Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

Borders, not traffickers, killed 46 people in Texas

From Essex to San Antonio, on land and at sea, migrants are suffering horrific deaths at the border. What’s it all for?

Emily Kenway
28 June 2022, 2.21pm

Over 40 migrants found dead in a lorry outside San Antonio, Texas


Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images News. All rights reserved

It’s the stuff of nightmares. Last night, 46 people were found dead in the back of a truck in San Antonio, Texas. Although the cause of death is not yet confirmed, the 16 people who survived were reported to be “hot to the touch” – so hyperthermia is suspected. They likely cooked to death. These deaths are a tragedy for the victims, their families, and the traumatised emergency responders who opened the truck doors to find “stacks of bodies”. But they are only part of an ongoing and horrific tragedy of far larger proportions.

From the vantage point of the UK, this incident is all too familiar. In October 2019, we had our own tragedy: the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in the back of a truck in Essex, south east England. They, too, died of hyperthermia in their attempt to reach a better life. The similarities don’t stop there. Speaking last night, the US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told the BBC, "Human smugglers are callous individuals who have no regard for the vulnerable people they exploit and endanger in order to make a profit." His implication is clear: the blame for this nightmare should land on the smugglers, the people who facilitated the victims’ clandestine movement across borders.

We heard similar rhetoric back in 2019. Just hours after the truck was discovered, the member of parliament for that part of Essex tweeted: “People trafficking is a vile and dangerous business”. Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, also directed the public’s focus towards traffickers, reassuring us that the government would “work tirelessly to secure our borders against a wide range of threats, including people trafficking”. On both sides of the Atlantic, we are being sold the same story: when tragedy occurs, blame the smugglers or the traffickers. Whatever you do, don’t ask questions about borders.

Lethal walls (of policy)

These deaths were predictable and preventable.

They are the product of two factors: increasingly militarised borders and the continuing determination of people to cross those borders despite that militarisation. Just last month, the number of people apprehended crossing the border from Mexico into the USA surpassed previous records. Deaths are breaking records as well. At least 650 people died in 2021, the highest figure since records began. It’s clear that making borders harder to cross isn’t stopping people from trying. It’s only pushing them to take riskier routes, raising the risks of injury and death.

As in the US, so in the UK: these deaths are symptoms of hardening borders. The 39 people who lost their lives in Essex are joined by hundreds more, mapped out heart-breakingly by Nicolas Lambert for the Observatory of Deaths at the Borders. Patel has made militarisation of the English Channel her raison d’être, appointing a ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ to make crossing the water “unviable”. Armed forces patrol the sea, and every month seems to bring a new abominable suggestion for how the UK can stop desperate people from reaching our shores: a physical blockade, water cannons, nets, floating asylum centres, offshoring to Rwanda, and most recently the electronic tagging of human beings.

If you were looking to make easy money by abusing somebody, who would you choose?

These measures are without morals, sure. But they’re also without evidence. Research from the United Nations Development Programme found that although 93% of irregular migrants surveyed had experienced danger on their journey, only 2% said that fully knowing the risks would have discouraged them from moving. In the UK, a parliamentary watchdog found that there is no evidence demonstrating that the so-called ‘hostile environment’ towards undocumented people is effective. That is, intentional cruelty neither deters people from trying to enter the UK nor encourages them to leave once here. In contrast, there is plenty of evidence showing that migrant deaths go up when dangerous and irregular routes become the only ways to enter a place. So as record numbers of people try to move across borders, and wealthier countries respond by hardening those borders, people die. It’s a simple equation.

This will only worsen if we allow politicians to use anti-trafficking rhetoric as they wring their hands in performative sorrow. They deploy the bogeyman of the trafficker or smuggler to legitimise more restrictive borders – after all, we must keep these evil criminals out, mustn’t we? – even though they know full well that harder borders force people to take riskier routes. They are more likely to pay to be smuggled; more likely to hide in unventilated, overheating lorries; more likely to get onto a dinghy that might sink. If they survive their journeys, and at times in order to survive them, they’ll become exactly what governments allege they want to prevent: prey for traffickers.

Why? Because if you were looking to make easy money by abusing somebody, who would you choose? Somebody with legal rights and protections, who can go to the police in safety or access local government support? Or somebody with no rights, no protections, and nowhere to go but a deportation centre if they seek out help?

Unlike the politicians’ speeches about these deaths, this isn’t rhetoric. Just this week, new research by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has revealed that thousands of victims of crime in the UK were referred for possible deportation after they called the police for help. Research from academics and charities alike has found links between immigration policies and exploitation, including human trafficking. When we criminalise people, we turn them into potential victims. The deplorable irony here is that the political rhetoric about preventing trafficking and exploitation fuels it.

We don’t know the names of the victims of this latest preventable tragedy. When we learn them, let’s remember them. And let’s keep fighting until they’re the last.

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