* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It should be obvious that only through safe routes of regular migration people can seek a better future without risking their lives
Lucila Granada is the chief executive of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)
On Friday, four people were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for manslaughter and two for conspiring to assist illegal immigration in relation to the deaths of dozens of people who were found dead trapped in a lorry in Essex in October 2019. In total, 39 Vietnamese men, women and children suffocated to death in the back of a refrigerated truck as they tried to make their way to Britain.
Following the tragedy, Home Secretary Priti Patel said in Parliament that the government “owe it to their families to identify those responsible and ensure they face the full force of the law.” But are those charged the only people responsible?
Bringing these individuals to justice was crucial, but not enough. To really understand the factors leading to this tragedy and to prevent it from happening again, we need to dig deeper and look at the role of the state in creating the vulnerabilities that enable exploitation to occur in the first place. We owe it to the dead and we owe it to the living. It is to the UK’s immigration system and border control approach which we must turn. They would not have taken such a risky and terrifying journey had there been reasonable pathways for them to come to the UK. It should be obvious that only through safe routes of regular migration will people who are displaced by poverty be able to seek a better future without risking their lives. For this reason, an inquiry into safe and regular immigration routes like that called for by the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants cannot be postponed. Crucially, we must not allow this tragedy to develop into even more dangerous borders for vulnerable people. In her response to the Home Secretary’s speech on Monday, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott called for more security at ports, so this kind of knee-jerk response is a real risk.
It’s not only at the border that our immigration policy is constructing vulnerability for people needing to migrate. The hostile environment and joint working between immigration enforcement and our agencies that are meant to protect people is also to blame. The statistics on potential victims of trafficking bear this out: of the four most common nationalities identified, three are non-EEA (Albania, Vietnam and China), meaning they are likely be here undocumented. People like this, working without permits, live in fear of immigration detention and deportation and are too afraid to seek help due to their status. In fact, the illegal working offence introduced in the Immigration Bill 2016 poses the additional threat of imprisonment and confiscation of wages to undocumented workers. Regrettably, their fear of immigration authorities is not unfounded; as exposed in 2019, hundreds of human trafficking victims are held in detention centres.
Threats of immigration enforcement and subsequent deportation are frequently used by exploiters to exert control over their victims. Government implicitly recognises this: the UK National Referral Mechanism assessment tool includes ‘threat of being handed over to authorities’ as one of its indicators of modern slavery. We need coherent policies to ensure that those who are facing exploitation are not pushed further into the shadows by our own immigration laws and systems, which in turn hand tools of coercion directly to traffickers and exploiters.
The government must establish safe and secure reporting mechanisms, putting an end to the interference of immigration enforcement in the work of those agencies meant to support people at risk. We need to send a strong message to both those fearing to come forward and those profiting from that fear, ensuring that agencies will always prioritise people’s safety over administrative immigration targets. No victim should fear the agencies that are supposed to support vulnerable people.
The best way to honour these deaths is to protect the living: the British government must learn from this terrible loss, demonstrate a true commitment to prevent this tragedy from happening again and ensure the lives of those who survive these horrendous journeys will be held in higher regard than their documents.