As the news broke on Wednesday 23 October that 39 people had died in a refrigerated shipping container while attempting to reach Britain, the anti-immigration spin machine sprang into action.
Taking to the press, they insisted that the tragedy must be laid entirely at the feet of the smugglers and traffickers – and the “lax” borders enabling them.
The xenophobic Migration Watch think tank explained that protecting migrants meant more deportations and more resources to tighten the border against migration. The Mail demanded “added checks on vehicles entering Britain”.
The Times invited the racist Melanie Phillips to shed crocodile tears while proclaiming “Migrant deaths prove our borders are inadequately policed”.
Riding this wave, Tory Home Secretary Priti Patel pledged a “ruthless” crackdown on the “organised criminals” who she claimed are the cause of migration.
In reality, ultimate responsibility for last week’s mass murder – not to mention the thousands of others killed during perilous journeys to Europe and the UK – lies with the creators and cheerleaders of our fortress-like border regimes.
Even if it were desirable, it is simply impossible to effectively deter or prevent migration. Humans have always moved and always will – especially when fleeing destruction, persecution and immiseration, or pursuing hopes of a better life. When we cannot move freely and safely, we move riskily.
That these 39 people were willing to get in the back of a refrigerated truck, and many more knowingly put their lives on the line every day attempting journeys like the Mediterranean crossing, testifies to that.
Extraordinary barriers have already been placed in the way. Safe and legal routes have been deliberately shut down. Apart from a handful of desperately limited schemes, refugees cannot place a claim for asylum until they have already reached this country.
Humanitarian rescue missions in the Mediterranean have faced a clampdown, and Europe’s land borders are secured with barbed wire and police violence. Through deals like the Khartoum Process, our governments even pay authoritarian states and warlords to detain, brutalise and repel migrants before they reach this continent.
At ports and other entry points, ever-tightening surveillance and checks aren’t saving lives. They’re precisely what push people into increasingly dangerous modes of transport – from sealing themselves into containers, to sandwiching themselves inside the engine compartments of vans.
Tightening borders can only drive people further underground when they need to move, putting them at the mercy of ever more unscrupulous profiteers.
To put the smugglers and traffickers out of business, the solution is simple: open the borders and render them redundant.
After Labour Party conference voted for the Labour Campaign for Free Movement’s resolution pledging a radical shift toward migrant solidarity, the Labour leadership should have offered an alternative. Demanding our borders are more open, not more closed. Proposing an unconditional right to family reunion. Campaigning with allies across the EU to replace Fortress Europe with a coordinated policy of welcome and resettlement.
Instead the Shadow Home Secretary is attempting to face in both directions. Diane Abbott did condemn “the assumption that immigrants are a threat” and proposed “safe and legal routes”.
But at the same time, she has played along with the right’s “security” narrative.
Abbott was quick to clarify that those “safe and legal routes” would only be for “legal” migrants and “genuine” refugees.
On talk shows and in Parliament, she joined calls to further ramp up the fortification of ports with “thermal imaging, more border guards” and demanded post-Brexit EU cooperation – not for resettlement schemes, but intel-sharing by security forces.
When the BBC’s Marr quoted the conference resolution to “reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business, and number caps/targets”, Abbott responded bluntly “no” and emphasised that her policy would indeed take migrants’ employment as a factor.
This attempt to appease isn’t just abdicating Labour’s duty of solidarity and the socialist principle of free movement. It’s also futile. The pitch is neither harsh enough for those who want to get “tough on immigration”, nor does it argue solidarity clearly enough to begin changing their minds.
Nye Bevan said that people who stand in the middle of the road “get run down”. To win back hearts and minds from the anti-immigration right, Labour will have to consistently champion solidarity and freedom without apology, hesitation, or dilution.