Belfast Telegraph

Brendan O'Connor: Essex lorry deaths victims suffered horrific ending that doesn't bear thinking about

Pham Thi Tra My is believed to have been one of the migrants who died
Pham Thi Tra My is believed to have been one of the migrants who died

By Brendan O'Connor

It's hard not to think about how they died. Twenty-six-year-old Vietnamese woman Pham Thi Tra My's texts to her mother may have given us a stark insight: "Mom, I love you so much. I'm dying because I can't breathe."

Endings are important. We all like to think we will have a good one. Drop dead on the golf course after a hole in one; slip off in your sleep after a great day; in bed, surrounded by family, having made your peace with everything and everyone.

Suffocation in that sealed coffin was probably the quicker death. As oxygen depleted, they will have lost consciousness, then maybe convulsions and death. Or they may have died of hypothermia.

The temperature in the refrigerated container was, it has been reported, -25 degrees. At that temperature an otherwise healthy person not properly dressed for the cold can develop hypothermia in 10 minutes.

When you die of hypothermia, it starts with your extremities. As blood flows towards the vital organs, it starts to desert the surface of your body. You will be familiar with how the tips of your fingers and toes start to go numb or sore when you get very cold.

Your heart rate and blood pressure go up and you start to shiver as the body tries to keep itself warm. The shivering can then come in violent spasms with pauses. You will eventually stop shivering as the body tries to conserve energy.

Speech becomes slurred and your level of consciousness lowers. You become irrational. You may do what is known as paradoxical undressing, which happens when a person thinks they are hot, as the body panics and dumps heat and they will start taking off clothes.

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It has been reported some of the 39 migrants were wearing few clothes, so that may suggest paradoxical undressing, but we do not know the cause of death yet.

As hypothermia gets more extreme, a person may curl up in a ball or get into a small space to lower their surface area and conserve heat. If there are a group of people they may try to huddle together.

The body will eventually move into hibernation as breathing and heart rate slow down. Very cold air into the lungs that is not being warmed up enough on the way in may cause spasms in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

All this time, the brain becomes more impaired, so the person will become confused and not understand what is happening.

The muscles will gradually stop working and the body will go into a state known as metabolic icebox. The person will look dead but will in fact still be alive.

Breathing becomes erratic and shallow, the level of consciousness continues to diminish and eventually the heart and/or the brain will stop working.

In an interview with the BBC's Simon Reeve recently, a man who ran a refugee project in Sicily, himself a former refugee, explained there was no point in trying to keep refugees out of the West. They would always come.

It was just human nature, he said. You have this life here, and they have that life back there, and once any refugees make it to this life, and tell the others back home about it, even if everything they tell them isn't true, people are going to want to come. Nothing will ever stop the movement.

In the villages of China, the people smugglers - the Snakeheads - can manifest in the form of a family member, a friend or neighbour. And of course, your extended family may want you to go.

Villages will often all chip in to pay traffickers, in the expectation the migrant will then send back money to the village. And of course there is the hope the initial successful refugee may bring more of the family over.

Think of the Samoan rugby players, some of whom succumb to drink and mental-health problems when they go abroad.

Much of the pressure they feel is apparently because the financial hopes of their whole family are riding on them. Money is expected to start coming back immediately. And if it doesn't, questions are asked. And the extended family relying on each player can amount to 100 to 200 people.

So you could imagine there could be a certain amount of pressure in a small Far Eastern village for some young men - who could be their family's big hope to make it in the west - to answer the ads pinned up around the place and put out on social media.

Life in the west is painted in glowing terms by the Snakehead. Bobby Chan, who works with Chinese migrants in the UK, told Channel 4 News how rumours continually circulate that there is going to be an amnesty on illegal immigrants in the UK.

There was going to be an amnesty for Prince William's wedding, an amnesty when a new government was elected, an amnesty for Prince Harry's wedding. Those amnesties obviously never come.

But Chan said people still believed the rumours. Because they had no reason not to. Because hope can be a dangerous thing.

The sense of obligation migrants feel to those at home is seen by the fact that Pham Thi Tra My apologised to her mother in her texts. Her family had reportedly remortgaged their house to pay £30,000 to send her to England, the receptacle of their hope.

She felt she had let them down. If your alternatives are limited, of course you will risk life and limb to get to the west. And in truth, if you go the container-truck route, your chances of making it through alive are really high.

So of course each person getting on the plane and then getting into the container thinks they will not be one of the unlucky ones. What was startling, listening to the stories of people who have come to the West through the container route, was how powerless most of them are during the journey.

You get the sense that during the journey they don't know what is going on, it is never explained to them properly where they are going, how long each leg will take, what's happening next.

The journey can take months for some. Advice and appropriate clothing is certainly not dispensed. They are just herded in this powerless, confused state from one leg of the journey to the next.

And if they complain or kick up, they are threatened and told they will be discarded. Indeed they are treated appallingly anyway. They are completely at the mercy of the worst kind of people. They have to decide to trust people who are inherently untrustworthy, because, well, what's the alternative?

They certainly can't trust these people to react appropriately when they start banging or shouting because they are in distress.

And neither can they be entirely confident that they won't end up as slaves when they get to their destination.

As the reality of the 39 dead migrants cut through the Brexit bluster last week, one obvious thing that struck you was that this is a time for international and European harmony and co-operation.

It is certainly not a time to start complicating and compromising borders around Europe and the UK and Ireland for the sake of some fit of nationalist nostalgia and anti-outsider feeling.

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