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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says he, too, will crack down on people smugglers and possibly have them classified as terrorists. That’s hyperbole designed to appeal to the so-called Red Wall, but it’s also misleading. The men piloting small boats with little outboard motors aren’t terrorists, and most are ‘’people smugglers’’ in the loosest sense. They’re mainly poor, hence the small and unreliable boats, and they’re disorganised.
That’s not to say that organised crime doesn’t traffic in human flesh. It does, mainly in young women and children, and occasionally male manual labour. These people don’t use small boats, they use airlines and corrupt officials in Europe and the UK – and sometimes trucks. These traffickers have money and live in considerable comfort from Lagos to London. They’re organised, with specific, terrible markets ranging from prostitution – essentially sex slaves – to exploitative labour in hard-to-police trades. Above all, they’re structured and sufficiently obscured from their vile trade to remain free.
They wouldn’t waste their time or money buying cheap rubber boats to ferry people across the channel for pennies in the pound. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, at least, know the small boats are owned by the same sort of people who got them to the African coast in the first place. The migrants’ journey through a succession of waiting rooms to nowhere is one of expedience, chaos and disorganisation. They rely on truckers and sailors who may, possibly, help them… occasionally for a small payment.
If it were gangs or organised crime shipping migrants across the Channel, stopping them would be far simpler. In fact, they’d have been stopped by now, or at least massively curtailed, because a gang is an ordered entity that can be infiltrated, monitored, and fought. Stopping random boats, with no organisational structure, no communication, and no hierarchy is next to impossible.
Illegal immigration is a problem mirrored across the world. Undocumented migrants trudge down the east coast of Africa heading for Johannesburg in their hundreds of thousands. Some cover unimaginable distances on foot, jumping borders and cadging food and water in countries where they don’t speak the language. Others are offered space under the tarpaulins of Africa’s ubiquitous 40-ton American trucks, sometimes for a token fee, sometimes for free. At borders, onlookers can watch in wry amusement at the devious ways drivers get them through if they know what to look for.
Some are caught, of course. On most days a visit to South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs office in the border towns of Musina or Komatipoort, you can see dozens, sometimes hundreds, of migrants gathered in the sweltering Lowveld heat. They’re not all African, either. Some might come from as far as Eastern Europe, or Thailand, China or Bangladesh. Their stories are heartbreaking, and many will eventually be flown home.
If you speak to the truckers carrying these migrants, they’ll invariably respond by saying, “They just want a better life,’’ or “They’re tired.’’ Even military patrols may leave them be, with one young South African lieutenant explaining, ‘’Maybe they just need food, maybe medicine. Life is hard where they come from.’’
But both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer leap to a different conclusion, assuming that everyone involved with these perilous routes is wicked and villainous, even that they should be burdened for life with the label ‘’terrorist.’’ It’s simply not true, not even for owners of small boats.
Of course, Britain can’t open its borders to all. We only make that demand of countries like Jordan and to an extent Turkey. But nor do we have to believe, still less state frankly, that they’re all felons. Most are everyday folk making do and some are motivated by compassion. Perhaps that’s hard to understand in countries governed so rigidly by the rule of law, but most migrants come from countries where the rule of law is a flexible beast, best avoided. They have no experience of rules-based government and plenty of experience foiling the government’s excesses.
Still, no matter the rhetoric or hyperbole coming from either party, no matter the promises to end illegal immigration, the discussion will be in the news for decades to come. Immigrants won’t stop trying because they have no reason to stop. Life here is comfortable and secure, but in a grotesquely unequal world, life, where they come from, is usually indescribably awful, a hardscrabble grind with no prospects or no end in sight.
If the West really wants to end migration, there is a solution: spend more money in the countries migrants are fleeing. It may be a slow solution, but it’s the only realistic option. No one flees home if there’s a reason to remain at home, they flee because the burden of survival is crushing.
And for their part, migrant rights organisations should also calm down a little. Complaining about the standard of migrant accommodation doesn’t help. The migrants have endured months, and even years, of sleeping rough. Many won’t have experienced sleeping on a mattress in their lives, so they really won’t mind if conditions are rough and ready. And of course, the press will find someone to complain, but for most, there’ll just be overwhelming relief. They’re tired beyond understanding and their only hope is that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t a waiting room to nowhere, but the end of the road