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Lessons from Tilbury: How to change conditions in which people-smuggling can thrive


The discovery of 35 Afghan Sikhs in a container at Tilbury docks is a reminder that immigration is not just an abstract issue around which swirls a lot of political rhetoric. The facts of this case – 35 people, 13 of them children, trapped in unimaginably squalid conditions in which one person died – are truly shocking. And it raises urgent questions about how Europe’s richer nations – the favoured destination of increasing numbers of migrants fleeing poverty and war elsewhere in the world – can balance two requirements: humanity to those who seek a better life, and the responsibility they have to their own citizens.

Many aspects of immigration from outside the EU are beyond the power of European governments to influence in any significant fashion. Conflict will continue to drive millions out of their homes in the Middle East and Africa, and there is little we can do to slow that.

The Tilbury migrants are Afghan Sikhs, and both our government and America’s have been involved in an attempt to build the kind of state in Afghanistan that would diminish the exodus of refugees. Elements of that process have been successful. But the Taliban is far from vanquished, and the scheduled removal of US troops from Afghanistan has apparently set off another wave of departures – as citizens fear the eruption of further violence. Nor can EU or US leaders do much to balance out the economic disparities that drive others to emigrate.

What is within reach, however, is a safer, more equitable reception system for those who attempt to enter Europe. EU law as it stands is a godsend to people-smugglers. Few of those drawn to Europe want to stay in the poorer countries to the east or south, where jobs are in short supply, and the asylum system slow and badly overstretched. It is the lure of Germany, Sweden and Britain that causes many to hazard their lives in transit.

Yet under what is known as the Dublin regulation, European law demands that asylum-seekers seek asylum in whatever country they first make land. That means, often, Italy or Greece, where hundreds of thousands of migrants have arrived so far this year – a massive spike on 2013. Waiting for them are people-smugglers. Like those who transported the Afghan Sikhs into Britain, these criminals help asylum-seekers avoid detection by authorities and travel up north.

Video: Footage from the container found at Tilbury

It would be relatively simple to put a stop to their business within European borders. First, European states to the north must accept that the burden on southern states is excessive, and that will only be resolved by their taking in a greater share of asylum-seekers. One way to do that would be to unwind the Dublin regulation and establish humanitarian corridors from Italy and Greece into the richer nations of Europe. Another is to establish an asylum system that apportions migrants across the EU, rather than forcing them to stay where they land. More can also be done to inform refugees of legal routes into Britain.

What cannot be allowed to prevail in good conscience is the attitude that immigration is only an issue when it lands, horrifically, on your doorstep – as it has done in Tilbury. Just 0.23 per cent of the UK population is made up of asylum-seekers. We can take more in, at the same time as we can work with other European nations to remove the stain of human trafficking. With Ukip calling the tune on this issue, the question now is whether any of our other political leaders have the courage to stand up and make that case.