On the morning of 23 October 2019, news broke that a lorry containing 39 dead people had been found at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex. The BBC started an online live feed as the incident unfolded. Aerial shots showed a large white container lorry with the driver’s door still open, while dark green privacy screens protected the dignity of the dead as officers moved around in white overalls.
Swiftly, politicians began referring to the incident as a case of ‘people trafficking’. At 10:07 a.m. the local MP tweeted “Sickening news of 39 people found dead in a container in Grays. People trafficking is a vile and dangerous business.” Three hours later, Home Secretary Priti Patel evoked the same idea in a statement to the House of Commons. She described the discovery as “tragic” and stated that law enforcement agencies were working “tirelessly to secure our borders against a wide range of threats, including people trafficking”. This spurred further speeches from politicians referring to “this disgusting trade”. The message from Westminster was clear: this tragic incident should be understood as a case of human trafficking. The media followed this lead, with every major paper, TV and radio programme framing the story as a trafficking incident.
Yet today, as the Old Bailey trial of those involved begins, not a single defendant is being charged with trafficking. Instead, defendants are accused of “conspiracy to assist unlawful migration”, manslaughter, and other more minor offences. A human trafficking charge had originally been made against two of the accused – Maurice Robinson and Christopher Kennedy – but this has been dropped. Why have prosecutors chosen not to bring trafficking charges in what initially seemed, at least in the court of public opinion, to be such a clear-cut case?
The fine print of trafficking law
For a case not involving minors to be deemed human trafficking under its internationally recognised definition, it needs to meet three requirements known as ‘act, means, and purpose’. The act is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person. The means is the method by which the act is done, for example by threat, force, abduction, deception and so on. And finally, the purpose must be in order to exploit the person. In the early days of the Essex tragedy even the victims’ nationality wasn’t certain, let alone why or how they ended up in the van. The legal tests for trafficking had not yet been met, and as the case opens it turns out they still have not been met. The label was as inapplicable then as it is now. Why, then, were politicians so keen to use it?
Implying the Essex deaths were caused by trafficking was a political act. It encouraged the public imagination to lay blame at the feet of traffickers, instead of looking elsewhere for culpability. The 25-year-old driver Maurice Robinson and his colleagues became the villains of the story. The state – specifically the home secretary and law enforcement – became the heroes, meting out justice to criminals while securing Britain’s borders from this invasive crime. But if we understand the incident not as trafficking but instead as smuggling, a different story emerges. ‘Migrant smuggling’ is the unlawful movement of a person across borders for financial gain. It is profitable because more people want to cross borders than there are legal avenues to do so, and so there is demand for irregular migration facilitation.
“[Luong] was an adult who made his own decision and joined the trip voluntarily, with the aim to improve his life, earning money to alleviate our poverty.”
According to Nguyen Dinh Gia, whose 20-year-old son Luong died in the Essex incident, this demand was the underlying reason for his son being in the lorry. He told AFP that Luong “was an adult who made his own decision and joined the trip voluntarily, with the aim to improve his life, earning money to alleviate our poverty.” He is asking us to respect Luong’s agency, to view him as a person seeking to build a better life, a person who made a rational but risky choice because he had no other way to pursue his family’s dream. In September, four people in Vietnam were sentenced to jail for their part in the tragedy. Gia told the press he didn’t think they should be jailed and that they were “just trying to help”.
When we understand the circumstances of the grim discovery in this way, we no longer see 39 victims of trafficking, but 39 human beings who bought the only available method of passage into the UK. This means we cannot blame traffickers. Instead, we must ask questions about why such a dangerous journey was the only route of entry available. Immigration policy now comes into focus, creating an altogether different picture of culpability.
The brutality of the British border
UK immigration policy has become increasingly harsh over the last couple of decades, both internally and externally. Internally, ‘hostile environment’ policies have made it illegal for undocumented people to access basic services and meet vital needs, such as banking, shelter and safe work. Externally, the routes of entry available to the UK for non-EU citizens (and after December, for them too) are highly restrictive. These are complemented by borders that immigration barrister Colin Yeo has described as “heavily fortified with fencing, scanners, guards and dogs.” This is likely to worsen in coming months, given Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recent pledge to make the English Channel “unviable” for undocumented crossings.
Plenty of research has demonstrated the impact of these harsh immigration policies: they make migration more dangerous. This is because few people are deterred by them, instead attempting to migrate despite the risks posed. For example, a UNDP report that explored the perspectives of people migrating through irregular routes from Africa to Europe found that 41% felt “nothing” would have made them change their mind about coming to Europe, compared to only 2% who would have changed their mind if they had known “how dangerous the journey would be”. One man, a 29-year-old Cameroonian who was living in France at the time of the report, explained “I would rather die trying to find a better life than to stay trapped in a situation that I cannot escape from.” And of course, just like in Essex last year, sometimes death is indeed the result.
Labelling dead people as criminals rarely makes good PR; this is why politicians described the Essex incident as trafficking without evidence that trafficking had actually taken place. Now, as the trial begins and we see that no such charges have been made, we can see that this was a political tactic that allowed politicians to express sorrow and to exonerate themselves from constructing the risky choices that led to the tragedy.
This is made clear when we consider what happened in Essex only one month after the Vietnamese people were discovered. On 24 November 2019, ten men were found struggling to breathe in the back of a lorry in the same county. So far, so similar – several people in the back of a lorry without enough oxygen. But this time, these men were not described as victims. Instead, they were all arrested on suspicion of immigration offences. At the time of discovery, the only difference was that in the first case the people were found dead and in the second they were found alive. It seems UK immigration policy has now sunk so low that being labelled a criminal or a victim is determined by whether you are found alive or dead.
UK politicians are not alone in this cynical deployment of trafficking to legitimise and distract from harmful migration policy. US President Donald Trump enjoys using this tactic as a rationale for his US-Mexico border wall, saying:
“This really is an invasion of our country by human traffickers. These are people that are horrible people bringing in women mostly, but bringing in women and children into our country. Human trafficking, and we’re going to have a strong border. And the only way you have a strong border is you need a physical barrier. You need a wall.”
Trump relishes this tale to a creepy degree, repeating it in numerous speeches and describing women being “thrown into a van with no windows, with no form of air” with electrical tape over their mouths. Consensus among the numerous fact-checkers, investigative journalists and on-the-ground workers is that these claims are fictional. Instances of trafficking do occur, but his lurid tales are warped and embellished in ways that do nothing for survivors of this harm and instead are selected for political purposes. These stories position Trump as the American hero, Mexico as the racialised and debased villain, and his wall as a legitimate and necessary protective talisman. This is the same political ploy used in Westminster: after Patel made her statement to the House of Commons, suggesting the Essex tragedy was a trafficking issue, other politicians made speeches and raised questions focusing on border security, such as the frequency of lorry checks and port securitisation.
While Trump is not known for elegant speeches, Italy’s former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, epitomised duplicitous trafficking rhetoric in a seemingly heartfelt op-ed for the New York Times entitled ‘Helping the migrants is everyone’s duty’. He wrote:
“The Mediterranean Sea, cradle of our civilization, is becoming a deathbed for thousands of nameless, desperate men, women and children. These people had lives full of pain, despair and hope, which led them to become victims of human trafficking ... Trafficking vessels should be put out of operation. Human traffickers are the slave traders of the 21st century, and they should be brought to justice.”
Renzi is suggesting that all the migrants who drown attempting to cross the ocean are victims of trafficking, rather than victims of policies that prevent their safe migration. In doing this, he is removing their agency – their ability to choose for themselves to migrate – and he is additionally telling us who to blame – the traffickers. This, again, is exactly what we see with the Essex case, contrary to Luong’s father’s plea for us not to see his son in this way and contrary to the charges against those involved.
George Orwell wrote that “political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Human trafficking happens and, when it does, it is an appalling crime that ruins lives and requires justice for its survivors. But human trafficking is also used strategically by politicians to distract from their role in the deaths of migrants, like the 39 people who lost their lives in October 2019. As the trial at the Old Bailey begins, we must recognise that the men in the dock are not the only culprits.
Emily Kenway’s book The Truth about Modern Slavery is out in January 2021 and available for pre-order now.