The devastating events of last month in Essex involving the deaths of 39 people traveling in the back of a lorry have generated an onslaught of commentary concerning the current state of migrant smuggling from Europe into the UK. Most of this reporting has justifiably focused on the people who died and the impact of their loss on their families. Many academics and policy experts have also spoken at length about the deaths in the context of border security and immigration controls, poignantly articulating how clandestine travel often constitutes the only option available to those with no other legal, safe or dignified paths to travel.
Unfortunately, many of the more critical articulations have become a mere backdrop to the harrowing but cliché narratives and stereotypes concerning irregular migrants and smuggling facilitators that emerge after every single migrant-related accident of a similar magnitude occurs. In other words, the claims circulated in the media and in the political statements made in the aftermath of what have become all-too common incidents worldwide are by now nothing other than predictable.
Think of the claims of smuggling groups becoming increasingly sophisticated, constituted by secret, dangerous ethnic gangs –ranging from Bulgarian to Chinese to Irish mafias; of their emerging new and dangerous routes; of smuggling undergoing market adaptations and its actors’ ability to manipulate complex technological equipment. And of the terrifying accounts of migrant suffering labelling smugglers as inherently evil and immoral (a line that by reducing smuggling to moralistic terms further reduces the ability to engage in evidence-informed debate) and that depict their “human cargo” as naïve, desperate, vulnerable and racialized. (Think also here of how the claim of the victims being “Chinese” had to be embarrassingly amended as reports of Vietnamese families coming forward looking for their loved ones began to emerge).