One year on from the Essex lorry deaths, the only way forward is to dismantle the ‘hostile environment’

Minnie Rahman
·4-min read
The bodies of 39 Vietnamese nationals were discovered in a refrigerated trailer (PA)
The bodies of 39 Vietnamese nationals were discovered in a refrigerated trailer (PA)

It was 23 October last year that news broke 39 people had tragically lost their lives in the back of a lorry, trying to enter the UK.

While the story of the journey taken by the Essex 39 was portrayed as one of of people seeking a new life - one year on, the government has failed to implement measures to ensure that migrants, victims of trafficking and smuggling, and asylum-seekers are protected from exploitation.

Instead, the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic has seen migrant communities plunged further into insecurity - with no public safety net to rely on many have faced an increased risk of exploitation and dangerous working conditions.

Exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation for people trying to enter the UK from Calais, has become increasingly dire. Despite bluster from the Home Office, that it would ensure a tragedy like this would never happen again, a migrant drowned trying to enter the UK over the summer.

Rather than trying to resolve the difficulties for people at our border, the home secretary, Priti Patel, has taken an increasingly absurdist and yet dangerous position which has included talk of wave machines, housing asylum-seekers on oil rigs and, most dehumanising of all, sending people to an island 4000 miles away.

While the numbers of people crossing over the summer was presented as a “crisis” point, crossings of this kind are preventable and the direct result of a closure of existing routes of entry to the UK. The government has to date failed to recognise that they have culpability for the behaviour of people traffickers and smugglers, and could prevent deaths by taking a pragmatic approach.

The only result of an increasingly hard border system as is being proposed by the Home Office, is that vulnerable people at risk of trafficking or smuggling will be further pushed into the hands of people willing to exploit them as safe and legal routes of entry are narrowed.

For those who have been trafficked or smuggled into the UK, the “hostile environment” policy from government further entrenches their risk of exploitation once they are here. Long before the pandemic, provisions like No Recourse to Public Funds conditions, have pushed refugees and migrants into abject poverty, forcing them into unsustainable debt and into homelessness or unsafe, overcrowded, insecure housing. Migrants who are forced to work without the correct documentation, are also subject to the “illegal working” offence.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, this situation has considerably worsened. Migrants without access to the public safety net, in many cases have been unable to remove themselves from unsafe housing, and to effectively self-isolate or feed their families. The experiences of Boohoo factory workers in Leicester threw into sharp relief the real impact for communities, when individual workers are denied health and safety protections, forced to work without being able to claim sick pay or benefits and are unable to afford safe and secure housing.

On top of this, the UK has one of the weakest and most chronically under-resourced labour law enforcement structures in Europe. This means that many abusive employers are able to get away with exploitation, as people are unable to come forward and report their employers for fear of repercussions, including deportation. While the government pays lip service to tackling modern slavery and exploitation in the workplace, in practice it appears far more common for the Home Office to negotiate with abusive employers to report undocumented employees rather than subject them to a fine.

The only way to stop abuse in the system and protect victims of exploitation is to ensure that the “illegal working” offence is repealed and that a firewall between labour inspection services and immigration enforcement is put in place.

At the onset of the pandemic, charities, migrants’ rights organisations and migrants themselves, warned the government that a failure to suspend the “hostile environment” would push undocumented migrants further into the fringes. Yet the government has chosen to take no action and to keep all the provisions in place.

This time last year, 39 people with hopes and dreams, and people who loved them, lost their lives - with a system in place that consistently failing to protect those it needs to.

It is clear that one year on, and in the midst of a pandemic, the Home Office has failed to learn the lessons from its own history, and wilfully ignores the evidence in front of them.

On this tragic anniversary, the only way to honour the memories of 39 people who lost their lives is to dismantle the “hostile environment”.

Minnie Rahman is the public affairs and campaigns manager for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI)

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