Two stories are very prominent in the UK media at the moment. The Yazidis and Christians fleeing from the “Islamic State” group in Iraq, and the death of a man in a container on Tilbury docks. One story is presented as human tragedy, the lives of ordinary human beings destroyed by sectarian bigotry; the other has been spun as a tale about criminality, illegality and “human trafficking”.
This morning, the details of the Tilbury case were not entirely clear. The 35 people in the container there were reported to have come from “the Indian sub-continent”. They might have been economic migrants or they might have been Tamils fleeing from persecution in Sri Lanka, or Shia or Christians fleeing persecution from Sunni fanatics in Pakistan. As it turns out they seem to be Sikhs from Afghanistan, that is, a persecuted religious and ethnic minority. This didn’t stop the UK’s immigration minister, James Brokenshire from opining that this is “a reminder of the often devastating human consequences of illegal migration”. His Labour shadow, David Hanson was also clear that this was “a stark reminder of the human consequences of the trafficking trade”. And the “human trafficking” charities and campaign groups such as Unseen have been calling for increased vigilance. It seems they all already knew what was going on, even in advance of an investigation and independently of whether the people in the container sought asylum and asked for refugee status (which they may or may not do [UPDATE: in fact they have all now claimed asylum). The former head of the UK Border Force, Tony Smith, shared in this consensus about what had happened. He also offered a solution:
“We really need to get a message out to migrants that if they want to come to this country there are legal routes that they need to explore and they need to apply for visas and permits.”
It is somewhat shocking that a former senior immigration official should be so ill-informed. Everything in UK policy is oriented to keeping the vulnerable out.
Matthew Gibney in his superb book The Ethics and Poltics of Asylum recalls that back in 2002 the then UK Minister of State for Immigration, Jeff Rooker was asked
“whether there existed any legal avenues by which legitimate refugees might enter the UK. [He] answered bluntly ‘No’.” (p.153).
In the intervening twelve years, things have become still more difficult. As soon as the Syrian conflict blew up, for example, British Home Secretary Theresa May took action to stop Syrians from transiting via UK airports for fear that they might claim asylum. (Many of those trapped in camps at Calais and subject to violence there are Syrians who cannot get into the UK.)
Though the UK (like many other states) is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and though its politicians make lots of fine noises about persecuted minorities overseas, it also does it best to make sure that people suffering persecuting can never get here to claim asylum. It does this by a variety of measures: by refusing visas for travel, by fining airlines and shipping companies who transport people without adequate papers, and by enforcing the EU’s Dublin protocol that keeps those who do reach Europe in their first country of entry. If those Yazidis or Iraqi Christians do want to make it to the UK, they will almost certainly have to depend on traffickers or people smugglers, they will have to risk drowning in the Mediterranean, being crushed under a lorry or being asphyxiated in a container. If they do arrive, they will be stigmatized as “illegal” and their stories of rape, murder and persecution will be treated with the utmost scepticism by the UK Border Force and the Home Office. But just so long as they stay in Iraq they will elicit words of concern from Brokenshire, Hanson and their ilk.