The Essex lorry deaths have proven that Britain is a nation of apathy

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“We are between two deaths. If we go back to our countries, it’s death; if we try to get to the UK, maybe it’s death, too,” says Taish, a Kurdish man talking to the BBC, whilst waiting for a lorry at Dunkirk to take him into England.

21 days have gone by at the time of print since 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated lorry in Essex. Multiple newspapers and online publications covering these deaths and the following investigation have adopted, as pointed out by Imogen Dobie of The Guardian, the language of “horror and shock”.

Such an emotive response is understandable given the circumstances

The Independent calls them “tragic deaths”, the BBC similarly refers to it as a “tragedy”, and a Global Times editorial calls it a “serious humanitarian disaster”. Following this example, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, signed a book of condolence to the victims, writing that “the whole nation and indeed the world has been shocked by this tragedy and the cruelty of the fate that has been suffered by innocent people who were hoping for a better life in this country.” The Vietnamese Embassy in London has said it was “deeply saddened” and sent its “heartfelt condolences” to the families of the victims.

Such an emotive response is understandable given the circumstances. 39 people asphyxiating in the back of a lorry in the hopes of making it to England is horrible beyond words. However, the use of words such as “tragedy” and “shock” from officials and the media rings a bit hollow when you notice this deadly trend associated with illegal migration. It was only last July that a suspected stowaway – who is believed to have fallen from the landing gear of a flight into Heathrow Airport – was found dead in a London garden.

The use of words such as ‘tragedy’ and ‘shock’ rings a bit hollow when you notice this deadly trend

Describing the victim, one eyewitness said, “One of the reasons his body was so intact was because his body was an ice block.” This type of death by plane reportedly happens once every five years. None of this sparked a wider debate on migration policy – people simply forget about it within the week, and we move on to the next Brexit problem until something similar happens again.

Our dismissal of such deaths is not new. After the discovery of the bodies of 58 Chinese people in a container in Dover in 2000, Gwyn Prosser, the then Labour MP for Dover and Deal, remarked on “the awful desperation some people must be experiencing to take the chances they take to cross the channel on the backs of lorries”. This incident was hailed as a “case for more international cooperation”, but this never really came to fruition.

A nation that is so numb to tragedy does carry out other work behind the scenes – work that is not concerned with the migrant’s best interests. Whilst actively condemning the practice of human smuggling is understandable, it conveniently avoids those in power having to look at the circumstances which cause such deaths to occur. Simply labelling these deaths as “tragedies”, without any identification of the conditions that created them, seems to suggest that such incidents are rare, unavoidable, and isolated.

We are subsequently not encouraged to criticise or question. Why did these people think that their only real option for a better life was to potentially risk a slow and painful death? People smugglers in northern France charge up to €10,000 (£8,640; $11,100) per person for passage to the UK.

One of the reasons his body was so intact was because his body was an ice-block

Why are there systems in place that permit such an abuse of human rights, allowing smugglers to profit from such extreme desperation?

If we do not look into the deep-rooted dynamics of migration and its connection to suffering, then we will never truly be able to prevent incidents like this from happening again. It’s a bit of a moot point to question whether our migration policies will change because of this – these 39 dead migrants are not special in the nation’s eyes, they are simply another small addition to a large pile of other dead migrants.

We are nearly 20 years on from the almost identical incident of the Dover lorry deaths, and with a clear pattern showing itself, nothing has fundamentally changed.

Photo credit: Carl via Flickr

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