched souls seeking a better life at the mercy of organised criminal gangs, then surely doing something is a lot better than doing nothing?

If that means that the Home Secretary asks the staff in her department to explore possible solutions without fear of being ridiculed or dismissed out of hand, then let them off the leash to explore the unthinkable. Ascension Island? St. Helena? Nothing should be off the table.

St. Helena, after all, has history in this sort of thing. As any schoolboy should know, it’s where Napoleon finally met his death in 1821, having spent six years in exile there, as a guest of Britain.

Rightly, it’s the difficulty of travel to the South Atlantic outpost that makes it not fit for purpose as a UK migrant processing centre, not the essence of the idea itself. But it’s a good start to be suggesting an offshore solution.

Having attracted ridicule for the apparently preposterous suggestion, let’s hope the flak doesn’t demoralise the ambitious Home Secretary and she can deal with the naysayers appropriately.

There is, after all, plenty of room for more on St. Helena.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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