The scale of the tragedy that unfolded in Essex a few weeks ago has rightly stopped us in our tracks. The cruel manner of the deaths of 39 young men and women, locked in an airtight container, emphasises the wickedness of the international trade in people.
And looking at the pictures of the young Vietnamese people posted missing believed dead, you do not see the faces of ‘benefits scroungers’ or ‘transnational criminals’, only kids desperate to improve their lot and provide for their families.
It has brought to our door the ongoing catastrophe that the countries on the Mediterranean shore have seen played out for years as unknown thousands have found a watery grave.
“Something must be done” is the cry, the law must be tightened, border security enhanced. There is a sense that we face a new and deadly threat.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Home Secretary described the lorry deaths as indicative of “the growth of immorality”.
Horrific though this latest disaster is, I beg to differ – some context is required. I am currently researching a new book about the sex industry in Scotland and have been reading the work of Dr William Tait who wrote about prostitution in Edinburgh.
He describes the trade in vulnerable young people trafficked from the poorer parts of the country to the glittering lights of the capital in search of a better life.
Some made it but many were consigned to a life of drudgery and, as always, the sex industry prowled ready to pick off the stragglers.
All very topical except that Dr Tait was writing in the year 1840. After almost two hundred years the dynamics are the same, indeed the revelation of an active online slave trade operating in Kuwait makes you wonder if we have really progressed much at all.
From time immemorial the tides of war, famine and gross economic inequality have swept vast numbers of people from continent to continent, simply to survive or to make a better life.
And the truth is that the law can only do so much to prevent or control such migrations, the limitations of jurisdiction and enforcement practicalities are very real.
Of course we should do all we can to interdict this inhuman trade in people, we should improve international liaison, develop intelligence where we can and, of course, prosecute traffickers to the full extent of the law.
But ultimately I’m afraid, if we really want to address this issue, we the public must grasp our own slippery moral compass.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves who works in the nail bars and car washes that did not exist 20 years ago, but now populate every town and city. Perhaps we should question who works in the cannabis farms that provide that “wee bit harmless weekend weed”.
It’s too easy to recoil in horror and cry “something must be done”, then settle back to continue to enjoy the benefits of the poorly paid and the black market economy.
If we really want “something to be done”, we must consider our own small role in this international trade and perhaps make more thoughtful choices about what we buy and where we buy it.
After all, if there was no demand there would be no supply.
Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable.