Lorry deaths expose our shameful hypocrisy on migration

Published by The i paper (28th October, 2019)

The young faces stare out of newspaper pages. Bui Thi Nhung, just 19 years old, who posted a recent image of herself in Brussels on social media alongside the words ‘Such a beautiful day.’ Nguyen Dinh Luong, one year older and looking for a better life in a land where he found only death. And 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My, who texted her mother as she is believed to have suffocated alongside 38 others in a refrigerated lorry. ‘I’m sorry Mum. My path abroad has not succeeded. Mum, I love you so much. I’m dying because I can’t breathe.’

Yes, this young woman – smiling from pictures with a white flower behind her ear – died because she could not breathe. Yet she died also because she was ambitious to make something of herself but was forced to trust callous crooks who exploit poor and desperate people. She died because she wanted to help her struggling family in their tin-roofed shack in Vietnam, who scraped together thousands of pounds they could ill-afford to invest in their beloved daughter. And she died because our stance on migration is so grotesquely hypocritical.

There is, rightly, outrage over 39 dead people discovered in the back of a lorry. Just as there was a spasm of anger over 58 Chinese migrants who died in another truck in Dover at the turn of the century, or when the corpse of a refugee child washed up on a Turkish beach. And let no one waste a single drop of pity on the despicable characters who profit from this cruel trade in desperate human beings. But so much sympathy that surrounds these horror stories is disturbingly shallow.

Already there are calls for a clampdown, for more border guards, for tighter security around our shores. Perhaps this will detain or deter a few more people. A BBC investigation found that over three years almost 28,000 people were arrested for illegally entering our country, with 2,482 arrested for assisting unlawful entry. Yet it is estimated there could be up to 900,000 people living here illegally.

Like it or not, it is impossible to thwart everyone. Build bigger walls and determined people dig deeper tunnels or buy longer ladders. We are an island nation with more than 11,000 miles of coastline, 3,000 airports and almost 1,000 ports. More than six flights a minute land at peak times. Almost 100,000 cargo vessels dock at our major ports, many holding thousands of containers. Only a fool believes it is possible to stop every passenger, check every container, patrol every inch of beach and cliff.

Politicians must do everything possible to protect borders. But equally, they should be honest with voters. Those people found dead in that chilled metal grave in Essex were seeking something most of us desire: a better life for them and their families. Yet those of us lucky enough to be born in Britain believe it is our birthright to travel and work wherever we want on the planet, while we deny such freedoms to families in poorer places and put barriers before people branded “economic migrants”.

The futility of our stance is highlighted by Scaling Fences, a new United Nations report based on interviews with 1,970 Africans who used ‘irregular routes’ to reach 13 European nations including Britain. It shows the complexity of reasons for embarking on these trips, with economic motivation a key factor but bound up in concerns of family, freedom, gender dynamics and discrimination. Asked what would have stopped them, more than four in 10 said nothing. ‘Ultimately we all want the same things in life – good health, decent jobs, liberty and freedom to pursue opportunities for our families and ourselves,’ said one Senegalese man.

Crocodile tears flow over these latest sad deaths, yet many more corpses in the Mediterranean are being ignored. Already 1,080 people have drowned this year attempting the crossing between continents. Yet this is seen as success since it is lower than last year, keeping a ‘crisis’ off the front pages. Europe outsourced the problem by pouring cash into the pockets of Libyan gangsters who detain, enslave, sexually abuse and torture migrants caught in their country. Our politicians talk of fighting modern slavery while funding it abroad.

Once Boris Johnson backed an amnesty for illegal immigrants before turning hard right and embracing nationalism. Perhaps he could rediscover a vestige of his lost liberalism. There are other policies to deter human trafficking. Legalise drugs so young Vietnamese are not smuggled into suburban cannabis factories. Stop propping up despots with arms and undermining democracy with aid. Start tackling our own tax havens. Crack down on pin-striped pimps in banks, law firms and estate agencies that launder dirty money. Do not invade foreign nations only to abandon ‘liberated’ peoples.

Yet for all the fear-mongering, only a tiny minority in any land want to disrupt their lives to migrate. Politicians should also end the pretence we need only high-skilled and rich migrants – and given their constant ineptitude, that they have the abilities to determine societal needs. Alongside bankers, entrepreneurs and scientists we need carers, cleaners, drivers, fruit pickers, security guards and warehouse workers. Instead, as walls go up, millions of apples are left rotting in autumnal fields and the social care system is collapsing because of labour shortages.

To stop the smugglers and end this slaughter, we must offer legal routes for low-skilled migrants. I would like to see an annual lottery, like that in the United States. Who would you really prefer in your country: those ambitious young Vietnamese seeking to build a better future to our mutual benefit or the millionaire crooks, spivs and hustlers welcomed in with open arms by Westminster? So many myths, so much hypocrisy, swirl around this migration debate. If we really want to stop people dying these grim deaths, we need to start with some honesty.

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