This week’s tragic discovery of 39 dead people in Grays, Essex, has shocked the nation. The individuals’ nationality is not certain at this stage, but it is believed they are non-European and therefore would likely have become undocumented migrants had they survived.
We can’t know yet whether this is a case of migrant smuggling or human trafficking; the latter requires proof that the 39 had been exploited en route or were going to be on arrival by those who moved them. It will take considerable time for law enforcement agencies to establish whether that was the case and yet, in the meantime, media and parliamentarians are consistently referring to the incident as trafficking.
“We must recognise that harder borders mean more deaths.”
There is a simple reason for this: when we think about human trafficking, it conjures the image of criminals forcing people to move against their will. Therefore, the straightforward solution seems to be a strong law enforcement response and harder borders. In her statement to the Commons on the day of the horrific discovery, Home Secretary Priti Patel specifically talked about securing our borders “against a wide range of threats, including people trafficking”. Whilst there are certainly people who must be brought to justice for the deaths of the 39, pointing the finger at traffickers is not the whole story. Instead, it conveniently avoids the role of immigration policy in facilitating these sorts of incidents.
Hollywood would have us believe that trafficking victims have been kidnapped or abducted from their homes and forcibly made to travel. This is very rarely the case; the vast majority of victims of trafficking are people who wanted to migrate in the first place. When we realise that trafficking is actually migration gone wrong, it becomes apparent that law enforcement and border action alone can’t possibly stop it because people will keep needing to move. Clearly this is only going to become more relevant as the climate crisis takes hold. So if we truly want to prevent these kinds of incidents occurring, we need to accept this and then we need to do two things: firstly, we must recognise that harder borders mean more deaths. If we prevent people from taking safe pathways into the UK, they will resort to other means, such as paying smugglers or falling into the hands of traffickers, and they may lose their lives. In fact, reports that the container in which these people died was refrigerated is a perfect and horrific example: as thermal imaging has been increasingly deployed at borders, refrigeration is being used to avoid detection. The only preventive solution to the type of tragedy seen at Grays is the creation of safe and legal pathways into the UK.
“For someone who is so desperate to migrate that they will risk their life, the choice between trying to escape from exploitation or being deported is no choice at all.”
Secondly, we must undo the hostile environment policies that have stripped undocumented people of their basic rights. The Immigration Act 2016 criminalised working in the UK without the right paperwork, pushing undocumented people into the shadow economy and leaving them with no way to enforce the labour rights on which the rest of us rely. This means there is a ready supply of rights-deprived people for exploitative employers to abuse. For traffickers, it’s easy money off the backs of people whom our state has directly made vulnerable. Crucially, this criminalisation also means that exploited people can’t seek help from police or labour inspectorates without fearing immigration repercussions. For someone who is so desperate to migrate that they will risk their life, the choice between trying to escape from exploitation or being deported is no choice at all. And the traffickers know this too: our research and that of many others has found that the threat of immigration authorities is used by traffickers to coerce and control victims and stop them from seeking help. Instead of focusing on securing borders, then, Priti Patel would do well to introduce secure reporting, so that any person in the UK, regardless of their immigration status, can safely seek help from our public agencies and be treated as a victim, not a criminal. Other countries already have such protective measures, so it is entirely doable and simply a matter of political will.
The shock expressed this week is rightful; it is a truly horrific incident and we must honour the lives lost. This will not be achieved by criminal justice alone. As the National Police Chief’s Council Lead on Modern Slavery said in January this year, the government has focused its energies on encouraging law enforcement to tackle trafficking but this can only be a “sticking plaster”; systemic change is needed. So while we must find the perpetrators who arranged such terribly unsafe passage for these people, it’s crucial we don’t lose sight of how our immigration policy is directly causing people to take such dangerous routes and pushing them into slavery-like conditions on arrival. Until government is willing to acknowledge this, we will run the risk of many future tragedies.
Emily Kenway is the senior adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), which works to end human trafficking for labour exploitation. She is a former adviser to the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.