Is the police a border force?

The discovery of 39 dead Vietnamese people in the back of a lorry Essex lorry deaths sent shock waves across the country hitting headlines for weeks. It highlighted the extreme lengths that people have been taking, looking for safety and sanctuary in the UK. Scenarios like these have been seen and repeated innumerable times across Europe. These events implore us to  reflect and consider what these events tell us about us, about oppression, about colonial legacies that continue to refuse to own its culpability.

Such deaths draw attention to the conditions that people are running from in their home countries – what is it that would invoke such desperation? What would make a person risk their lives and the lives of their children? To look upon the vast expanse of a blue sea or blink into the dark of a hot, cramped back of a truck and see their future there. It’s been documented but worth reiterating, loudly, that it’s events like climate disasters, global economic inequalities, wars funded by companies with government subsidies and tax breaks in the countries that people flee to. Most of the counties that people are moving from don’t make the weapons that are killing them.

A picture of two people walking towards the UK border control at Heathrow airport. The border guards await them in perspex booths. Lines are made from barriers, but there's no crowd to contain.

Sad events like this also do something else. It highlights the poor attempts by some media outlets to view this tragedy as faceless, victimless and not deserving of empathy. The immigrant narrative, at first devoid of names, described them as just dead bodies. The most important bit about that sentence is that they were dead. Not humans. Such coverage perpetuates the dehumanisation of already dehumanised Black and Brown lives. It actively discourages the traces of compassion and empathy that such situations should always stir.

Much of this coverage also conveniently put the blame solely on the driver and the trafficking world, much like the blaming of the individual man whose flat started the fire in Grenfell and not state-driven racist migration policies. However to really address the issue, we ought to look at the compounding factors that lead to these disasters. Like racism, classism and capitalism.

The portrayal and perception of Black and Brown communities as just numbers mean channels of travel from economically poorer countries, ex-colonies and the Global South to the Global North have been effectively shut down. Whilst the majority of European and North American citizens can travel freely and at their own convenience to the rest of the world. Corporations continue to exploit former colonies and territories of occupation, having emptied those countries, committed land grabs, imprisoned and tortured those that have dared to speak out. But the opportunity of travel is not reciprocated. Big business is involved in creating policies that make travel for some harder. The recent announcement of an introduction of tier system migration affirms the message that the UK wants rich and educated migrants.

This unfortunately means the problem will persist, blaming the traffickers is just sticking a plaster on a century’s old gaping wound, as opposed to acknowledging the root cause of the problem. Efforts could be put into exploring and addressing the reasons why people continue to risk their lives to enter territories that do not really value their lives.

Despite having the equality act, human rights legislation and all sorts of policies, it is clear that some communities are left behind, suffering in fear and silence. The Stop the Scan campaign is raising awareness and resisting this form of the Hostile environment whereby police forces around the country are using mobile biometrics fingerprint scans that have access to the home office migration and criminal records. This means communities are afraid to engage with the police even when they need help, protection from  abuse, violence  or hate crime. This situation was highlighted not long after the Grenfell tower Fire when communities in fear of authorities were unwilling to come forward. The fear of the authorities meant we couldn’t quickly count our dead, we couldn’t grieve. Perhaps if there was less fear we would quickly know the 39 who were as young as 15 and as old as 44 who were sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.

A UK Metropolitan police van in motion, lights flashing.

A solution would be to detach migration border force roles/work from the police. Numerous enquiries have found them guilty of racism, how can this not impact on how they deal with Black and Brown migrant people. Other sectors have been involved in hostile environment delivery, health care, education, housing, driver licencing and the banks. Imagine being afraid to report a crime committed against you, to go to the GP? Crossing a border should not make you illegal.

A debt is owed to those countries that were underdeveloped to help build and make the West  rich. Global inequalities that stems from colonialism must be addressed alongside ways of readjusting that balance. It would involve a form of reparatory justice. We haven’t even begun to collectively think about that. It would mean treating ‘others’ as we would ourselves. It would mean seeing borders as defunct and not just another way of performing nationhood. It would mean no one could make money out of desperation. We can only hope.

Article by Penny Wangari-Jones @racejustice @yorkshireresists