Belfast Telegraph

Steve Valdez-Symonds: To end death at our borders we must look at ourselves

Floral tributes left on Eastern Avenue, Grays (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Floral tributes left on Eastern Avenue, Grays (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Thirty-nine people have lost their lives in horrifying circumstances, imprisoned in a freezing freight container on a desperate journey that they must have hoped would end somewhere safe and welcome.

Already, the spotlight is turning to smuggling gangs, human traffickers and border security. At times such as this – and this is far from the first time people have lost their lives in such tragic circumstances – political leaders and commentators are quick to focus attention in this way.

However, if we are to end the deaths at our borders – not to mention the countless other physical and psychological injuries done to people on these and similarly dangerous journeys – we must demand more of ourselves and our politicians.

Vast amounts of words, energy and money have been spent over many years erecting fences, policing borders and promoting hostility to women, men and children conveniently labelled as "illegal migrants".

For many people vilified in this way, the results have been as predictably deadly and damaging as they have been profitable for others so willing to exploit them.

Whether fleeing political or religious persecution, escaping the shackles of gross inequality and poverty, or tricked or coerced by traffickers, people do not cram themselves into shipping containers or cast themselves off to sea on ramshackle, overcrowded boats by anything the rest of us would ever describe as "choice".

Amnesty’s research has time and time again highlighted that people making terrifying journeys are often aware they are putting their lives at risk. And closing down one route has consistently only led to another route being opened, often a route more dangerous than the last. The circumstances that people strive to leave behind are more compelling than all the potential harm and animosity that can be put in their way.

It is high time that governments – particularly those of relatively wealthy, stable countries such as our own – reflected honestly on the failure and cost of their hostile immigration policies, particularly the human cost.

Migration is a fact of human existence from which we all benefit. The greater part of it goes largely uncommented. Indeed, movement by people, particularly white people, identified as highly skilled or educated and relatively wealthy is often welcomed and encouraged. These are not generally the people who pick our fruit, clean our offices or flee from conflict and repressive regimes.

We need to urgently rethink why it is our immigration systems tend to prioritise the people who need to move the least while increasing the risks to those who need to move the most.

That challenge needs a radically different answer than the UK government and many other governments have so far given. Safe routes must be opened up – visas for workers, refugees and families. We must not allow our political leaders’ responses to tragedy today to once more pave the way for further tragedy tomorrow.

Steve Valdez-Symonds is Amnesty UK’s refugee and migrant rights programme director

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