Another avoidable tragedy

Sickening scenes in Essex show the need for a working class response to the migration question, argues Paul Demarty.

Little enough is known about the 39 people found dead in a lorry in Essex, except that some are Chinese, and some are Vietnamese, and that they were on their way to London to make some sort of life for themselves.

With such a sickening tragedy landing on the British doorstep, however, speculation is all but inevitable - as is the process from outrage to self-righteousness, and the demand for ‘those responsible to be brought to justice’. The question of culpability is a thorny one, as we shall see, but the rounding up of the usual suspects is in full flow, with several arrests of Irish men and women having taken place - including the driver, Maurice Robinson, who is on the hook for 39 charges of manslaughter.

Bourgeois discussion of these deaths focuses on the problem of ‘trafficking’, which is a rather overloaded term. A series of moral panics over decades have left the traffickers with something of an image problem, even without the periodic discovery of gruesome scenes like Mo Robinson’s truck (it will be remembered that 59 bodies were similarly found at the port of Dover back in 2000, and more recently a truck was abandoned in Austria, with 71 corpses in the container, rotting in the heat of August). This is because the term has been made slippery. It sometimes refers to those who effectively trade in slaves, with a particular prurient emphasis on sexual slavery. Otherwise, it may refer to anybody who makes it their business to assist illegal immigrants across borders (perhaps more precisely called people smugglers). Analyses of the numbers involved, especially when they get into the hands of various NGOs, often end up using the stats on the latter in a way that implies there are that many sex slaves knocking around.

This is one of many ways in which serious discussion of the illegal migration question is foreclosed - reducing it to a matter of individual evil and crime, and puffing it up to look as heinous as possible. Evil is certainly the word for abandoning dozens of people to a slow, terrifying death; but it is an evil of the banal type - of the driver who does not distinguish between a container full of vegetables and one full of migrants. What makes this sort of evil banal, rather than outrageous and aberrant, is that it is all too easily comprehensible in its wider context. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a United Nations body, estimates that over 4,000 people a year die or simply disappear on route across borders. We await, with some trepidation, the figures for 2019.

We do not know exactly why the victims in this particular case were on the move. The high proportion of men among them suggests that we are not talking about sex slavery, in any case. It is possible that they were refugees in the conventional sense: the increasingly authoritarian Chinese regime does generate more than a few of those, and no doubt there are ways to get on the wrong side of the heirs of Ho Chi Minh as well. It seems more likely, however, that the compulsion behind their move was economic: that these were migrant workers, sent abroad by families at risk of falling into poverty, so that they can earn a better living in the shadow economy and send money back home.


Opposing refugees to economic migrants brings us up against the chauvinist rhetoric, whereby this is a difference of moral desert - of course we are obliged to take in refugees, but not people who are just greedy for higher wages or going to scrounge off the benefit system … and the corresponding activity of doubting the authenticity of claims for asylum, alleging that many of these refugees are ‘really’ economic migrants. We get the picture almost of people in far-flung lands lying in the long grass eating peaches, but deciding whimsically to move to Britain, where the peaches are a little sweeter. The scenes in Essex - if they show us the remains of would-be economic migrants after all - are a reminder that the economy can destroy body and soul as effectively as torture or aerial bombardment, and turn a sealed, refrigerated shipping container into the least-worst of the available options.

So far as the bringing of Robinson and his colleagues to justice goes, we merely note the international character of this operation - Irish (northern and southern, and expatriates in Britain) characters arranging to pick up this special delivery from Belgium, full of people from the far east, via however many steps. The signs are that whatever criminal organisation is ultimately behind this has more than a handful of people on Europe’s Atlantic fringe involved, and that the Mr Big types will be insulated from potential arrest by several layers of underlings - a buffer zone to stir the envy of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Speaking of Turkey’s ever more dictatorial president, it seems politic to mention that he is at the centre of the week’s other big migration story, threatening to unleash millions of Syrian refugees in the general direction of Europe, if the latter continent’s collective authorities protest against his invasion of Syrian Kurdistan. It is refugees who suffer the most from the sick consequences of hard borders, after all, even though - in theory - countries are obliged to take them in. They are, after all, the most desperate to get out, and more likely to lack the means to travel even in the relative comfort of a lorry. About half of the dead and missing migrants counted by the IOM were travelling around the area of the Mediterranean, most especially refugees from Libya crossing to Italy in vessels of - at best - dubious seaworthiness.

The arrival of these refugees in Europe has caused a series of political crises over the last few years, and takes place against a background of all players placing ever more insuperable obstacles in the path of asylum-seekers, to make sure they are who they say they are. The panic about ‘fake’ asylum-seekers is largely a fiction of the rightwing press; and the facility with which the tabloids swerve from spinning jeremiads about hordes of migrants to lachrymose chest-beating when a pile of their bodies is uncovered is not a little nauseating in itself. It has the effect of ratcheting up bureaucratic resistance to elementary human solidarity, for fear of the angry mob.

So far as Erdoğan goes, it is worth recalling how exactly he came to have this loaded gun pointed at Europe’s head. A series of political reversals in Germany left chancellor Angela Merkel vulnerable on her right flank over the issue of Syrian refugees. This tipped the scales for Europe as a whole, and now it was a crisis that had to be dealt with, as opposed to when it was only Greece feeling the full force. The core European powers were increasingly unable to offload the problem of housing thousands of desperate people onto the peripheral ones under the supposed doctrine that the first European country entered by a refugee was responsible for them. That would be all very noble if it was Norway that was undergoing an apocalyptic civil war …

So they came up with a plan B, which basically involved bribing Erdoğan with a lump-sum payment of aid and a meaningless nod towards future European Union membership, in return for which he would keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, where they live miserably in squalid camps. We almost want to laugh at the unintended consequence that Turkey now has Europe by the balls - except that the bullets in Erdoğan’s gun are, after all, people, who should be treated with dignity and not in the reprehensible way they have been by the EU and Turkey alike.

Our response

To state what should be the case is to invite the question of how it might be. What must be said at the outset is that, if the human dignity of people put to flight - whether by political or economic immediate causes - is to be respected, it shall not be by the agency of the various states of the world. The latter are competing firms in the global hierarchy, and from the point of view of state logic, mass migration is a problem to be managed in the momentary interests of the state. Pompous displays of official compassion - such as Germany’s momentary welcome to Syrian refugees after the image of the dead child, Alan Kurdi, went viral a few years ago - must be understood equally according to the imperatives of state competition.

The working class, on the other hand, has no country; which is to say, in rather less elevated language, that competition between various national sections is intrinsically a negative sum game. The various states have huge budgets and armed forces with which to compete; the working class has only its ability to act in a united fashion to defend its interests effectively.

It certainly is the case that sections of workers set out to defend their interests from other sections; and this is not purely on an illusory basis. There is a leftwing and liberal shibboleth that states that immigrant labour cannot depress wages, which would make labour-power not only a special commodity, as it is for Marxists, but a magical one - being the only one that does not drop in price if there is a glut on the market. A version of this idea is floated by John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, when he reminds readers of The Guardian that “apple growers have been forced to leave 1,000 tons of fruit unpicked because of a 30% drop in labour. Brussels sprouts, cabbages and cauliflowers are also at risk because of an anticipated labour shortage in the period leading up to Christmas.”1

What this tells us is hardly surprising: that substantial parts of British agriculture cannot continue profitably with the officially prevailing labour market conditions (maximum hours, minimum wage) adequately enforced; and thus that it is dependent on a shadow economy of the sort that (perhaps) the 39 victims of Grays were bound for. Working class agitation against immigration is fundamentally senseless not because it never depresses wages, but because illegal immigration usually does, by creating a section of the population untouched by the hard-won concessions of the historic labour movement.

The solution is therefore solidarity in the most practical sense: relentless combat against both the reactionary fantasies of nativism and the hypocritical charade of ‘cosmopolitanism’, favoured by the liberal faction of the state - as exemplified in the EU elite’s support for open borders within and callously militarised borders at the edges (and, for that matter, in the diplomatic silence of virtuous remainers on this question). In their place, let us fight for common organisation in the official and unofficial sectors of the economy, and indeed across the world’s borders themselves. On such a basis, the working class would have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from open borders, making the likes of Mo Robinson a distant and queasy memory.


  1. . www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/26/grief-is-not-enough-we-must-open-our-doors-as-well-as-our-hearts.↩︎