Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
WASHINGTON, DC, June 27, 2000 --
Every once in a while, the press stumbles upon an event that illuminates the horrors facing international migrants. Such an event happened last week, when a British customs inspector opened a tractor trailer in Dover to find a gruesome display of 58 dead bodies strewn amongst crates of imported tomatoes.1 Lying with the dead were two men who lived to tell the terrifying tale.
The 60 would-be migrants -- 58 men and two women -- had set out from impoverished southern China in search of a better life in Europe. A group of Chinese migrants matching this description had been briefly detained in Belgium, and photographed by television news waving and smiling.2 To get to Britain, however, they still had to cross the Channel. On a barge bound for Dover, they hid locked inside a refrigerated truck to avoid detection by British authorities. Then the refrigeration stopped. On one of the hottest days in Europe, the migrants faced little chance of survival.3
But the tragedy for the families of the victims, many of whom were from the southern Chinese city of Changle, was only beginning. Under pressure from Western governments to stop their people from moving to Europe and America, authorities from the Chinese totalitarian government flooded the city with hundreds of police to interrogate the families of suspected migrants. Western reporters who tried to reach the scene were detained and forced to leave the country.4
The response from Europe's governments has been to point a finger at the alleged smugglers. The driver of the truck was arrested in Britain, and two others, including a trucking company official, were arrested in the Netherlands.5,6 British Home Secretary Jack Straw, railed against the smugglers in Parliament, calling their business a "profoundly evil trade."7
While the smugglers may be guilty of reckless behavior, the truly profound evil behind these deaths lies within the British government and its shamefully restrictive immigration policies. The people who died in the truck had done nothing to hurt anyone. They were merely trying to move to Britain, where they would likely take menial jobs in restaurants and small factories. Had the migrants traveled openly across the Channel without hiding in the truck, they would have been arrested by British authorities, and dragged back to their desperately impoverished homeland. It was fear of this terrible fate at the hands of British authorities that the migrants made the tragic decision to hide in the truck.
Sadly, British authorities are not uniquely guilty. Chinese migrants have often been found dead in container ships in other parts of the West, including the United States and Europe. The cause of death in each case has been the restrictive immigration policies that prevent migrants from arriving legally.
It is difficult for most Westerners to understand the lengths to which people will go to win the freedoms and opportunities they take for granted. At the time of the last great wave of human migration a century ago, people had to hear about opportunities for a better life by distant word of mouth. Today, they witness it firsthand on television. When a man living in a dirt-floored shack with no hope for improving his life sees people half a world away living comfortably with material riches and ample opportunity, nobody should fault him for trying to enhance his destiny.
The real question is, why would people -- and especially governments -- try to stop him? The usual argument is about protecting jobs and national identities. Low-skilled workers often fear competition from immigrants, and many people fear that others who do not embrace their language and culture will overrun them. While both positions are understandable on the surface, they often degrade into ugly manifestations like economic nationalism and xenophobic repression. Even in their more benign forms, these viewpoints do not justify arresting and deporting migrants, or allowing them to die by the dozens in trucks or container ships.
Under proper conditions, human migration leads to good things for both migrants and host societies. Few today would argue that the free immigration policies in the United States that led up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were a mistake. On the other side of the world, it was descendants of immigrants from Southern China that form most of the population of Singapore -- one of the wealthiest and most productive cities in the world.
That Western governments are willing to let hundreds of people die each year trying to get through their fortified borders is a terrible disgrace. Rather than target the "smugglers" who help migrants get to their desired destinations, governments should open their borders to make the legitimate need for human smuggling obsolete.
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Lessons of the Conquistadors, April 4, 2000
1. The Economist, The last frontier , June 24, 2000
2. The Washington Post, Dutch Arrest Third Man in Deaths of Immigrants on Truck, June 21, 2000
3. The Economist, Ibid.
4. The Associated Press, Chinese Migrant Families Fear Worst , June 23, 2000
5. The Washington Post, Driver Charged in Immigrants' Deaths, June 23, 2000
6. The Washington Post, Dutch Arrest Third Man in Deaths of Immigrants on Truck, June 21, 2000
7. The Washington Post, 58 Dead in Truck in Britain, June 20,2000