A human commodity, where financial aims supercede humanity.
By Matthew PArkes: POLITICAL Columnist
People smuggling operations across the world promise a new life for migrants, but do these dreams-for-sale meet expectations and does the reward outweigh the deathly risk posed by cross-continent journeys?
Last week 4 people were sentenced for their involvement in a people smuggling operation which led to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese in 2019 in a lorry container in Essex. The horrific crime lifts the curtain on an industry that is notoriously elusive. It was discovered that the migrants paid between £10,000 and £13,000 for the crossing from Northern France to the UK and on the fateful journey it was decided to pack 19 more people into the refrigerated container, no doubt reducing the amount of oxygen available.
People smuggling operations, taking people from Africa to Europe and South America to North America, are estimated to make $6.75 billion annually for various criminal enterprises. These organisations prey on the quest for a better life and the hope that countries such as the UK or the USA have to offer.
The Vietnamese victims came from rural northern regions of the country which have suffered under communist control. In Nghe An and Ha Tinh, houses of families whose children or relatives have made it across to Britain are notable for their expensive looking architecture and they tower over their one-storey neighbours. Therefore, it is not surprising that residents see the $50,000 dangerous journey across Asia and Europe as a worthwhile risk.
People smugglers will take advantage of migrant’s desperation and use increasingly perilous methods of transportation to save money and increase their profit margins. In 2020 the NCA reported that smugglers had cut the price of a place on a channel crossing from €4500 to €3000 by overloading smaller boats with passengers.
The desperation of these asylum seekers is illustrated in some of the methods they use to avoid people smuggling operations. Last year the French authorities had to save migrants crossing the channel in an inflated paddling pool.
Not everyone is as lucky, people running away from Libya, Syria, and Eritrea decide to take the treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean, where over 12,000 migrants have died since 2014. Often people smugglers provide them with either no life jackets or fake ones to reduce the weight onboard the ship.
The lived experience of migrants who successfully make it across is difficult to ascertain. If they decide to put in a claim as an asylum seeker they are not allowed to work and are provided with accommodation and £37.75 per week. Difficult to imagine for many people in the UK but likely a welcome respite from their dangerous homelands and the hazardous journey they have just undertaken.
Do their dreams ever come to fruition?
However, many asylum seekers spend months or years waiting for their claim and appeals to be processed. This leaves whole families stuck in small rooms and poor living conditions, unable to improve their conditions as they are not allowed to find work.
Undocumented migrants have spoken of the feelings of betrayal and disappointment when they arrive in the UK: the reality had not lived up to the dream. There are stories of instant regret, one Zimbabwean man said “To be honest I was shocked… I came here thinking Oh! London such a great place. Well it wasn’t a great place.” Others express frustration at their inability to work or get an education as they lack the sufficient paperwork “Soon, our child’s situation will also be discovered. She will not be able to go to school. How long can we live here?”
If migrants are successful in their asylum claim, life sometimes provides hope. Reem Salih spent two years in the system but eventually made a life in the UK after fleeing Iraq. Unfortunately for many their optimism diminishes as they struggle making a life for themselves without documentation. Colin, who can’t go to university because he does not have a legal status, exclaimed “Sometimes you can lose hope and think what’s the hope in this place?”