Yesterday’s news about the lorry full of migrants has rightly shocked everybody. It has been nearly 20 years since we’ve had a similar incident on that sort of scale. There is nothing good to be found in that story.
Some are insisting that the ‘hostile environment’ led to this. Others have pushed back that if the environment was that hostile these folks wouldn’t be seeking to come here. Other still have noted that the environment may well be hostile (and it certainly is) but that isn’t strictly relevant for people who had, sadly, never made it here to experience the hostility.
Unsurprisingly, we are now hearing various calls to action. Notably, voices are calling for a clampdown on criminal people traffickers. Now, before I go on, I want to stress I have no sympathy with such people. I think they exploit desperate people and pose huge risks, that are quite likely to end in the sort of consequences we saw yesterday, that should rightly be condemned and not encouraged.
But (and you knew there was one coming) I don’t think it is all as simple as clamping down. You see, I have quite a lot of friends who have been trafficked. Some of them very nearly died in circumstances troublingly close to what is in the news. And whilst there is no doubt the people taking their money and putting them in appalling danger are exploiting their desperation, what is the alternative for my friends? They either stay in their country to be killed or they risk their life with a trafficker and hope that they might escape death.
Most of us looking on at that will reckon that is no choice at all. And you’d be right! And though I can understand entirely the calls to clamp down on the traffickers to stop the deaths we saw in the news, doing so will have the even less excellent consequence of forcing my friends to face certain death and/or torture in their home countries. Unless we intend to front load our asylum system and somehow complete the years long process of applications and tribunal appeals whilst the appellant remains in their home country – under the threat of the very torture or death that they are seeking to flee – I simply don’t see a solution.
Of course, doing that might be able to keep us from feeling quite icky about deaths on UK soil and virtuous about stopping the nasty people traffickers, but it doesn’t do anything to change the reality that we will be condemning those desperate people to death in their own countries instead. If our main concern is keeping these things out of sight and out of mind, by all means lets clampdown and ignore the consequences of doing so. If our concern is genuinely for those who have been exploited and killed, we need to recognise – unpleasant as it may be – that the solution is not so simple.
Some will shoot back that we should simply make it easier for people to enter our country and claim asylum. That is, without doubt, something I would like to see. But that doesn’t stop the need for people to get out of their own countries when they are not necessarily free to do so. It also doesn’t address the fact that people somehow have to get here when they have often left in a hurry with little more than the clothes on their back. It is an unfortunate and brutal reality that people often need ‘agents’ to facilitate this for them in some way.
I mean, I don’t know about you, but should our government suddenly decide that they want to torture and imprison me, threatening me with death to boot, I would likely seek to get out too. And perhaps you are more resourceful than me, but should the police be on their way to my house to enact that decision and border guards be on the look out for my passport, I’m not sure I would have the wherewithal to know how on earth to get myself out of that. And should another country offer me (and I cannot envisage how) some tribunal process whilst I sit tight at home – as if the draconian action will somehow be stayed because the Kenya (or wherever) want to undertake their legal process – I’m not sure I’d be thrilled at the offer.
So, I say again, I do not think the answer is necessarily to clampdown on the criminal traffickers. I can’t say I know what the solution is. I just know that I have friends – members of my church – who wouldn’t be here but for such people. And I also know that – dangerous as it was for them to get here like that and close as some were to dying in exactly the same way – had they not, they would certainly be dead now. If our goal is to keep deaths out of sight and to ignore the reality of what many people face, by all means clampdown. But if we care at all about the real lives that are at stake, whatever the solution is, it isn’t all that straightforward.