Who is really responsible for those deaths in Dover?

'Soon we won't let anyone out, in case they're hooligans, or in, for fear they're economic migrants'
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The Independent Online

At the end of January 1948, a charter plane crashed in the Californian scrub, 70-odd miles from the town of Fresno. At that time of the year, the usually dusty hills of that part of America - though cold - are green and covered in wildflowers. Decades later, a man who - as a boy of six - was taken to the crash site recalled his feelings. "The sadness of seeing the meagre possessions of the passengers," he wrote, "and the total lack of respect by those who had the task of removing the bodies will be something I will never forget or forgive."

At the end of January 1948, a charter plane crashed in the Californian scrub, 70-odd miles from the town of Fresno. At that time of the year, the usually dusty hills of that part of America - though cold - are green and covered in wildflowers. Decades later, a man who - as a boy of six - was taken to the crash site recalled his feelings. "The sadness of seeing the meagre possessions of the passengers," he wrote, "and the total lack of respect by those who had the task of removing the bodies will be something I will never forget or forgive."

The 28 dead in Los Gatos canyon were Mexican illegal farm labourers - "wetbacks" - who had swum the Rio Grande or had run the border patrols, worked in the fruit orchards, and were now being deported by the US authorities back to Mexico. The routine description of these people as being mere "deportees" moved the American radical singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie to write a song that I learnt when I was a child. The chorus goes like this:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;

You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be 'deportees'.

The news of the deaths of 58 Chinese people, and the subsequent discussion about the way in which they died, reminded me of Guthrie's angry song.

Though the death toll in the lorry in Dover was nearly double that of the Paddington rail crash, the dead were mostly described as "illegal immigrants". What happened to them might have been tragic, but the issue, almost everyone agreed, was to stop these people attempting to enter our country. A Northern Irish lorry driver interviewed at Dover on Monday said that he was afraid he had no sympathy with the dead Chinese, because their behaviour was the sort of thing that got truck drivers a bad reputation.

It would be convenient for my polemic had Parliament been as callous as that Ulsterman. But those MPs who normally find sympathy a bit of a challenge were on good behaviour, and the mood was "sombre". The "stark warning" that Jack Straw believed the tragedy would send to would-be stowaways was a not unreasonable comment about the danger of putting oneself in the hands of criminals and smugglers.

Even so, within seconds of declaring profound (if perfunctory) sympathy for the victims, Parliament was hard at work fulminating. Illegal immigration must be stopped. Since it was a Home Office session, they were also busy fulminating about hooliganism. That also had to be stopped. Pretty soon we won't let anyone out of the country in case they're hooligans, or anyone in for fear that they're economic migrants.

There were other symmetries: the Dutch authorities were to blame for the murderous lorries; the Belgian police and a Uefa plot were at fault over hooligans. Or, if you were the Opposition, the Government was to blame for failing to "crack down" (fast becoming the key phrase of 2000) on both.

Then came the technical discussions. If only we could persuade the dilatory Continentals to use thermal gizmos on all lorries, then we could discover the asylum-seekers (80 per cent of them "bogus", naturally) before they hit the ferries. By co-operating with foreign police forces we could catch the smugglers and then subject them to lengthier sentences to deter their participation in this trade. And, by the same token, we could identify potential yobbos with some kind of yobbometer and prevent their travelling abroad to matches.

It's all balls. Because it's based on a failure to comprehend why our fellow human beings behave the way they do.

Mr Straw said on Monday: "We understand the motives [of the asylum-seekers], but we must also get it across to them that there will be severe dangers - in some cases, of death - if they get involved with the criminal facilitators." The word "facilitator" gives the truth away. Because of previous "tough" legislation, there is practically no legal immigration into Britain for those without previous ties to these islands. The Snakeheads and Mafias alone allow people to do what the law prevents them from doing - emigrating from the countries of their birth to countries such as ours, countries in which we have had the extraordinary luck to be born. And they "facilitate" at a price.

Some of the dead people, it was reported yesterday, may have paid £20,000 to be smuggled into Britain. The going rate in Afghanistan for the truly desperate is between $8,000 and $20,000. This year, 120 "illegal immigrants" have been drowned crossing the Straits of Gibraltar from north Africa to Spain. Periodically, a frozen teenager turns up dead in the undercarriage of a Heathrow-bound jetliner.

What do such acts of desperation tell us about those who wish to come here? That they are to be deterred by thermal scanning? Or by Ann Widdecombe's detention centres? Or Mr Straw's Continental police co-operation?

You can no more prohibit as basic a human desire as that to live a better life than you can legislate out of existence the pleasure that some will take from drugs. Monday's deaths were not the result of laxness, but a direct and inevitable consequence of previous "toughness". Yet heavier penalties on people-smuggling, and tougher curbs on entry, will just push up the price to the poor immigrant and increase the danger and the violence in which he or she is imported. Just as with drugs.

At least in the case of narcotics there is a good argument that some substances (crack, say) can cause real damage. But the irony over immigration is that - even were we totally unpersuaded by the moral arguments - we would still need immigrants to make up for our declining birth rate. With increasing numbers of women forgoing children altogether and the sizes of families declining, we - like most West European nations - are failing to replace stiffs with babies. Yet we are devising ever-more-complex ways of preventing anyone from getting in - ways bound to cause more tragedies in future.

There is a failure of imagination here, coupled with the tendency noted by Woody Guthrie to lessen the humanity of those whose existence is somehow awkward. Though the lorry tragedy was well reported, it did not - I think - attract quite the same kind of revulsion that might have occurred had 58 dead dolphins or 58 dead Dalmatian puppies turned up in the back of the truck. Personally, I also could have done without the interview on radio yesterday, describing the trauma suffered by the Kent emergency services on seeing the bodies. With all due respect to them, that was not the point.

Perhaps before we can frame a rational and humane policy for letting people in, we need to be reminded that they are indeed people. The Dover tragedy needs its Woody Guthrie; the dead Lius and Chens deserve somebody to remind us that they paid the price, not just for their own wish to live better, but for our exclusiveness. It's something Billy Bragg or Kirsty MacColl could and should do. Because I have seldom felt so bloody ashamed as I did on Monday.

david.aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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