Why we must remember the dead in a Dover truck

'Three weeks ago 58 asylum-seekers died and we have not properly mourned them'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It all began on the 19 June, the hottest day we have had so far this summer. I was asked to compere a TUC event launching an initiative to fight racism in the workplace. It was a jolly evening with celebs, steel bands, wine and five-star canapés. But many of us were distracted because this was also the day that the bodies of 58 young Chinese men and women were found in the back of an airless container.

It all began on the 19 June, the hottest day we have had so far this summer. I was asked to compere a TUC event launching an initiative to fight racism in the workplace. It was a jolly evening with celebs, steel bands, wine and five-star canapés. But many of us were distracted because this was also the day that the bodies of 58 young Chinese men and women were found in the back of an airless container.

Imagine then how these poor people must have suffered as they suffocated locked up in a box in that heat. Like others who are profoundly affected by this tragedy, I am haunted by images. I see vomit and clawed flesh and hear wild screams and fists banging on the walls.

I am sorry to upset readers, but I think it is essential not to avoid the awful reality of what must have happened before merciful oblivion put them to sleep.

They died three weeks ago, and yet as a country we have not properly mourned them or remembered them. The nameless 58 have vanished into the ether. Just compare this to the reaction, both in Australia and here, to the terrible deaths of the young travellers who died in that hostel fire. Well, a group of us who were present at the TUC have decided to redress this shameful neglect. We are holding a vigil today (at 4.30pm at the West London Synagogue, 1 Seymour Place, Marble Arch, London W1), putting down a white lily for each person who died, as well as a wreath for all those we will never know about who have perished trying to make it to a good life.

Some British Chinese mourners will be present, and we will observe a minute's silence to show both respect and shame. Following this remembrance, we will hold a public meeting to discuss the causes of such tragedies and the way we might prevent them. An incredible number of well-known and ordinary people have come forward to offer support for this initiative, which we have called Action 58. I am very very grateful that they have signed up. They, we, have done so because we wish to tell a different story about immigrants and asylum-seekers, because most of us believe that our laws, are, in part, responsible for these deaths.

Try not to think of these people as "illegals" or "bogus refugees" or, that most evil of categories, "economic migrants", and think of them instead as individual human beings, sons and daughters who were young and keen and/or desperate to make a future. The wreath we are putting down will bear cards with words such as "lover", "gardener", "mother", "cook", "dreams", "hunger" and "computer scientist". Many of our children here in Britain have just graduated from university. Full of fear and longings, they are trying to cope with the gush of uncertainty that rushes in after graduation. These victims were also twentysomethings with their lives ahead of them, living through, I imagine, a similar range of emotions. The one-child policy in China means that each was probably an only child. We don't really know yet what the families are going through or what is going to happen to the bodies - or even when they will be properly identified.

These then, are the human reasons why we should be responding with empathy to their anguish. But our Action 58 aims to do more than that. Many of us have argued on these pages that our asylum policies are dehumanising those already here and failing those who need to get here. I also believe that we need to take more responsibility for the promiscuous way we are exporting our economic system across the globe. How many British people know that much of the maligned economic migration is the detritus produced by this new global capitalism? The world that we now live in demands a more expansive and imaginative approach to immigration, international obligations and human rights.

No British politician at the moment seems to have the nerve or the wit to take up these challenges. Instead, we have the paranoid Jack Straw and the demented Ann Widdecombe, who daily feed us reasons to be hateful to those who are simply doing what people have done for centuries.

As Adrian Mitchell says in a poem that he has written especially for the vigil: "From the child-murderer Poverty/Or the claws of Nightmare Police/Painfully over land and sea/They come seeking some kind of peace."

Government and Opposition falsely believe that this is what the well-fed middle classes want them to do. The list of those backing Action 58 shows both how wrong they are. Will they listen? Probably not. They will most likely dismiss us all as luvvie friends of Ken Follett. But we can make them listen by using this day to start building up a viable coalition of people who feel strongly that no more people should die because they dared to hope for better.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

Comments