Architecture of Exclusion
Three weeks ago I wrote about the deaths of the 39 people found in a container in Grays, Essex on 23 October. Initial speculation had been that the victims had come from countries in the Middle East, but the police quickly announced that they were Chinese nationals. Now we know that this too was incorrect, and that the dead all came from Vietnam. The parents of Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh province, released her last text message, fearing she might be among the victims. Other families came forward. The police published a complete list of the dead on Friday.
They were young people, as those who risk dangerous journeys usually are. The oldest was 44. Ten of them were teenagers and two were only 15. Most came from two provinces, Ha Tinh and Nghe An. Ha Tinh in particular is a place of poverty, where already meagre opportunities were further reduced in 2016, when pollution from a plant owned by Formosa Steel caused the near destruction of the local fishing industry.
Responses by UK politicians and journalists have overwhelmingly centred on ‘human trafficking’ and exploitation, including sexual exploitation. Even those who have a record supportive of migration, such as Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, responded to the deaths by calling for increased security. The young men and women who made this fatal journey across continents have been instrumentalised in support of a moralised agenda of crime and security in which the ‘obvious’ solution is to increase the powers and resources of border guards.
They deserve better than this. There is no evidence that they were duped or coerced into travelling. They made a choice to risk a dangerous journey to make money in the West. Some of them had done it before. The reason it’s dangerous is that there is no possibility of poor people from poor countries making such a journey legally. Wealthy countries, including the UK, have built an architecture of exclusion that reaches far beyond our borders to prevent the unwanted from accessing our economies and the opportunities they offer.
Our governments deny visas to people from the wrong places, places that are often identified by the fact that their inhabitants are likely to have good reasons to flee from them. We collaborate with countries whose lack of human rights laws leave them freer to coerce travellers than Western states are. Airlines and shipping companies monitor would-be passengers and, for fear of financial penalties, exclude those likely to be unwelcome at their chosen destination. Our border personnel are stationed on the territory of states that either feel compelled to go along with our wishes or are bribed to do so.
But as with other activities that our states don’t want people to engage in – such as the consumption of illegal drugs – there is a market for evasion and there are entrepreneurs willing to provide a service, at a price. Individuals cannot hope to make the journey without the expertise and resources that smugglers have. The price is high because the activity is criminal, but people are willing to pay it because their prospects are dismal otherwise. Relatives are willing to chip in, in the hope of remittances in the future. Those who can’t pay up front may instead incur a debt, to be discharged through work at their destination. And some of that work is unpleasant or immoral.
People smuggling is a business of large and complex networks. It requires money, specialist personnel, intelligence, advertising, corruption of officials and coercive force. It involves disciplining the cargo and being willing to lose some of it if necessary. Some of the participants are the evil and unscrupulous masterminds of the politician’s imagination; others are ordinary people, sometimes migrants themselves, playing a tiny role in an extensive division of labour. Such businesses exist because the obstacles we have placed to free movement mean they are the only way that some people can escape their persecutors or, like Pham Thi Tra My, hope to realise their ambitions.