Thirty-nine migrants seeking a better life perished in a refrigerated van, and their bodies were found in an industrial site about 25 miles east of central London. Ambulance services found the truck early one Wednesday morning, October 23, and while it has not yet been fully ascertained how they all died, it is a fair guess that the 31 men and 8 women froze to death while the truck driver who is known to law-enforcement as a human smuggler was driving them to their drop-off points.
The reason such tragic incidents arouse so much emotion is that these martyrs died after travelling from South East Asia and came so close to their dreamland. These 39 brave souls were fighting for a cause that we are all familiar with, i.e., a better life and to put food on the table. According to the police report, the trailer arrived from Zeebrugge in Belgium and somehow managed to go to the British port of Essex. Originally they were thought to be Chinese, since many of them had Chinese passports, but then the story got complicated. It is now believed that these workers came from Vietnam and then travelled to China where they secured fake Chinese passports before heading for Europe. It is almost certain that these aspiring migrants, one as young as 19 years old, were hoping to find jobs in the UK after their months-long ordeal had ended.
As an economist, I have to hold my emotions in check when I write my columns. However, as everyone knows, economists are also taught about the distinction between normative and positive economics. Positive implies “what is” and normative refers to “what ought to be”. For example, positive economics tells us that resource-poor countries often do not offer employment for all able-bodied humans, while normative economics, (as opposed to positive economics) expresses the value judgment that society must be fair and offer employment at living wages to all.
The death of the migrants who were only looking for better-paying jobs in the UK are victims of a cruel system, a world economy that does not pay a decent wage but also forbids them from going to another country (the UK) which can do so. This is not the first time in recent history that migrants seeking better economic opportunities have taken dangerous routes in search of better prospects. And for these migrants, the economic and human cost had been enormous.
Bernie Gravett, a former British police officer advising the European Union on human trafficking, opined that families try to help their loved ones travel abroad and pay large sums of money to human-smugglers. He told BBC Breakfast, “In Vietnam it is assessed at 20,000 to 30,000 US dollars, from China it’s 40,000 to 50,000 US dollars.” This amount was confirmed by journalists on the ground with families of some of the deceased who came from the same village in northern Vietnam.
People knowledgeable about the illegal migration racket, paint a very scary portrait of the conditions, the risks, and the financial cost that poor families in the Chinese and Vietnamese rural areas bear to send loved ones to Europe. Gravett told BBC Breakfast: “The Chinese would generally come down through Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, across through Turkey and then up what we call the Balkan route. With Vietnamese it’s very different, they take a northern route, so generally the victims I’ve dealt with in the past are flown to Moscow and then they take a land route across northern Europe and then come down from there.”
The latest incident highlights: i) the struggle for millions to make a living; ii) the nationalistic policies which forbid migration; and iii) the tug of war between superpowers and the open warfare (in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq) which are depriving poor people of their means of livelihood. The Vietnamese migrants had lost their jobs due to factory closures.
What kind of jobs do these illegal migrants find in their chosen land? They are not really offered an El Dorado. Many live in an underground economy of similar people. In some instances, those who come from China on student visas never show up at their academic institution, and take cash under-the-table jobs. In most cases, they live in communal housing that is owned by someone legitimate.
The ones who are brought in by traffickers have the hardest time. They arrive inside a truck and are taken to a secluded location where nobody can see, where they’re let out. They are then completely on their own in a foreign country. “The traffickers have usually robbed them of all their money. Sometimes they are collected by people running an illegal sweatshop and given employment and housing for no wages at all—slavery without shackles.”
It is well-known that there is a shadow or underground economy where the illegals find ready employment for chores that the British workers avoid. Maids, cleaners, and nannies in private homes. Or, even worse, in illicit cannabis farms, nail bars, massage parlours, and brothels.
But, why do the migrants pick Britain? “One of the reasons could be the UK’s liberal economy, making it easy to rent property, or start businesses as well as comparatively restrictive drugs policies compared to other EU countries.” Other factors include the ease with which the illegals can use the passports and National Insurance Numbers of friends and relatives who are already in the UK legally. Indian and other South Asians can get jobs in South Asian owned small businesses, and fast-food restaurants. Vietnamese illegals are known to be involved in the marijuana cultivation business and Turkish migrants are involved in the drug trade.
Shalini Patel, a lawyer with Duncan Lewis Public Law who represents trafficking victims, said a large part of the problem was the lack of safe and legal routes for migrants. “It is our duty as a country to ensure these journeys are safe and people are not exploited to come to the UK in such horrendous situations where they end up dead.”
Duc Tuan, a coordinator of the Vietnamese Luncheon Club in Poplar East London, told the press that other smaller things could be done. “Why doesn’t the government set up a helpline or something,” he said. “It costs around 2,000 pounds to make an asylum application. The Home Office has the money. Why don’t they just make a film to tell people in Vietnam what it is really like so they won’t come?”
The British government has added to the problem by taking a tough stance on legal avenues of immigration and using Brexit to spread fear among prospective immigrants. The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent condolences to the victims on October 28, saying that “the whole nation, and indeed the world, has been shocked by this tragedy.” He added that they were “innocent people who were hoping for a better life in this country.” He also promised to bring the criminals to justice. “In condemning the callousness of those responsible for this crime we in the government of the United Kingdom resolve to do everything in our power to bring the perpetrators to justice.” However, once Johnson delivers on Brexit, life for prospective immigrants will become hellish.
So what is the policy implication and what can an idealistic society do to ease the pain suffered by the migrants and those seeking asylum? To get some ideas for the “migration conundrum” I turned to my wife, a trained sociologist and a university administrator in the Social Work Department. She did not flinch and replied right away, “We should have countries without borders”, or “les pays sans frontieres”! Yeah, dream on.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.