WHEN DEATH is the result of smuggling immigrants across borders, is the root of the problem the smugglers or the laws that make immigration and human transport crimes?
British customs officers recently stumbled upon a poorly ventilated Dutch truck containing the bodies of 58 suffocated Chinese immigrants who had tried to enter England illegally. People all over the world condemned the smuggling of people as an appalling — and dangerous — trade. Both the Labor and the Conservative parties were quick to condemn as greedy and immoral the smugglers who illegally bring foreigners to British shores. Home Secretary Jack Straw stated that the smugglers “have no regard for human life.” Prime Minister Tony Blair said this tragedy proves the importance of eradicating the “evil trade in people.”
British ports along the English Channel are closely watched for illegal immigrants, much as the southern border of the United States is closely monitored for illegal entrants. At the British ports, drivers are fined the equivalent of $3,000 for every illegal immigrant brought into the country. Most asylum-seekers are denied entrance and are returned to their respective nations. Parliament is currently drafting legislation to facilitate the imprisonment and deportation of illegal residents trying to blend in.
Britain’s Immigration and Nationality Directorate says there are more than 20 groups involved in the lucrative people-smuggling trade. Many of the immigrants pay the equivalent of nearly $30,000 for the chance to enter England.
Given the risks involved, these syndicates offer expensive — and often dangerous — services common to black markets. Of course, this is not surprising: Whenever governments raise the stakes by increasing the difficulty of entering a country illegally, criminal groups take greater risks to achieve bigger financial gains. And there are always desperate immigrants willing to pay exorbitant black-market prices in the hope of improving their lives, even if they are gambling with their well-being and safety.
The Chinese immigrants who died were simply trying to enter England to forge a better life for themselves. As a result of the tightly enforced immigration controls, they had to take bigger risks than ordinary. They gambled and lost.
But who ultimately bears the moral responsibility here? Would the immigrants have died if they had entered England on a bus or a plane like ordinary people instead of like livestock in the back of a truck? Wouldn’t the tragedy have been avoided if the English government had treated immigrants as human beings, perhaps even as economic and cultural assets, rather than as wretched bilge rats?
While the English government continues to blame the smuggling industry for the deaths of the Chinese immigrants, perhaps it ought to reflect on its own culpability. In the absence of England’s restrictive immigration laws, there would be no incentive for what Blair refers to as the “trade in human misery.”
Of course, it isn’t fair to single out English immigration policies for criticism. The U.S. government treats illegal immigrants from Cuba, Mexico, China, and other countries the same way the English government does. Immigrants who have risked everything, including their lives, to seek a better way of life by contributing goods and services to our economy are incarcerated and repatriated.
While British and American lawmakers are busy casting blame and discussing how to thwart human smugglers, they would do well to recognize that the root of the problem lies with them — and the immigration laws they so proudly enforce.