Thirty-nine human beings have died in the back of a lorry. They were found by police in the early hours of this morning. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, declares it an “unimaginable tragedy” while Priti Patel, the home secretary, claims to be “shocked and saddened.” On the contrary, it was entirely imaginable and predictable. It’s just that it usually happens outside our borders and outside our sight, in the Mediterranean, in mainland Europe, or in Libya or Turkey, where Europe attempts to confine people.
There have been 1,078 drowning deaths in the Mediterranean so far in 2019, down from more 3,000 per year in 2014-16 and 2,843 in 2017. Almost 18,000 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2018, and the International Organisation for Migration says that the bodies of almost two-thirds of those victims have never been found. In one sense, the families of the people found in Essex are the “lucky” ones; at least they will, once the dead are identified, know their fate and have a body to bury.
Still more people end up stranded in Turkey or Libya, funded by EU countries (including the UK) to keep them out of Europe. A recent report tells the horrific story of a mother watching her child die over three days in a Libyan detention centre while guards refused her medical treatment; of people locked in a room together with others with active tuberculosis; of at least 53 people dying in a bomb attack on a detention centre near a weapons storage facility; of detainees being sold to traffickers by guards in detention centres after interception at sea by the Libyan coastguard – funded by the EU.
Now Turkey threatens to abandon the agreement to keep migrants out of the EU, in response to European criticism of its actions against the Kurds in Syria. The EU’s desperation to keep migrants out has left it in a helpless position: keep quiet about Turkey’s behaviour towards our erstwhile allies, or to take the consequences of receiving 3.6 million refugees who have been stranded in Turkey.
Perhaps we should be preparing for more bodies.
Little is known so far about the circumstances of the deaths in Essex. The container is thought to be registered in Bulgaria, the cab in the Republic of Ireland; the driver is apparently from Northern Ireland. The identities and nationalities of the dead are as yet unknown, although one is said to have been a teenager. The lorry entered the UK through the port at Holyhead on Saturday and all of its passengers were dead by the early hours of Wednesday, when it was opened. It’s not yet clear whether they died of asphyxiation, thirst, or some other cause, but either way their final days and hours must have been horrendous.
In the absence of clear information about the lorry’s route, most of the news articles on the subject quote Seamus Leheny, of the Freight Transport Association, who points out that travelling from Bulgaria to Essex via Holyhead, in North Wales, is “unorthodox”. There is speculation that “it might be seen as an easier way to get in” given the intensive security at Calais and Dunkirk ports. As he put it: “It’s a long way around and it’ll add an extra day to the journey.”
And there’s the problem. In the determination to stop “unlawful” immigration, instead of creating safe, legal routes, Europe tightens up security and people take a longer way around, a more dangerous way around.
People don’t stop moving. They will never stop moving. And until we recognise that, and address it with humane policies, we will continue to find lorries full of dead human beings.
No doubt, in the coming days, we will start to hear the names and life stories of some of the people who died. Important as those are, we should not let that distract us from the most important matter: that their demise, and the deaths of so many like them, is the fault of the British government, the British Home Office, British foreign policy, and our counterparts across Europe.
Local MP Jackie Doyle-Price said: “The best thing we can do in memory of those victims is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.” We should, of course, do that. An even better thing would be to make sure it never happens again – not by closing off UK access routes, which will drive people into taking ever more risky journeys, but by creating safe and legal routes into Europe the UK that keep people out of the hands of smugglers who put them in danger.
Jo Wilding is an ESRC postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Brighton and a barrister at Garden Court Chambers in London
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