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Paul Vallely: What if the 39 migrants had survived?

01 November 2019

The press might well have reacted differently, says Paul Vallely


Police at the Waterglade Industrial Park, Grays, Essex, on Wednesday of last week, after 39 bodies were found in the back of a lorry from Bulgaria

Police at the Waterglade Industrial Park, Grays, Essex, on Wednesday of last week, after 39 bodies were found in the back of a lorry from Bulgaria

DAY BY DAY, more grim details emerge from the grief-stricken families in Vietnam awaiting news about the identities of the 39 tragic individuals who perished in the locked airless refrigerated container that arrived at Purfleet docks. Two things have been striking about this terrible business.

The first is the heart-wrenching detail with which the British press has unfolded the shocking story. Beneath the photograph of one beautiful young woman, Pham Thi Tra My, we have been told of her final text to her mother. It said: “I’m sorry mum. My journey abroad hasn’t succeeded. Mum, I love you so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.”

Then there is the photo of the grandfather, his face contorted with grief, holding in his arms a bewildered and uncomprehending child. The old man is the father of Le Van Ha, who, it is feared, suffocated inside the container on its journey from Zeebrugge to Essex. The toddler is the son of the man we must suppose dead. Not only has the old man lost the son who was his brightest hope for the future: he is also now faced with the prospect of paying off the massive £20,000 debt incurred by his son to finance his journey to the West, and line the pockets of a callous gang of people-smugglers in the process. The sum is the equivalent of 20 years’ salary for someone in rural Vietnam.

The media is well-schooled in the collection of such stories, to provoke in their readers a compelling combination of vicarious horror — “There but for the grace of God” — and a visceral sympathy for the bereaved. But it is hard not to contrast this with the way in which the same newspapers would have handled the story had the 39 migrants been alive when the container doors were opened — and its occupants escaped into the night or were intercepted by the British authorities.

Then, there would have been no sympathy-inducing details. Instead, these same newspapers would have called for ever-harsher controls to prevent such people coming to steal our jobs and homes and overcrowd our schools and hospitals. It is hard not to wonder at the lack of moral imagination which allows us to indulge in such displays of sympathy for the dead and such pitiless disregard of the living.

Too often, we do not want to know about the stark choice between a desperate life in a place where a rice farmer is lucky to make £100 a year from his field — and where there is a huge surplus of labour — and taking the gamble of trying to find a better life elsewhere. Other migrants are fleeing not just poverty, but political repression and environmental and man-made disasters.

Nor are we, as a society, much exercised about the migrants who do make it here, but then find themselves in the clutches of ruthless traffickers who hold them in a barely veiled bondage, beneath our noses, in the car washes, nail bars, restaurants, and nocturnal cleaning services that support our daily lives without our noticing. Of course, we should shed a tear for those who have died. But sometimes tears are not enough.

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