On 19th November, the BBC reported that Dutch authorities discovered 25 migrants in a refrigerated container on a ferry bound for England from the Netherlands. The migrants were found after they created a hole in the trailer. Upon discovering the migrants, the ferry immediately returned to its port and was met by emergency services. Two migrants were taken to hospital for hypothermia checks while the other 23 migrants received a medical check-up at the port. Temperatures inside refrigerated trailers reach as low as -25 degrees Celsius. As reported by The Standard, Gert Jakobsen, vice president of communications with the ship’s operator, said in relation to the medical check-ups, ‘Of course, they were not in a very good condition.’ According to The Guardian the nationality of these migrants is unknown. The driver of the lorry has been detained and is currently being checked for possible human trafficking offences. This incident alone may not have made headline news, but it follows the discovery of 39 bodies in a refrigerated lorry less than a month ago in Essex. In this case, all 39 fatalities were Vietnamese nationals and they had travelled in these freezing conditions from Zeebrugge in Belgium. These events indicate a spike in the number of migrants attempting to reach the U.K. through treacherous and perilous means.
Senior U.K. figures have responded by urging the need to tackle human trafficking. As reported by the BBC, Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded by saying “all such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice.” Similarly, MP Doyle-Price said “To put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil. The best thing we can do in memory of those victims is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”
The most common political response to this problem is to focus on eliminating human trafficking. Whilst, of course, human traffickers are a major part of the problem which puts the lives of vulnerable migrants at risk, focusing solely on human traffickers shifts the blame away from other issues which also need addressing. Increases in attempts at illegal migration also stem from immigration policies and increasing restrictions on access to asylum through measures such as increased border controls. The Calais migration camp was shut down three years ago and since then security measures have increased over the Dover and Calais tunnels. Official refugee resettlement routes can take years to navigate, and they often lack simple support systems such as interpreters. Furthermore, in the majority of asylum cases, one must be in the U.K. in order to claim asylum here. A distinct lack of safe and legal routes to the U.K. creates a situation where the only way to travel is dangerously, and this puts vulnerable refugees at risk of human traffickers who prey on and abuse their desperation to reach safety.
On the political spectrum, politicians have no incentive to create safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the U.K. These measures are both costly and unfavourable with the public. This shows that along with immigration policies, this problem stems more deeply from popular narratives and connotations associated with the term asylum seeker and migrants. Particularly in the midst of the Brexit campaign, it has become a popular narrative that asylum seekers are swarming unrestrained through open borders to abuse the asylum system, burden the economy and create fewer jobs for British nationals. Through these narratives, the term asylum seeker has become degraded and changed, and a severe lack of trust in the genuineness of asylum seekers’ situations has ensued.
For politicians such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump who have all played major roles in spreading these narratives globally, blaming national problems, such as the failings of the economy, on high immigration is an effective means of shifting the blame away from themselves and their ineffective policies. Reducing the flow of migrants into the country has become synonymous with ‘bringing back control’ of the economy and jobs. Creating policies which reduce the number of safe and legal asylum routes to the U.K. has become a means to gain election votes by showing the public that the government is taking measures to improve the economy and create jobs. The people who suffer the most from these tokenistic policies are asylum seekers trying to reach safety whose lives are already at risk.
In reality, neither of the claims that asylum seekers are burdening the economy or stealing U.K. jobs hold up to greater scrutiny. Firstly, asylum seekers are unable to enter the U.K. labour market, meaning that they cannot ‘steal U.K. jobs.’ Secondly, asylum seekers also do not have access to the mainstream welfare system. The welfare support received by asylum seekers is less than a third of what the poorest 10% of British Citizens receive. Asylum seekers voluntarily leave all they have ever known and embark on treacherous journeys which could risk their lives and that of their families. Asylum seekers’ only option is to enter a foreign country where they are treated as subhuman, unable to work and are dependant on charity which is barely enough to survive. What is the reason they do this? Because they have no other choice. Asylum seekers are fleeing conflict or escaping political, religious or sexually-based persecution which has put their lives in mortal danger. As opposed to getting caught up in the argument of whether migrants do or do not benefit the economy, the more important core reason for providing asylum, as the morally right thing to do by a developed country which has the resources, has been lost.
Along with tackling human trafficking, reducing the vulnerability of asylum seekers using perilous illegal migration routes could be achieved through more safe and legal avenues to access asylum in the U.K. This can be done by creating a political will to implement these policies. To create political will, there needs to be greater pressure on the government in the form of advocacy and campaigns for these policies. To increase the number of people advocating for these issues, there needs to be shifting narratives associated with the term ‘asylum seekers.’
Critically, the public needs to be armed with the ability to separate false news and political campaigns, such as the way asylum seekers were politically degraded in the Brexit campaign, from genuine facts. This can come from awareness campaigns starting in schools but also occurring in local community-based groups which make people more politically savvy and allow them to separate political incentives from facts. There needs to be greater discussion, particularly around the topics of asylum seekers and migration which dispel the popular myths associated with asylum and allow the moral needs for asylum to come to the forefront again. Taking these measures into account has the potential to reduce the number of vulnerable asylum seekers embarking on treacherous smuggling routes to the U.K., for example in refrigerators, reduce the number of deaths which occur through these means, and reduce the potential for these asylum seekers to fall prey to human traffickers.
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