The shameful Tory and EU policies stopping safe passage for refugees are the cause of the tragic deaths of 39 people in the back of a lorry, argues Mona Kamal
Thirty nine human beings were found dead in the back of a lorry on Wednesday - thirty one men and eight women found as they were entering the country. We know little about the route those people were taken on or what horrors they would have endured during their journey before being found by ambulance services in Essex. In the coming weeks however, we will see attempts by our government to frame this incident as solely the result of international organised crime with gangs engaged in human trafficking to blame. The home secretary Priti Patel’s response in parliament yesterday was to say she was “very happy to discuss with the Ministry of Justice what more we can do to ensure tougher sentences” for human traffickers. Yet this tragedy has to be understood in the context of her party’s ruthless campaign against immigrants and asylum seekers and the systematic elimination of safe and legal routes for their entry into the UK, which time and again has proven lethal.
Despite this government’s near-obsessional focus on deterring immigration they have failed to prevent people from attempts to enter the country. This is unsurprising when you consider that for tens of thousands of years of human history, migration has been a fundamental feature of our existence. Whether it is displacement through war or climate catastrophe, impoverishment or exploitation, to better their lives and the lives of their families humans will find ways to move. So long as 71% of our planet lives on less than ten dollars a day, people will move to find work. So long as we are engaged in war and endless foreign interventions, people will flee to find security. The fact that in recent years there has been a very deliberate and organised operation by our governments and others within the European Union to make their journeys more and more perilous has not succeeded in stopping migration. All it has done is enable the proliferation of illegal and unsafe methods of entry, including human trafficking - and it has lead directly to the deaths of thousands of migrants.
EU governments have enacted what has been described as one of the most aggressive and far reaching border enforcement programs in history, one which has shamefully included a sustained two year campaign by the EU commission to end humanitarian action at sea which went so far as to criminalise sea rescue, a contravention of our obligation to rescue those in distress at sea. And the result of these policies: 19,000 black and brown people dead or missing whilst attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea since October 2013. On the first of this month it was reported by the UN Refugee Agency that for the sixth consecutive year, the number of migrants who have drowned has passed the 1,000 mark. These are individuals and families who have lost their lives for no reason other than the fact European governments have made their journeys a life-threatening endeavour.
Whilst writing this, a man is being detained on suspicion of murder and there are the allegations around involvement of human trafficking gangs. More crucially however we cannot allow this government to evade their own accountability. For as long as there are the dual assaults of austerity at home and war abroad, racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment serve a purpose to those in power and will continue to be propagated as an effective political weapon of divide and rule – the deaths of 39 individuals and the horrors that they no doubt would have experienced before that, serve to highlight the inescapable fact that these policies have a tragic human cost.
In the last decade, we have seen the careful cultivation of hostility and scapegoating of immigrant populations, albeit with the occasional reprieve when individual tragedies such as that of Alan Kurdi provide us with stark reminders of the human consequences. The hatred fuelled over the years by the likes of Priti Patel, just weeks ago shamefully re-asserting “we will end the free movement of people once and for all” at the Conservative party Conference, and Theresa May with her hostile environment and policies of ‘deport now, hear appeals later’ shored up by a xenophobic mainstream press has enabled the implementation of a program of hardline anti-immigration policies with minimal opposition. These are policies which have removed all safe and legal routes into the UK and which compelled those thirty nine individuals to get into the back of a refrigerated lorry and entrust their lives to human traffickers. It is such policies which made such a tragedy inevitable and for which our own government must be considered culpable.
So long as we have a government whose only response to migration is to build our walls ever higher – whilst simultaneously engaged in creating the circumstances abroad that compel people to flee their homes, this tragedy will only be repeated.
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