Essex lorry deaths: We must do much more than catch the people-smugglers – Christine Jardine

The response to the deaths of 39 migrants found in the back of a lorry in Essex must be about more than just catching the criminals responsible for their deaths, writes Christine Jardine.

A vigil takes place outside the Home Office in London for the 39 people found dead inside a lorry in Essex. (Picture: Hollie Adams/PA Wire)
A vigil takes place outside the Home Office in London for the 39 people found dead inside a lorry in Essex. (Picture: Hollie Adams/PA Wire)

I can’t imagine what it must have been like. In fact, I’m not sure that I want to.

The dark has always made me feel uncomfortable so the addition of being crammed into the back of a sealed container with dozens of other people makes me feel physically sick.

And what happens when the oxygen begins to run out? Do people realise what is happening? Is there panic as, one by one, individuals begin to struggle for air?

A group of Syrian refugees arrive on the island of Lesbos after traveling in an inflatable raft from Turkey, near Skala Sykaminias, Greece. Credit: UNHCR/Andrew McConnell.

And what about those who may have frozen to death? How will members of the emergency services, called to a situation which was already beyond their reach, deal with the trauma of what they saw and had to deal with?

Sadly we know that the tragedy of the 39 people who were found dead in the back of that lorry in Essex last week is not a one-off. Within hours, another lorry was stopped on the M20 and eight people were found in the back.

Who could ever forget the heartbreaking picture of a toddler lying dead on a Mediterranean shore, or the impact it had on public consciousness?

Yet UN estimates for this year calculate that six people a day are still losing their lives crossing the Mediterranean while seeking sanctuary.

What happened in Essex this week is simply one small incident in a massive international problem.

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Essex lorry deaths: Two more arrested over deaths of 39 migrants in truck

In Parliament this week, there were calls to improve checks on vehicles coming into the country and to provide better support for our emergency services.

Home Secretary Priti Patel assured the House of Commons that joint working that was already taking place between the police, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, the National Crime Agency and other law enforcement agencies to find out exactly what had happened.

Finding those responsible and ensuring they are brought to justice is imperative. That is all absolutely necessary. But is it enough?

Are we in danger of acting after the event rather than acting at the source of the problem to prevent a repetition?

I am no expert in the amount of oxygen needed to keep 39 people alive in a sealed container. One report I have seen estimated that they had been in a sealed freezing unit for 15 hours.

And I suspect that, as they are understood to have boarded the truck in Bulgaria, it’s possible that they were dead long before they arrived in the United Kingdom.

What we do know is that it is likely that they all originally came from the poor, coastal, province of Fujian, in south-east China.

Desperate people

Traffickers, known as snakeheads in the area, are believed to charge £20,000 to smuggle people to the UK via Serbia, Hungary, Austria and France before a sea crossing to Britain from Belgium or Holland.

Both the 54 men and 4 women found dead in the back of a tomato lorry in Dover in 2000 and the 23 who drowned in the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster were all also believed to have been trafficked from Fujian.

But all victims of incidents whether here, on the continent or on Mediterranean have at least one thing in common. Desperation.

Nobody risks their lives clinging to an inflatable raft crossing dangerous sea routes unless they feel that is the only option they have.

None of us would put our children at risk, or gamble on surviving thousands of miles in the back of a refrigerated truck if we were looking for an easy life.

It is too easy to blame the victims rather than look for solutions.

If we are ever to make progress, ever to prevent these deaths, we need to be looking at ways of providing safety for those whose lives have become intolerable because of war or persecution.

We need to look at ways of providing safe passage and work with international agencies, both those who deal with aid and those who tackle crime.

Legal means of immigration

Tracking down the traffickers at source and tackling them before the damage is done is vital.

We also have to consider that perhaps many of those who fall prey to the traffickers would not do so if they felt there was a realistic hope of a safe legal means of immigration.

Looking at our own immigration system to ensure that what we provide is fair, compassionate and effective for those who want to come here is essential.

But so is providing international aid to those countries where the desperation for a better life is most keenly felt.

For too long now it seems we have been focussed on looking inward at our Brexit-related issues. And yes even this brings up discussion of international warrants, co-operation, border controls and the negative impact that Brexit will have on all of them.

But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time to lift our heads and look outwards again. The public outpouring of sympathy for those 39 people who died and the anger at the horror of how they suffered has been deeply moving.

But maybe it’s time to focus on what we do about preventing it happening again.