On 23rd October, 31 men and 8 women were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry container in an industrial park in Essex. Since then, the driver of the lorry has been charged with manslaughter and three others have been released on bail on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy of human trafficking. The identities of the victims as well as their cause of death is still under forensic investigation, however, Essex police have termed it the “largest mass fatality victim identification process in their history”. It is reported that some of the victims and their families paid up to £30,000 for what they believed to be a ‘safe route’ to the UK.
What these 39 Vietnamese men and women shared was the promised hope of a better life in the UK. Risking family debt and security, they unknowingly were signing up for a scam; the promises of VIP entry on a business class ticket to the UK, and a more prosperous life upon arrival. However, paradoxically, immigration policies are only getting stricter, which is forcing more and more migrants to take these life-threatening journeys. The Essex lorry deaths are not an isolated incident. Tragically, the 39 Vietnamese nationals make up just 4% of official migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year. This story was covered in every UK news outlet and made the front pages of every newspaper, yet despite the horrifying realities of human trafficking that it exposed, it failed to precipitate a government-level discussion over immigration policies.
Ultimately, there is no perfect solution on how to police immigration, which is what makes this such a polarizing issue. From one perspective, in a ‘Trump-esque’ fashion, the UK government could resolve to build a more fortified border. Indeed, this was at the forefront of the ‘vote leave’ Brexit campaign in 2016, with many UK citizens advocating stricter immigration policies in order to “keep out foreigners”. However, being an island with an 11,000-mile coastline, it is perhaps ingenuous to believe that this would be an effective or economical approach to the issue. As one iNews reporter sharply suggested “Build bigger walls and determined people will build bigger tunnels or buy longer ladders”.
This apathetic ‘build a wall’ approach gives rise to the question of fundamental human compassion. Shouldn’t we be looking beyond how to best keep a tally of who’s crossing the border and how we can stop them, but rather question why they are crossing the border? Why were 13.6 million people forced to flee their homes in 2018? Why are we still letting human traffickers capitalize on human suffering? Why are we denying access to these desperate people?
When Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee, washed up dead on the Turkish coastline in 2015, this evoked emotion in even the most heartless of the population. What this image also did was educate. It educated us about the reasons that forced this young boy and his family to flee Syria by such desperate measures. Reasons such as; violence, persecution and insecurity. The Essex lorry deaths have played a similar role, laying bare the fragility of life in Vietnam. In addition, it has disclosed the cruel reality of human trafficking. It is estimated the smugglers responsible for the Vietnamese nationals would have made upwards of £500,000, whether the 31 men and 8 women survived, or not. From these instances alone it seems certain that harsher immigration policies in the UK are not the answer.
Ultimately this demonstrates the urgent need for a deeper global awareness of the driving forces and motivators that lead migrants and refugees to flee their homelands under such desperate circumstances. Hopefully then moving forward, immigration policies will be determined in a more informed and compassionate manner. One suggested solution is to increase border regulation rather than fortification of controls – but this puts pressure on a system which is already struggling. Or it is possible that increased support, whether financial or other, to the countries of origin would be effective? Although sadly the Essex lorry deaths may not have been the wake-up call that the UK so desperately needs, what is certain is that they demonstrate why there needs to be a reinvigorated urgency for a change in attitudes amongst UK policy makers and the population alike.
By Tilly Campbell, Current Affairs Editor