Migration crisis: UK lorry deaths highlight trafficking risks

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

The discovery of 39 bodies in a refrigerated lorry in eastern England in October exposed the grim reality of the extreme risks many migrants are taking to reach the UK. The victims have since been identified as Vietnamese nationals; eight women and 31 men, including ten teenagers. The facts of the case are still being determined, but on 25 November, the lorry driver pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

The tragedy is similar to an incident in 2000 when 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in a lorry in Dover. Tom Tugendhat MP, Chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee said the latest incident in Essex should act as a ‘wake-up call to the Foreign Office and to Government’ and urged the government to ‘reassess its approach to irregular migration’.

Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, says these events demonstrate why the UK and other countries must remain vigilant to combat human trafficking. ‘It's an incredibly pernicious and persistent challenge and no country has defeated it, which means that we really have to double our efforts to get a grip on it,’ says Richey. ‘The fact that the same things are happening almost 20 years apart is an indicator that we have a lot of work to do still.’

Nicolas Rollason is Secretary of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and Head of Business Immigration at Kingsley Napley. He agrees that the incident points to underlying weaknesses in UK border controls. ‘What we’ve learnt from this latest event is there are weak spots in entry routes into the UK and those probably have been exploited for some time,’ he says. ‘It’s extremely concerning that the UK is being targeted by trafficking networks to bring effectively slave labour into the UK.’

That the same things are happening almost 20 years apart is an indicator that we have a lot of work to do still

Valiant Richey
OSCE Special Representative for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings

The potential scale of the problem in the UK is vast. The Pew Research Centre estimates there were between 800,000 and 1.2 million unauthorised immigrants living in the UK in 2017, making it one of the largest irregular migrant populations in Europe. Migrants, both undocumented and documented, regularly occupy lower skilled jobs in the UK. Rollason says the UK has increasingly become a ‘magnet’ for migrants, particularly those who arrive through lawful means but then overstay without a valid residence permit.

The problem arises, Richey says, when traffickers target migrants for either labour or sexual exploitation. ‘The issue here is that in migration flows people can be vulnerable and are often vulnerable due to the fact that they might be in a place where they don't speak the language,’ says Richey. ‘They might have irregular status or uncertain status. They might not have ready access to resources or to support. They may not be educated or might be poor. Traffickers will often take advantage of those vulnerabilities for their own exploitative purposes.’

The UK became the first country to pass legislation to combat modern slavery in 2015. Prosecutions for offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 have steadily increased, from 12 in 2015 to 130 prosecutions in 2017. However, trafficking prosecutions remain low: in 2017, there were only ten prosecutions for trafficking offences related to sexual exploitation and only one prosecution for a non-sexual exploitation trafficking offence.

Anne O’Donoghue, Chair of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee, says greater international efforts are needed to overcome trafficking. ‘There unquestionably needs to be a clear and collaborative plan to progress the combat against human trafficking and increase the protection of victims,’ she says. ‘Victims and their human rights should be placed at the core of the response to human trafficking.’

Felipe González Morales is UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. He believes the recent tragedy highlights more than ever the need for multilateral cooperation on migrant flows. ‘In addition to a full investigation and sanctions – which would send a message – I think that it is the time to take seriously the Global Compact on Migration, which is really an instrument to enhance regular migration so as to avoid the huge amounts of irregular migration, trafficking and so forth,’ says González Morales. ‘It's not that this is going to end from one day to another, but if states take seriously the Global Compact on Migration and establish the adequate channels for regular migration, this will help to have a better situation.’

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – the first-ever international agreement to establish a common approach to international migration – was signed by 164 states in December 2018. The UK was one of the signatories, but as the country prepares to leave the European Union there are growing concerns its departure could weaken international efforts to tackle the exploitation of migrants.

‘If the UK is not in the EU or the European Economic Area, it is not going to be able to participate in EU meetings [on migration], apart from potentially as an observer,’ says Rollason. ‘The EU may give the UK a seat at the table, but often the EU looks at the UK as a destination country for migrants. That’s definitely been true for a number of years. Once migrants arrive in the UK it’s not the EU’s problem.’

Richey maintains that the UK must continue to protect migrants from exploitation. ‘Whether the UK stays in the EU or leaves the EU, I would encourage the continued vigilance of attempting to monitor and identify potential victims in migration flows and ensure that they get the assistance that they need,’ he says. ‘I know that that's happening to some degree. It's just that it will have to continue happening regardless of whether the UK is in or out.’