It’s not mi­grants who de­serve to feel our anger, it’s those who are ex­ploit­ing them

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - AGENDA - Cather­ine Deveney

The mo­bile phone has changed life in so many ways but one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary is in the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate dur­ing the dark­est of mo­ments, as death ap­proaches. It would seem from the ex­pe­ri­ence of re­cent years – the Twin Tow­ers and more re­cently the tragedy of the Viet­namese mi­grants found dead in a re­frig­er­ated lorry in Es­sex – that im­pend­ing doom prompts not in­tro­spec­tion, but a de­sire to reach out and con­nect, one fi­nal time.

“Mum, I love you so much,” 26-year-old Viet­namese refugee Pham Tra My is re­ported to have texted as she strug­gled to breathe, in­car­cer­ated in that bleak lorry. The mes­sage? When the de­bris and silt of life is fil­tered out, it is love that is left, the gold in the pan. It is just a shame that it can take death to see it.

A week on, the fast-mov­ing news agenda means the 39 mi­grants are grad­u­ally be­com­ing sub­merged by other head­lines, mainly Boris and Brexit. It’s a sub­ject not un­con­nected to the tragedy, not least be­cause Brexit high­lights this na­tion’s lack of en­thu­si­asm for in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion and open bor­ders.

Also, how­ever, be­cause we are now warned that Bri­tain will be ex­cluded from Europol and the Euro­pean Mi­grant Smug­gling Centre, a cru­cial and so­phis­ti­cated or­gan­i­sa­tion tack­ling one of the world’s fastest grow­ing, and most heinous mod­ern crimes: hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Pham Tra My looked like a child in the pho­to­graphs that emerged: soft brown eyes, the pink blush of youth on clear skin, and a per­fect cu­pid’s bow of pink lips. I found my­self won­der­ing what day­dreams had led her to the lorry; what vi­sions of an un­lived fu­ture in­hab­ited her head in the months lead­ing up to the jour­ney.

But if I re­ally tried, I could imag­ine that. We all have se­cret places in our minds. What I couldn’t un­der­stand was traf­fick­ers. Those who look at an­other per­son and see cash signs re­flected in their eyes; who ex­ploit not just the bod­ies of the vul­ner­a­ble, but ev­ery­thing that makes them truly hu­man: their dreams and de­sires, their hopes, fears and am­bi­tions.

If any­thing epit­o­mises youth, per­haps it is the op­ti­mism that be­lieves in a bet­ter place, a brighter fu­ture, and has the en­ergy to reach for it. One of the very many things that de­presses me about no longer be­ing Euro­pean is the idea that my free­dom of move­ment will be more re­stricted. Am I likely to live and work in France? Prob­a­bly not, given that Higher French has at­ro­phied some­where in my brain. I might just about man­age “the birds are sing­ing in the trees”, but my abil­ity to find out the next train to Paris is se­ri­ously lim­ited. Still, I love the idea that I could live there if I wanted to.

There is lit­tle more de­press­ing in life than be­ing trapped, im­pris­oned phys­i­cally, psy­cho­log­i­cally or emo­tion­ally. Ironic, then, that in a bid for free­dom, the Viet­namese mi­grants suf­fo­cated. And yes, I know na­tions need im­mi­gra­tion checks and bal­ances. I know that a free-for-all is im­pos­si­ble. But we need fair, safe routes, es­pe­cially for des­per­ate peo­ple in des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions. Deep down, I feel un­com­fort­able about the no­tion that one per­son can for­bid an­other from in­hab­it­ing a par­tic­u­lar cor­ner of the world. We are cus­to­di­ans of the Earth, not own­ers.

Viet­nam is a coun­try of high moun­tains and deep val­leys, of trop­i­cal forests and spec­tac­u­lar coast­line. Fam­i­lies caught up in this tragedy must wish that their loved ones had re­alised in time that the con­fines of their beau­ti­ful home coun­try were not so re­strict­ing af­ter all.

“If our son hadn’t gone abroad, he would prob­a­bly be poor,” one Viet­namese mother whose child was caught up in a pre­vi­ous tragedy said in a news re­port, “but at least he would still be alive.”

That’s the thing: this has all hap­pened be­fore. Many times. The 58 peo­ple dead in a con­tainer at Dover in 2000; 23 at a cockle strand in More­cambe, Lan­cashire, in 2004; 35 in a ship­ping con­tainer at Til­bury docks in 2014; 71 in an aban­doned lorry on an Aus­trian mo­tor­way in 2015. The news­caster re­port­ing on the lat­est Es­sex tragedy de­scribed the heart-rend­ing na­ture of it, and the na­tional out­pour­ing of em­pa­thy. That out­pour­ing is fa­mil­iar too. But what then? What do we do about it?

Our tears dry quickly. Per­haps, we should stop cry­ing only for the dead and cry for the liv­ing too. Had the lorry been in­ter­cepted while its oc­cu­pants were still alive, the pub­lic re­ac­tion to those il­le­gal im­mi­grants would be quite dif­fer­ent – and de­cid­edly less em­pa­thetic.

Some­times it seems to take im­pend­ing doom to ap­pre­ci­ate love, tragedy to ap­pre­ci­ate home, and death to re­lease em­pa­thy. Un­til the mo­ment of in­sight, we ham­mer the vul­ner­a­ble in­stead of re­al­is­ing it is not those who reach out for a dream be­yond their shores who de­serve our wrath, but those who seek to ex­ploit their de­sire to do so.

The poignant sight of flo­ral trib­utes in the in­dus­trial es­tate where the lorry was found ex­press our sym­pa­thies for the mi­grants – but would we have been sym­pa­thetic if the oc­cu­pants of the con­tainer had still been alive?

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