The Essex lorry deaths throw up so many questions. It’s vital we ask the right ones.
This horrific event was not caused by lax border controls but by governments that force the most vulnerable to risk their lives.
There are several ways a person who doesn’t want to be found can conceal themselves in a lorry.
If you are able-bodied and strong enough, you can crawl between the wheel-axles and the base, and hang on for as long as your arms hold out.
If not, you can try to cram yourself into the tiny storage box that sits between the wheels, a feat of contortion as well as endurance.
Or, if you have the means, you can unlock and climb inside the main container, which may or may not be airtight. You do these things because you want to cross an international border you do not have permission to cross.
What causes people to risk their lives?
Every so often, as with the current news that 39 people have been found dead in a lorry in Essex, the risks of this mode of transport become impossible to ignore.
Jamal, a young man from Sudan who spent time in Calais, kept hiding underneath lorries he thought were bound for Britain then having to jump off on the motorways of France and Belgium when they turned out to be heading elsewhere.
A Kurdish man who made his way from Iran to Europe a decade ago had to watch the smugglers who offered him safe passage beat up other travellers, and wonder if they would do the same to him.
Zainab, an Iraq mother of three, climbed into a refrigerated lorry with her children one night in France in the autumn of 2014, expecting the driver to set off for the Channel. Instead, he remained parked and switched off the ventilation. The police arrived just as other passengers began to suffocate.
The 38 adults and one teenager whose bodies were discovered have yet to all be identified and concrete details of their journey are still emerging, though it appears that the lorry came from Bulgaria.
It echoes other similar incidents: the 58 men and women found dead in a lorry at Dover in 2000, the 71 decomposing bodies found in a lorry at the side of a motorway in Austria in 2015, or the 35 men, women and children discovered in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks in 2014, suffering from hypothermia and severe dehydration.
Our immediate reaction is usually shock, and a desire to prevent things like this from happening again. A kneejerk response is to demand tougher controls, more security infrastructure at the borders, tougher punishments for the people who try to make these journeys and those who facilitate them.
Yet such disasters do not happen because of a lack of border control – they are the price of it. The illusion our politicians perpetuate or buy into is that migration can be switched on and off like a tap, according to the wishes of voters or the demands of the economy. It can be shaped, for sure, states can offer people incentives to move, or they can put bureaucratic or physical obstacles in people’s way to make it less likely.
But, as is painfully apparent in so many parts of the world right now, there will always be people who feel compelled to travel even when the risks are deadly. Tougher controls push people to more dangerous routes, and to place their lives in the hands of smugglers who may be indifferent to their safety or actively looking to exploit them.
The situation in Calais
The situation at Calais, now two decades old, is a case in point.
As debates over the Brexit referendum in 2016 reached fever pitch, images of people gathered at the French port were used as evidence of lax border control. In fact they were evidence of the opposite, it’s precisely because the UK has made it so tough to cross the Channel that people get trapped elsewhere – or, as has recently become more common, attempting their own perilous boat journeys from the French coast.
Britain did not experience a “refugee crisis” in the way that other parts of Europe did, in 2015, as assylum applications rose across europe as a whole, the UK’s share of applications actually fell.
This is why it’s crucial not to let shock and panic lead us into making decisions that will make life harder for the very people we may wish to protect.
Important questions are being asked about the deaths of the people discovered in Essex, who is responsible, and how could this be prevented in future?
Essex police have opened a murder investigation and arrested the driver of the lorry. The National Crime Agency has said it is working to identify any organised criminal group that may be involved.
But there are a series of other questions we should also be asking.
The first is why people would want to travel in that manner at all, what was pushing them to leave their homes, and why were they unwilling to stop elsewhere?
If there were refugees among the dead, why were they unable to access their rights elsewhere in Europe? Were there people among them who had the right to be in the UK, but could not get here via legal routes because the British government was dragging its feet – as it has done with hundreds of lone children stranded in Europe?
And if they weren’t refugees, what motivated them to travel this way in search of work?
A major new study by the United Nations development programme illustrates how complex the answers can be, in interviews with nearly 2,000 people from Africa who travelled to Europe for work, via some of the world’s deadliest migration routes, more than 90% said they would do it again.
In the most part, they were not suffering abject poverty, but had experienced inequality and injustice, and wanted more from their lives.
By asking these question, we recognise that the people who suffer at our borders are not simply passive victims, but individuals making decisions and trying to retain control of their lives.
Only then will we stop treating this issue as a problem to be ignored or suppressed, and start to talk about how we might reorganise our system around people’s needs.