Don’t call the Essex 39 a ‘tragedy’
On 23 October, 39 people were found dead in the back refrigerated lorry in Essex, South East England, with media outlets reporting that the victims may have frozen to death in temperatures as low as -25°C.
The truck had crossed The Channel from Belgium, a route that has been used increasingly by migrants after the French government tightened restrictions on departures from Calais.
These 39 deaths were not a ‘tragedy’. They were not unavoidable. They were the direct result of British government policies that have made it impossible to enter the country using safe and legal means.
The conditions that produced these 39 deaths emerge from the same set of policies that deny asylum, justify indefinite immigration detention, charter deportation flights, and restrict migrants’ access to fundamental rights – that is, the so-called ‘Hostile Environment’.
The aim is to make the UK so inhospitable for migrants that they will not make the effort to try to enter. They are also the conditions that allow the Global North to continue to thrive off the exploitation of undocumented migrant workers.
‘The brutality of capitalism’
When I first heard of the deaths, I was reminded of the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster, when 23 undocumented Chinese workers drowned while picking cockles off the Lancashire coast. These workers did not die of ‘natural causes’, they died because their gangmaster did not give them any information about how to work safely in the notoriously dangerous bay. He was willing to sacrifice these undocumented workers’ lives for the sake of a higher yield.
Chinese workers were described by one gangmaster as ‘a half-price... more punctual and productive workforce’. Did their employers imagine that Chinese people’s racialized ‘productivity’ somehow meant that they were also immune to the elements? One Morecambe Bay cockler later told journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai (who later wrote a book about Chinese migrant workers’ lives in the UK) that ‘he blamed the brutality of capitalism for the tragedy’.
At the end of 2018, China was one of the countries with the highest numbers of citizens in UK detention centres. Earlier this year, I visited a Chinese man in detention, who had come to the UK with the help of so-called ‘snakehead’ smugglers, who are often blamed for the deaths of undocumented migrants like the Essex 39. The man had fled to the UK for fear that he would be killed; he did not know how else he could enter.
The Home Office rejected his refugee application, detained him for more than a year (despite bundles of evidence from experts on his situation) and ended up deporting him – but not before first mistakenly deporting another man with the same surname.
One of the most heartbreaking things he had said to me was that he would rather work for £1 an hour in the detention centre for the rest of his life, than go home and face persecution.
Hierarchy of ‘desert’
It is not useful to speculate on the reasons why these 39 Vietnamese nationals decided to try to enter the UK. More important is to recognize that the UK border has long been a site of racialized, classed, and gendered violence for all migrants, regardless of the reasons for entering. In 1998, the New Labour government published ‘Fairer, Faster, and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum’, a White Paper which warned that ‘economic migrants will exploit whatever route offers the best chance of entering or remaining within the UK’. Two years later, in 2000, 58 Chinese nationals were found dead, having suffocated in the back of a lorry at Dover docks.
States often attempt to distinguish ‘economic migrants’ from ‘real refugees’ as a way to restrict legal entry at the border. Such categorization creates an arbitrary hierarchy of entitlement to international protection, absent of any consideration of the unequal distribution of resources across the Global North and Global South that often makes seeking employment overseas the only way that some people – and their families – can survive.
In theory, this hierarchy of ‘desert’ is illegitimate because human rights violations, including deprivation of socioeconomic rights, are not subject to ranking. In practice, the hierarchy also fails to give ‘priority’ to ‘real refugees’ due to the culture of disbelief around asylum applications. So migrants are forced to rely on smugglers to gain entry.
Smugglers facilitate the entry of migrants through different pathways. This entails significant risks, as states establish stronger barriers to entry, including visa restrictions, carrier sanctions, and interceptions at sea. The journeys do not stop; the conditions simply become more and more deadly.
Smuggling is different to trafficking, which is the forced movement of a person for the purpose of exploitation, including labour and sexual exploitation. Anti-trafficking policies, however, are often criticized for failing to protect, and sometimes causing direct harm to, undocumented migrants. In the UK survivors of trafficking are detained and in some cases deported; even after being recognized as survivors, they often do not receive adequate social support.
Part of the ‘anti-trafficking’ movement is also rooted in an anti-sex work politics that conflates sex work with sexual exploitation. This perspective presents all migrant sex workers as ‘victims’ requiring ‘saving’. In the end, this only pushes migrant sex workers into more insecure working conditions, subjecting them to the threat of arrest, detention, and deportation.
States often conflate smuggling and trafficking to introduce blanket restrictions on entry and to criminalize particular forms of work in order to eject unwanted migrants. But blaming migrants’ deaths on smugglers and traffickers does nothing but mask the structures of racism and capitalism that both restrict the movement of, and exploit, undocumented workers.
We do not at the time of writing know if the 39 people in the back of the lorry were hoping to come to the UK as workers; or whether they were being trafficked into labour exploitation. But the objectification of their ‘bodies’ reminded me of the way that migrants are only useful until they are not; and then, they are, quite literally, disposable.
A man is being questioned in connection with the murder of the Essex 39; but the blood is ultimately on the hands of the British state, and the global system of borders that entrenches exploitative and deadly relations of power.
*A previous version of this article stated that the 39 victims were Chinese nationals. Police initially believed this to be the case, but later verified the victims' passports were counterfeits.
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