As 35 stowaways are found in a shipping container in Essex, David Blair and Harriet Alexander examine the lengths to which desperate immigrants will go
When strangled cries and frantic knocks betrayed the presence of 35 desperate people inside a shipping container at Tilbury Docks yesterday, Essex Police were quick to declare a “major incident”. And they were right: one man was pronounced dead at the scene; all of the other stowaways, including women and children, were sufficiently tormented by thirst and cold to be rushed to hospital.
This is the season when countless thousands take advantage of long summer days and relatively calm seas to try a Mediterranean crossing in flimsy wooden boats. We might be shaken by the thought of frightened people trapped inside a sealed container and driven to the edge of endurance by dehydration and hypothermia, but consider one appalling fact: the Italian navy and coastguard often pluck 1,000 migrants from sinking boats on a single day.
Shielded by our own moat in the form of the Channel, it is easy for us to forget that Europe is now the target of a seaborne migration that becomes bigger and more dangerous every year.
Experts have traced no fewer than seven established routes used by illegal migrants bound for Europe. The travellers are prepared to endure almost any hardship along the route in order to escape their homelands and reach the supposed opportunities presented by the streets of Paris, Berlin and, above all, London.
One such route runs across the western Mediterranean, taking fugitives from countries such as Algeria and Mali to the Spanish coast. Another starts on the shores of West Africa and ends on the tourist beaches of the Canary Islands, where the surviving fugitives can claim entry to the European Union.
But the most important route by far runs across the central Mediterranean. A small fleet of dhows and rudimentary motor boats, all controlled by people smugglers, plies the route between Libya and Italy. These ruthless operators make handsome profits by piling their passengers aboard leaking rust-buckets and dispatching them across the sea.
Tragically, more and more people are embarking on these desperate journeys. In 2000, about 20,000 migrants entered Europe illegally via all seven routes. By 2005, that total had doubled to 40,000. By last year, however, the number using the central Mediterranean crossing alone had reached 40,000. Meanwhile, another 25,000 made the journey through the eastern maritime corridor between Turkey and Greece.
In all, the illegal migration routes delivered almost 100,000 people to Europe in 2013 – a fivefold increase since the turn of the millennium.
For all the concern this understandably raises – and the policy conundrum that it represents – no one should forget that each arrival represents the story of an individual human being. Many of these tenacious people have shown remarkable courage, ingenuity and endurance to achieve their goal.
In Calais last week, a 28-year-old man who gave his name as Abdullah described how he had travelled all the way from Darfur, a war-torn region of western Sudan. “I want to go across to England,” he said, standing outside the empty recycling plant where about 100 other migrants, mainly from Sudan, now live illegally. “But it is so difficult. I tried last night, but it was raining and horrible. Others have told me about the dogs they use to search the vans. I thought it would be possible – but it’s not.”
Abdullah once eked out a living by selling shoes in Darfur. Then, like many others, he paid $2,000 (£1,200) to a trafficker who promised a safe passage to Europe. His remarkable 30-day journey took him across the Sahara to the Egyptian coast, travelling on foot and by lorry. Then he boarded a boat and was lucky to survive the journey across the central Mediterranean to Italy.
Today, Abdullah curses the smugglers who took his money and then wilfully risked his life. “They lied to me,” he says. “They said the boat would be big and safe, but it wasn’t. I thought I would die four times in that 10-day crossing. The food finished, then the water ran out.”
Tormented by thirst and hunger, Abdullah arrived on the Italian coast where he was fortunate to avoid being picked up and sent to a migrant reception camp. Instead, he was able to recover and continue his journey. “In Italy I got a train to the French border,” he said. Abdullah was stopped by the Italian police and taken off the train shortly before reaching the frontier. Again, he was lucky and the police chose to release him, allowing him to enter France on foot via an Alpine valley. “I slept on a beach in Nice, then got a train to Calais,” he said.
After all that suffering and endurance, however, Abdullah has given up on his original goal of settling in Britain. Daunted by the dangers and difficulties of crossing the Channel illegally, he now plans to apply for asylum in France. And he has come to regret his original decision to leave Sudan. The journey was “terrible,” he says. “If I’d have known, I never would have come.”
Time and again, migrants tell similar stories. Some regret that they ever left home, but many are willing to bear the utmost hardship in order to reach one country with a special allure. Of all the possible destinations in Europe, they want to come to Britain.
Why is that? The English language is a big part of the attraction. If a migrant speaks any European language, it will probably be English. The fact that large communities from Africa, the Middle East and Asia have already settled here is also an important reason. Then there is the undeniable appeal of Britain’s universal welfare system.
But the migrants themselves say that Britain is seen as one of the few European countries that still offers them a genuine welcome. One 27-year-old man, who gave his name as Salim, had spent three months journeying from Eritrea to Calais, travelling via Sudan, Libya and the central Mediterranean, before crossing to Italy and then reaching France.
More than anything else, he wanted this odyssey to end in Britain, where he hoped to study law. Asked why he was not tempted to stay in France and claim asylum there, Salim replied: “The schools are not as good.” As for what Britain might do to help him, he replied: “Open your borders: make it easier.”
If attractions such as good schools make the risks worthwhile, what are the push factors that impel migrants to board the Mediterranean’s motley flotillas? The fugitives come from a wide array of countries as far apart as Afghanistan, Syria and Mali. But one small nation with only six million people provides a hugely disproportionate share. Eritrea, an isolated dictatorship in the Horn of Africa, accounts for the biggest chunk of migrants on the central Mediterranean route. In the squatter camps of Calais, one Eritrean after another yearns for the chance to enter Britain.
The reason why so many will do almost anything to flee Eritrea can be simply stated: suffering under the rule of an iron-fisted dictator. President Isaias Afewerki, the tyrant in question, was memorably described by the US ambassador as “unhinged”, “cruel” and “defiant”.
This country is Africa’s version of North Korea and, like the Kim dynasty, Mr Isaias maintains his stranglehold on power by keeping Eritrea on a permanent war footing. Almost every adult is conscripted into the army or forced to perform compulsory labour of some kind. Today, one Eritrean in every 20 serves in the regular army or the reserve forces. If the same proportions applied to Britain, our Armed Forces would be over 3.2 million strong.
Instead of putting up with life in a country that amounts to a vast militarised prison camp, young Eritreans will do their utmost to leave. If that means walking across the Sahara and braving the Mediterranean in an open boat, so be it. For many, Mr Isaias’s rule is simply unbearable, no matter how perilous the alternatives.
Lina Johannes, a 33-year-old Eritrean, lives in a shelter in Calais with 85 other women. She left Mr Isaias’s domain 15 years ago and zig-zagged through Sudan, Syria and Greece before finally arriving in France. Like so many others, her highest goal is to live in Britain. “But we are living like animals here,” she said. “We have no job, no life.”
Yet for all the hardships of her current life, Ms Johannes has never been tempted to return home. “It’s bad here – but it’s worse there,” she said simply.
That sentence encapsulates the conundrum faced by Europe’s policy‑makers. The root causes of the ever-increasing flow of migrants are simply beyond the ability of our leaders to influence.
No matter what they do, the population of most African countries will continue to double every 25 years. That fact alone helps to explain why there are more and more young people who aspire to better their lives by moving to the rich world.
Raging civil wars are also a vital push factor. Until a few years ago, relatively few Syrians made the illegal journey to Europe. Since the onset of the insurrection against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, however, Syria has become the biggest provider of migrants along the Eastern Mediterranean route, with most of them washing up on the shores of Greece.
The inability of any Western government to end the bloodshed in Syria has become painfully obvious. Meanwhile, the advance of Islamic State in northern Iraq and the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of people may lead even more refugees to try their luck with the traffickers.
Whatever steps European governments might take to police the Mediterranean or restrict the availability of welfare benefits, they cannot change the obvious truth voiced by Ms Johannes. However harsh life may be for illegal arrivals in Europe, it will almost always be worse back at home.