Our struggle with illegal immigration will be nothing compared to in 10 years time
The draw for people to come to the UK will only become greater as climate change starts to cause extreme weather, writes Paul Ormerod.
Across the political spectrum, the number of small boats crossing the Channel has occupied a huge slice of our collective consciousness. At one level, of course, these are stories replete with human suffering and tragedy.
On another level, for those in the UK, it is a question of control over our borders.
In trying to grapple with the issue, we must first understand why passengers are willing to make such a potentially dangerous journey, even with the risk it could be years before they can settle here – if at all.
If we were willing to overlay the Brexit debate with the immigration issue, one could cheekily ask why people are leaving countries like France, which are part of the purported paradise of the European Union to move to “Broken Britain”?
On this view of the UK, all we would need to do to stop the crossing is to send delegations to explain to refugees the true state of things in Britain. Of course, this doesn’t happen, and the two issues are separate ones. But it remains true that despite our problems, the UK is a liberal democracy.
In the US, we can see the same state of affairs on a much bigger scale. Despite its well-documented social, cultural and political challenges, large numbers of people around the world move to America legally and illegally.
The same cannot be said for Russia or China.
It is unlikely the assumptions about rational choice, made in the basic economic textbooks, apply in these situations. In particular, there is considerable uncertainty about the potential costs involved in any such journey.
But it is even more unlikely that large numbers of people are consistently making irrational choices year after year. The plain fact is that the liberal democracies, and in particular the US and the UK, are highly desirable places in which to live and work.
The focus of the government on the immediate problem is understandable. The short-term pressures of the electoral cycle are strong everywhere. But the huge attractiveness of the West raises serious issues when we look ahead to, say, the middle of the century.
We do not have to go along with the worst of the climate predictions to appreciate that major ecological changes are taking place. From extreme floods to extreme heat, increasing numbers of people have increasingly strong incentives to move from their current locations.
It is fair to say that policies are in place to address the challenge of climate change. Some say they do not go far enough, but they do exist.
But much greater vision and foresight is needed by the democracies. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first leading politician to raise the question of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, an American initiative instrumental in rebuilding Western Europe after the Second World War. He’s not wrong. We do need one.
But we also need one to assist those areas which are projected to suffer most from climate change. It is in our own self-interest to do this.
Otherwise, America, Britain and, yes, the European Union could become the destinations of choice for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. The current numbers will seem a mere trickle in comparison with the potential torrent in two or three decades time.
£ Paul Ormerod is an author and economist at Volterra Partners LLP