Since the news broke that 38 adults and one teenager were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry in an Essex industrial estate, MPs have largely spoken of their intention to tackle human trafficking. But there is something crucial missing from the outpourings of shock and sympathy for the victims in the lorry and their families, and that is UK immigration policy and the lack of safe and legal routes available for those seeking refuge.
The majority of asylum seekers need to be in the UK before they can claim asylum here. A distinct absence of safe and legal routes creates a situation in which the only way to achieve this is to travel dangerously by lorry or boat. It places the blame for deaths like these on criminal groups preying on the vulnerable. These groups are in part, of course, responsible but one could argue they are also fulfilling a need in the absence of any alternative.
I have spent four years working in the UK and northern France supporting refugees in camps, most recently documenting incidents where their human rights have been violated. I have been directly involved in a number of situations where life was lost or those involved came terrifyingly close to death.
On 1 April 2016, a 17-year-old Iraqi-Kurdish teenager called Mohammed Hassan was found dead on an industrial estate near Banbury in Oxfordshire. He was discovered by the lorry driver who had inadvertently crushed him when Mohammed had dropped from the vehicle’s axel. Mohammed had spent many months living in the camp in Dunkirk and with no ability to access asylum in the UK from France, he took the desperate decision to attempt to reach his uncle in the UK.
Mohammed was, in fact, eligible for transfer to the UK under Dublin 3, the legal mechanism that is supposed to allow asylum seekers to be transferred to European states in which certain relatives are living. His death was totally avoidable, had access to these mechanisms been available.
The case of Mohammed and the 39 dead in Essex, whilst shocking, are not isolated. Each day, volunteers and aid workers await the news that another life has been lost in desperate attempts to cross Europe’s increasingly fortified borders. My experience of living in Dunkirk meant I was involved in a number of rescue operations, where residents of the camp were forced to take the decision to climb inside a refrigerated lorry. These trucks are used as they make identification of body heat inside the vehicle much harder when trucks pass through heat censors at ports and borders.
In May 2016, I was sent a text message from a family who had been living in the camp saying that they and a number of others, including young children, were trapped inside a refrigerated lorry that had not moved for some time and they were running out of oxygen.
We were able to contact police, who identified the location of the vehicle. A number of people inside the truck were unconscious and required hospitalisation. Thankfully, that time, no one died. It is hard to imagine that anyone with any alternative would willingly put their baby inside a refrigeration truck.
Action must be taken to avoid further deaths at the UK borders. We have an obligation under Article 2 of the European Declaration of Human Rights to examine policy where it ultimately results in death. Until such action is taken, people will continue to swim the channel, climb inside refrigeration trailers or hold onto the axel of a fast-moving vehicle.
We tighten our borders, increase security at our ports and build walls to stop people from moving. None of this deters movement. People have always moved, and they will continue to do so. The harder we make it, the greater the risks people are forced to take, and ultimately the more people will die.
Maddie Harris is the director and founder of the Humans for Rights Network
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