The road from Sinjar to Tilbury is blocked

by Chris Bertram on August 17, 2014

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.



P O'Neill 08.17.14 at 6:03 pm

It’s fairly telling that what was billed as the big EU foreign ministers meeting on Friday — EU ministers actually meeting in August! — was mostly taken up with the technicalities of a joint position on supplying weapons to Iraqi Kurdistan and apparently spent zero time discussing the refugee-hosting issue. And all this as a significant number of the Yazidis were being brought to refuge by a militia affiliated with the PKK — designated by the EU as terrorists!


ZM 08.17.14 at 9:06 pm

With regard to asylum seekers and refugees being called illegal by Ministers and public service officials, I heard a talk by a lawyer who said calling them illegal is incorrect due to being signatories to the refugee convention, and further it is illegal for public servants (and likely ministers) to deliberately give incorrect information (or, to lie, simply put). He encouraged people to write to figures who said so quoting the incorrect information and asking specifically what offense to the law has been committed as a first step to countering this regular deceitful besmirching by ministers and public officials.


Matt 08.17.14 at 11:42 pm

Thanks for this post, Chris. I think it’s really right on. Let me add the endorsement for Gibney’s book, which I think is probably the best over-all philosophically sophisticated thing written on immigration issues. I’ll also add that, while I disagree w/ lots of parts of Michael Dummett’s little book on immigration and refugees (though I do recommend it all!), his discussion of how the refugee convention is undermined by various measures like those discussed in the post (and the US’s shameful history of interdiction at sea) is excellent.


John Quiggin 08.18.14 at 12:10 am

The Australian governemnt just announced that 4000 refugee places will be allotted to refugees from Syria/Iraq. But those places are taken out of an intake of 13000, reduced from 20 000 when the government took office.


Meredith 08.19.14 at 6:29 am

I read this post and thought: I’ll really have to think. Hence no quick and easy comment. I hope posters realize that we commenters sometimes chat about this and that elsewhere when another post is weighing on our minds.


ZM 08.19.14 at 10:06 am

On International Humanitarian Day the Guardian reports emails from Australian public servants on sending back asylum seekers from Syria.

” In one departmental email dated 20 January, Katrina Neuss, the immigration department’s operations lead on Manus Island, wrote about a recent meeting with Syrian asylum seekers:

“I was very open and frank with the transferees [asylum seekers], I described the options that they have and I was clear that they would not be settled in Australia or a third country. I did say that if they chose to return home the department would work to get them home safely, with no guarantee of any time frames. The transferees were visibly upset and quite anxious, they were quite adamant that I would be sending them home to their death.”

Neuss appeared to be responding to a request emailed by a departmental assistant secretary, Tim Ricketts, four days earlier, in which he stated with regards to the Syrians on Manus Island: “are we in ‘ultimatum’ territory (we want to know if you are signing up for VR [voluntary return] or not?) or can we hint that departing from PNG doesn’t necessarily mean returning to Syria?”.”

Australia is in the process or has jest completed a refugee settlement arrangement with Cambodia – ironically Cambodian boat people in the late 1980s /early 1990s were the first asylum seekers to be accused if being economic migrants by the then Labou Ministry who were the first government to begin mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia.

Asylum seekers in Christmas Island are facing great pressure and discomfort as officials try to get them to apply to be voluntary migrants to Cambodia (which will only take people who agree to go voluntarily).

The detention centre management there recently banned as “propaganda” a local newspaper being made by a young girl in the centre interviewing detainees and staff and reporting on events .


Eszter 08.19.14 at 3:21 pm

Like Meredith, I’m not sure what to add to the discussion, but I really appreciate posts like this. (I am sometimes concerned that lack of comments may signal lack of interest or merit – or that lots of comments suggest the opposite.)

It is sadly difficult to get popular interest in immigration topics, it seems, other than people rallying against immigrants. The reality is that for the vast majority of people, I suspect their strong preference would be to stay where they were born and raised, where their family and friends are, where they speak the language, know the culture and customs, appreciate the food, etc. Most people leave, because despite all these reasons to stay, the situation is untenable. The people who are anti-immigration cannot possibly have a sense of what it means to leave so much behind.

As for that comment about the legal routes to immigration. Wow, just wow. Sure there are legal routes, but in most cases, even for relatively privileged folks it can take decades.


The Temporary Name 08.19.14 at 3:57 pm


Meredith 08.20.14 at 5:44 am

Okay, I’ll take a stab at contributing. I’ve recently been preoccupied with early New England colonial history (where I am a neophyte, despite being a well-educated American). Jill Lepore argues persuasively in The Name of War that (white, chiefly Anglo) Americans went from worrying in the 1600’s about “going native” (turning from Englishmen into Indians in this “wilderness”) to, after the Revolution, embracing “our” connection with Indians as what distinguished “us” from “those English.” One big proviso: so long as Indians were “not here anymore” (although there were a number of Indians still in New England in the 19th century — even are today, I might say from here in Massachusetts).

There’s something about identification with a distant “friend” (as opposed to real neighbor, who might be a mensch or who might be an a-hole) that makes “otherness” “safe” to celebrate, since I don’t have to deal with the realities of different practices, of different spice smells in the market place.


Meredith 08.22.14 at 5:01 am

How do I know about Indians today in Massachusetts? In part from local powwows in the summer (whether on the Cape or here in the far western part of the state — many of the Indians, btw, would be taken by others for blacks, though they self-identify chiefly as Indians). In part from some people I’ve gotten to know a bit, mostly at the local Stop ‘n Shop (a supermarket chain, for them’s that’s not from New England). Not from my 1950’s-1960’s education in NJ (where I didn’t even learn about the Lenapes of NJ, though I did learn a bit from my mother, as we’d visit spots for produce or she’d explain about the old woman by the side of the road selling baskets). Not from my children’s “progressive” MA curriculum of the 1980’s and 1990’s (and into the 2000’s). Mostly, apart from recent obsessive reading, from some people I’ve gotten to know a bit at Stop ‘n Shop over the years, like the crazy old lady (yes, she is a bit crazy, if very sweet and funny) who works the Salvation Army bell at holidays, or the check-out woman I would chat with sort of like we were old friends — something about her thick huge mane of white hair and her features, I would think, is she Indian? Then one day, I overheard her chatting with some people at the store’s entryway about the upcoming powwow, and I knew. But I knew nothing, really, of her world, though it thrives in the midst of my own. (And why is she no longer there? I wish I knew!)

Meanwhile, Stop ‘n Shop: it’s not Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, but it’s pretty good for a mainstream market. Its workers also have a good union, and management ain’t bad as managements go, which is saying a lot in the US today. Now I’m going to try to get to where all this relates to the OP. I walk down aisles and aisles of food and stuff, most of which I have absolutely no interest in or use for. But when the variety isn’t consumerist overload, it is bracing, including the international “flavor.” (What a contrast to the Grand Union when I arrived here in the 1970’s! Crummy markets are crummy markets). Also, produce from local farms! (Nothing to rival the local co-op, but an earnest stab.)

The smells in markets: they matter. It can be discomfiting to smell turmeric instead of basil, cilantro instead of parsley. But who, once having tasted turmeric and cilantro, wouldn’t want to add them to parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme…?

Comments on this entry are closed.