Last week, 39 people were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex. It is assumed that the victims travelled here from Brussels to start a new life in Britain – but instead of jumping on the Eurostar as we would, they had to opt for this expensive, dangerous and eventually deadly journey. The reason the Eurostar was not an option for them is our restrictive immigration regime, enforced through visas that put businesses before people, the hostile environment and border guards.
Like clockwork, politicians called for the tightening of border controls from the second the story broke. This included the Labour Party. On The Andrew Marr Show over the weekend, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott advocated increased surveillance at smaller ports and warned of the impact of Brexit on security cooperation with other EU countries.
But tighter border controls are not what will save lives or put human traffickers out of business. Exactly the opposite is true: the more difficult we make it for people to move, the more likely are we going to see an escalation of violence and more deaths. This is what is already happening at the EU’s external borders. Tens of thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea because no safe routes of passage are available. Many of those who made it against the odds will have paid outrageous sums to people smugglers. It is not right that money can be made of the desperation of fellow human beings. But we know that people will always move, no matter how high the stakes. Tightening borders and therefore making the journey riskier will in the end only benefit traffickers who can charge more and more for the “services” they provide.
And what happens if border guards detect people trying to come into the country? Rather than offer support, we turn them away, hold people in detention centres and deport them. This solves nothing – many attempt the journey more than once if they can afford to do so, as at least one of the victims from Essex allegedly did.
The only way to save people’s lives is to soften borders. Implementing Labour’s immigration policy passed at conference in September could be the first step towards a future where families and friends will not have to read the sad final text messages of loved ones that have died in this gruesome way.
Crucially, the policy passed at Labour conference demands that the party reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business or number caps or targets. Under current rules, global free movement already exists for the rich. They are the ones most likely to meet salary thresholds, be able to make a financial investment or have access to the type of education and employment that can land them a visa to come to the UK. If we let go of these requirements, working class people from across the world who want to settle in Britain will have a chance to enter the country safely and legally.
Someone’s contribution to the country should never be based on a subjective contribution to the economy. Many less well-paid jobs still make a huge contribution to our society – carers are just one example. Moreover, we must remember that everyone is somebody’s lover, friend, colleague, neighbour. Human beings enrich society without being in a certain – or any – type of employment.
The Essex lorry tragedy has shocked and saddened many people in this country. Labour must be proud that our members and trade unions have voted for a conference policy that can bring an end to such a dangerous situation. With a general election around the corner, we should shout this from the rooftops.