The tragic face of global migration

Barely getting any attention in the national media is the report about the grisly death of 39 people (8 women and 31 men), believed to be Chinese nationals, who appear to have been trapped inside a refrigerated trailer truck in an industrial zone in Essex, England. This has been a trending topic on Chinese social media since Oct. 22 when the frozen bodies were found by the Essex police. The initial reports, viewed by 800 million people and commented upon by 40,000 netizens, attest to the global newsworthiness of this tragedy.

The full picture of what happened is not yet available. But the details provided by daily police reports reveal a familiar pattern of human smuggling usually associated with desperate migrants fleeing from poverty-stricken and war-torn societies in the Middle East and North Africa.  Prosperous and economically resurgent China, which yearly sends out millions of cash-laden tourists to various parts of the world, is scarcely known nowadays as a source of economic refugees.

As one netizen wryly notes, echoing a common one-dimensional belief in China’s progress: “Life in China is quite good now. Why are people still choosing to be smuggled? Do they think everything is free in other countries?” Indeed, the last time something like this happened was 19 years ago, when 58 Chinese nationals died from suffocation inside a container van in the port of Dover, also in the United Kingdom. The Dover-to-Calais route, across the English Channel, links the British Isles to France and the rest of Europe, and is a favored route among travelers.

One cannot know how many attempts at human trafficking, employing long-haul cargo trucks and sealed container vans, have been successfully carried out in the last two decades. This latest incident shows that other more circuitous routes are now being used for the same purpose. Tracking data from a GPS device mounted on the rented refrigerated van, in which the 39 victims were trapped, indicate that the route taken was the sea crossing between Bruges in Belgium and Essex County in Southeast England. Essex is only about 40 miles from London.

The same GPS tracking information shows that the trailer made two trips between the United Kingdom and Europe, using the same route, from Oct. 16 to Oct. 22, the day the cargo of 39 human beings was illegally shipped to England. The question that is baffling investigators is whether the first trip was a dress rehearsal for the second, or was carrying another batch of illegal migrants.

Whoever is behind this heinous business clearly has the capability to tap services in at least four countries: Britain, Ireland, Belgium and France. Consider this: The trailer was rented from a trailer rental company based in Ireland. It was picked up by a truck driver from Northern Ireland and transported from Dublin (Ireland) to North Wales (United Kingdom), and from there to Europe (possibly Dunkirk in Northern France). From Dunkirk, it passed through Lille, another city in Northern France, before proceeding to nearby Bruges in the Flemish region of Belgium. The migrants may have been picked up and loaded into the trailer van somewhere in France or Belgium.

On its return trip, the trailer shipped out of Zeebrugge in Belgium on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 22, and arrived shortly after midnight in the port of Purfleet in Essex, England. After clearing customs and immigration, the driver brought the trailer containing his human cargo to the nearby Waterglade Industrial Park, where the journey was supposed to culminate. It was there that the 39 dead bodies were discovered a few hours later.

The 25-year-old driver of the cab, a freelance hauler, has been arrested and placed in custody. Chances are he may know only so much, given the typically compartmentalized nature of such operations. A human trafficking syndicate with an elaborate network of brokers and facilitators appears to be behind this scheme.

The breaking news on this tragedy—a macabre metaphor for globalization and its discontents—adds a new twist to this incident. Even as almost all of China has been glued to social media for the latest developments on these so-called “lorry deaths,” an anxious family in Vietnam gets a text from daughter Pham who, on Oct. 3, left for England via China and France.

The heartbreaking message read: “I’m sorry Dad and Mom. The way I went overseas was not successful. Mom, I love Dad and you so much. I’m dying because I can’t breathe. Mom, I am so sorry, Mom.” This was received at 4:28 a.m. Oct. 23, Vietnamese time (or 10:28 p.m. Oct. 22, British time), when the trailer van must have been at sea, on its way to England.

The family, according to Pham’s brother, had paid $38,000 for the trip that was supposed to bring her to Britain. The money may have been sourced from pooled savings or from the sale of property or, worse, from loan sharks. What it suggests is that it is not sheer poverty, so much as the quest for a better life, that drives this form of migration. Vietnam is not yet like China, but it is surely one of the better-performing economies in our region.

Global communication has brought the stark reality of gross inequality — across the world and within countries — to the consciousness of anyone who surfs the internet. That would include, most of all, the world’s young people and the stagnant middle class.  What is upon us is not just a new version of the “revolution of rising expectations” of an earlier era. What we are dealing with here is a mood or sensibility that is fueled by a strange blend of anticipation, of faith amid uncertainty, and of recklessness compounded by resentment. It is what drives this generation to protest or to flee.