Smugglers and snakeheads

Advocating non-racist immigration controls not only means lining up with national chauvinism, argues Eddie Ford. It is also self-defeating

Reminding us how cheap life can be sometimes, this week is the unwanted anniversary of the death of 39 Vietnamese men, women and boys found suffocated to death at the back of a truck in an Essex industrial estate. Hellishly, the migrants had been sealed inside an airtight refrigeration unit in the pitch black for at least 12 hours, as the temperature rose to 38.5º. Unsent messages recovered from mobile phones revealed that the occupants feared they would not survive the journey.

There is now an ongoing trial of four people accused of being responsible for the deaths - widely dubbed as ‘people smugglers’. An Irish haulage boss and the driver of the Bulgarian-registered truck, Maurice Robinson, have already pleaded guilty to manslaughter. A British-Romanian dual national, Gheorghe Nica, and Eamonn Harrison from Northern Ireland deny manslaughter - while Harrison, Christopher Kennedy, and Valentin Calota deny “conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration”.

The migrants’ fatal journey began in northern Europe on October 22 2019, when the container was driven by Harrison to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, where it was loaded onto a cargo ship for England. Shortly after midnight the next day it was picked up by Robinson at Purfleet. He stopped almost immediately after receiving a message from his boss, saying: “Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”. Robinson found them all dead, of course.

During the trial it emerged that this gang had successfully brought in truckloads of migrants previously, with Nica organising their dispersal and Calota driving. Two years ago Harrison was stopped at Coquelles in northern France with 18 Vietnamese nationals hidden in his truck. He was given a fine, but never paid it. Needless to say, there are huge sums to be made from people-smuggling, with migrants paying upwards of £10,000 to cross the English Channel in the back of a lorry. Most of the 39 victims were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces in north-central Vietnam - economically deprived areas, where job prospects (or any prospects) are extremely poor. Last month, a court in Vietnam sentenced four Vietnamese people to between two and 12 years in prison for their role in the deaths. The police said the defendants had arranged for one of the women to travel illegally to France and then to Britain for no less than $22,000.

Sadly, but predictably, there have been a number of incidents in which migrants to Europe died or were injured as a result of dangerous transportation methods. In Dover 20 years ago, 58 Chinese nationals died in similar circumstances in a Dutch-registered lorry that had come from Zeebrugge.1 The incident, one of the largest mass killings in British criminal history, was coordinated by a Chinese snakehead gang.

In fact, smugglers, snakeheads and human traffickers often force their cargo - the migrants - to work off the cost of the trip in virtual slave conditions. That might possibly have been the case with some of the Vietnamese victims in Essex, though it seems they were sent abroad by their families, so that they could earn money through the shadow economy and then send it back home.

In this context, we should not forget the appalling disaster and killing in February 2004 of at least 21 Chinese cockle-pickers in Lancashire’s Morecambe Bay - the true number has never been entirely ascertained.2 Unlawfully hired and undocumented, they were to be paid a mere £5 per 25kg of cockles. The Chinese workers had been transported via containers into Liverpool and were hired out through local criminal agents.

Coming back to the present day, on October 27 two children and two adults tragically died after a migrant boat sank off the coast of northern France, while the French authorities believe more could also have drowned. At least two other people are thought to have died while attempting the crossing this year, but more than 7,400 migrants have reached the UK in small boats - up from 1,825 in 2019. By any objective measure, this is a low number and therefore should be perfectly manageable if things were arranged differently - all the deaths so far were entirely avoidable. Of course, the vast majority arrive in Britain by other means rather than small boats, with a total of 36,000 asylum applications made last year. By comparison, there were 165,615 asylum applications in Germany, 151,070 in France and 117,800 in Spain in the same period.

But mere facts have not stopped rightwing Tory backbenchers and sections of the press ranting and raving about an “invasion” of migrants - who apparently can “paddle in” as happily as they like and get put up in plush hotels, enjoying “immediate access” to generous financial help. Angered by the thought of migrants living the good life at the expense of hardworking British taxpayers, they want the home secretary, Priti Patel, to send in royal navy warships to repel the invading migrants. A new battle of Britain.

To this end, Patel has appointed a former royal marine, Dan O’Mahoney, as her ‘clandestine Channel threat commander’ with the task of intercepting the dangerously overcrowded boats carrying migrants - not exactly Britain’s finest hour. O’Mahoney is now in France discussing with his counterparts what can be done. Natalie Elphicke, the Tory MP for Dover, pontificated about how “people-traffickers have no regard for life, no matter how old or young”. As for Boris Johnson, he has said the British government will do everything it can to “crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys”. He wants to change the UK’s asylum system on the grounds that it is “very, very difficult” to legally return people who arrive in the UK from France using small boats.

The UK government currently follows the Dublin regulation that a person’s asylum claim can be transferred to the first member-state they entered. Johnson aims to replace this supposedly “inflexible and rigid” system with a new agreement on returns with the French authorities come the new year, hoping to make the Calais route “unviable”. The good people of Dover will be able to sleep safely in their beds again.

Alternatively, the charity, Care4Calais, said the loss of life this week should be a “wake-up call” for the British and French governments - it argues for a new system that would allow asylum-seekers to apply for refuge in the UK from outside its borders. According to the charity, that would “put an end to terrifying, dangerous sea crossings and stop tragedy striking again”. For its part, Save The Children has called for a “joint plan” from London and Paris to ensure the safety of vulnerable families and prevent the English Channel from becoming “a graveyard for children”. Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency is “troubled” by plans to intercept and return boats, which risks capsizing small dinghies and causing yet more deaths by drowning - obviously well founded.


The outpouring of righteous condemnations by the likes of Elphicke and Johnson is nothing but pure hypocrisy. They attack the people-smugglers for taking advantage of the desperate and vulnerable. Yet at the same time they are quite happy to add to their plight by incarcerating them in detention centres and they spend a great deal of time and energy dreaming up and implementing endless cruel measures. Indeed, they boast about how they will heap more misery and danger upon migrants, whether it be Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, Priti Patel’s absurd warships or Boris Johnson making the Calais route “unviable”. Words have consequences.

Serious discussion of the migration question is near impossible when it is reduced to a matter of individual pathology and criminality, blown up to look like the most heinous thing possible - we are dealing with monsters. But what makes this evil more banal than monstrous, where a truck driver does not distinguish between a container full of vegetables and one full of migrants, is the wider context that renders it all too easily understandable - not an aberration. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a United Nations body, estimates that over 4,000 people a year die or simply disappear when attempting to cross borders. They are victims of a global exploitative system.

While it is certainly true morally that refugees and migrants should be “welcome here”, as Socialist Worker would say, Marxists need to go further. We in the CPGB call for the abolition of all immigration controls - human beings should be allowed to go where they choose. After all, as recently as the 19th century you were free to walk over the continent of Europe unimpeded, except for tsarist Russia. The world should belong to humanity as a whole, not to the ruling class of each state. Therefore communists oppose anything which seeks to stigmatise or scapegoat migrant workers. The real cause of unemployment, poverty, poor housing, etc is not ‘foreigners’ taking British jobs, but the workings of the capitalist system - where power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people, free of democratic control and accountability.

Capital, money and goods can move freely around the world - yet workers cannot. International capital should not have the right to determine where we can and cannot live. Why should an Apple iPhone have more rights than a worker? Capital itself, as part of its routine operation, switches investment from one country to another - dislocating millions and forcing millions of others out of work. Yet those thrown on to the scrapheap as a result of this perfectly legal activity are expected to stay and rot - whether in Vietnamese villages or the grim shanty towns of India, Iran or Kenya.

For the most part, the position of the British left on this question has been dismal, refusing to take an openly principled stance. For instance, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, the Workers Party of Britain and the Socialist Party in England and Wales all have a particularly shameful position: they all favour non-racist immigration controls, ie, immigration controls with hypocritical wrapping paper. Of course, having read Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of SPEW say they are really for open borders, but, alas, workers are not so advanced, so best not to mention it at all - not in front of the children, as it might upset them. In other words, such organisations are committed in the abstract to open borders and internationalism, but in the concrete are unwilling to swim upstream and challenge the bourgeois consensus. That would risk making them unpopular. Not that the Socialist Workers Party have anything to write home about - it was quite willing to sacrifice any mention of open borders when it was part of the Respect popular front along with George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley and Salma Yaqoob.

Hence, the logical solution is therefore solidarity in the most practical sense - not least the struggle for trade union organisation and trade union rights. Of course, agitating against migrant labour is ultimately self-defeating. Not only would that line us up with the capitalist state and the bigots of Ukip, the Brexit Party and Britain First, but because people will always try to escape intolerable circumstances and search out a better life. If migrants are illegal they will certainly undercut wages and conditions. But if migrants are legal they are much easier to organise. The slogan ‘unity is strength’ should be our guide.


  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_Dover_incident.↩︎

  2. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/lancashire/3464203.stm.↩︎