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In Memory of the Essex 39

Matteo Baccaglini

October 23, 2020

“I’m so sorry Dad and Mom. The way I went overseas was not successful.”

We should struggle to forget the chilling last known words of 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My, texting her parents for the last time.

Four hours later, in the early hours of 23 October 2019, the East of England Ambulance Service opened the back of a refrigerated lorry in Grays, Essex. Inside they found the bodies of thirty-one men and eight women, including two fifteen-year-old boys, who had suffocated in the airtight container on their journey to Britain.

Pham’s family, which earned £300 a month, had re-mortgaged their home to pay £30,000 for Pham to be trafficked from her town in northern Vietnam to Britain. By leaving Vietnam, her family hoped that she would have a better chance at life in the developed world.

Her brother later revealed that Pham had been arrested a few days earlier in Britain and returned to France. Against her family’s pleas, Pham insisted that she would attempt the crossing again, for fear that her family could otherwise never repay their debt. Somewhere along the journey, everyone died.

As callous as it might seem to politicise or contextualise this terrible loss of life, the story of the Essex 39 is not unusual. One year on, over 6,500 migrants have already tried to cross the Channel in 2020. Globally, since 2014, more than 33,600 deaths due to migration have been recorded – though the real toll is likely to be much higher, given that the majority of migrant deaths escape registers. 

Nor was Pham’s story unavoidable. The senseless deaths of the Essex 39 remain a cruel reminder of the tragedy of borders. By preventing an open flow of people, borders punish and prevent migrants searching to improve their lot in life. In this way, borders exacerbate global inequality and entrench world poverty.

For many of the world’s poorest, moving somewhere they can command higher wages and a better quality of life can be an escape from poverty. In Britain, average salaries are seventeen times those in Vietnam. A hairdresser, by moving from Ho Chi Minh to London, can expect their annual salary to increase from £2,000 to £22,000.

The higher wages available in Britain are a signal that workers can provide more value to the global economy by working in Britain than they could elseewhere. By allowing the market to pair workers and employers together in this way, migration is a catalyst for productivity, ensuring that workers move where they are most needed. Every consumer benefits from the cheaper, higher-quality goods and services that result from this.

In fact, Michael Clemens, an economist at the Centre for Global Development, estimates that the world would be twice as rich if there were no barriers to migration.

As well as being more prosperous, a world without borders would be much freer. Not only do borders restrict the freedom of would-be migrants to live and work where they please, but they also inhibit the freedom of the domestic population. With borders, domestic employers that would hire migrants, domestic landlords that would rent to migrants, and domestic businesses that would sell to migrants are all inhibited from doing so, even when both the native and the would-be migrant would benefit from the trade.

It’s in this way that the age-old political justification for borders – that of the community asserting its rights to exclude – crumbles when the government imposes its own agenda over the free interactions of its citizens. A bureaucrat sitting in Whitehall has to second-guess industry demand and unreliably forecast the potential of each immigrant; they are unlikely to know and select correctly the immigrants that its citizens need the most. It’s better to let free movement match migrant and community.

Borders oppress the world’s poorest, with questionable benefits for the nation imposing the border. Where wars ravage, as in Syria, or natural disasters destroy, as in Haiti, or famines starve, as in sub-Saharan African, borders trap their faultless victims. It is a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale.

As the tragedy of the Essex 39 highlights, the harder the border, the greater the cost of human life. Horrifically, refrigerated lorries like the one used in Essex have become a vehicle of last resort because occupants can pass through thermal imaging cameras undetected. Pham’s story also highlights how the lack of easy migration pathways facilitates the human trafficking industry, preying on the vulnerabilities of desperate families like her own and racking up to 40.3 million victims worldwide.

It doesn’t have to be this way: behind every border is a country with political leaders that have made the choice to maintain one. Contrary to common belief, borders are a modern invention: they are a vestige of the nationalism and wartime central planning of the First World War.

Before the Edwardians, anyone could more or less move freely between countries. Many did: consider the 50,000 French Huguenot refugees that fled to London in 1685 and spurred a light industrial revolution in the textile industry; or take the 1.5 million Irish emigrants that escaped the Great Famine of the 1840s, who spearheaded the Victorian prosperity of northern England and who built America’s cities.

In today’s world, their cramped, unseaworthy boats would have been turned away just like we turn away those crossing the Mediterranean. Those lucky enough to survive the perilous journey would have been repatriated, and left to meet their fate in the place they had good reason to flee.

And, as the tragedy of the Essex 39 a year ago today shows, should they continue to flee oppression, poverty, or starvation, the borders will kill them anyway.

Written by Matteo Baccaglini

Matteo Baccaglini is a political commentator. He is a former president of the Oxford Hayek Society.

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