The tragedy in Essex should prompt deep reflection on how we deal with the refugee crisis, writes
The day the bodies were found was unusually bright for December. The sun was stong in a clear sky.
We, the reporters, were kept back from the lorry, which was parked in Wexford Business Park, outside the town.
The customary features of a crime scene were there, lots of uniforms and yellow tape and the odd vehicle arriving with somebody getting out, ducking under the tape and engaging in conversation with a uniformed guard.
I had been dispatched down at short notice that morning from Dublin to report for the following day’s paper.
It was big news. A truck had been opened in the industrial park and bodies found inside. There were also reported to be survivors, some of them in a bad way.
There was in the air that day at that location a sense of unreality.
This was 2001, a time when issues around the “influx” of asylum seekers were exercising a lot of minds. Ireland was still a relatively new favoured destination of those fleeing war, famine and extreme poverty. Debate raged.
The term “pull factor” was in constant use, explaining why the country needed to get tough. A crowd called Immigration Platform was being given lots of airtime.
Some politicians spotted an opportunity to exploit.
And the country at large was coming to terms with its new status as a wealthy nation that was a beacon for those fleeing, just as other wealthy nations had been a beacon for fleeing generations of Irish people.
Here now was the real world arriving on our doorstep.
The death count was eight, including four children. They had suffocated in the container of household furniture, most likely on the crossing from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
The vehicle bringing them to a new life had been rendered a tomb.
Five more of these desperate people – all from Algeria and Turkey – had survived in the tomb. These people were witnesses to unspeakable horror.
It felt, in some respects, as if they had returned from the dead.
Later that day, the Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue, gave an impromptu press conference on the steps of Wexford Garda Station.
He looked thoroughly shook at what he had been confronted with.
Over the next week or so there was an outpouring of grief across the country.
In the Dail, from pulpits, on the airwaves, everybody was stunned at the arrival of such tragedy on our shores.
And then life moved on. The following year, the system of Direct Provision was introduced for asylum seekers. It was pitched as a temporary solution.
Nearly 18 years later another crossing from Zeebrugge has delivered another unspeakable tragedy.
Thirty-nine bodies were found on Wednesday morning in a refrigerated container in Grays, Essex.
What has changed?
The reaction from local people in Essex and even further afield is as shocked and empathetic as was the reaction in Wexford and beyond back in 2001.
“It doesn’t matter who they are or what they were, it’s thirty-nine lives,” one local person told The Irish Times.
Helen McEntee, the European Affairs Minister, was reported in the Irish Examiner as being visibly upset as she told the Dail.
“On the migrants issue, I find this quite upsetting. Where anybody dies in such a manner it’s a failure on all of us,” she said.
Boris Johnson described the discovery as “an unimaginable and truly heartbreaking tragedy”.
He said that those responsible “should be hunted down”.
From that we can take it that the capacity for basic human compassion in the immediate vicinity of tragedy hasn’t changed over the last eighteen years.
The people whom Boris Johnson wants to hunt down haven’t changed.
There will always be depraved individuals turning a buck by exploiting, or even condemning to death, the most vulnerable. People trafficking, like crime in general, will always be with us.
Every effort should be made to bring criminals to justice, but even if they are, others will fill their shoes.
The desperation of those fleeing hasn’t changed. If anything it’s got more pronounced. Despite the various tragedies that have emerged over the last two decades, despite the daily drownings in the Mediterranean, desperate people are still willing to risk their lives and those of their families to find a new beginning.
The Irish Refugee Council, reacting to last Wednesday’s discovery, referenced the plight of the desperate. “People seeking asylum are often compelled to take similar life-threatening journeys because of the clear absence of safe alternatives,” the council stated.
As new deals shut down routes and fences and walls go up, people are finding new ways and methods to reach places of safety.
The above statement also touches on what has changed over the last two decades. Attitudes in receptor countries are less welcome, more hostile, than they formerly were.
Donald Trump’s election triumph in 2016 was, to a large extent, built on exploiting fears of immigrants. Last month he announced that the USA is now taking fewer refugees than at any time since a refugee programme was first introduced in 1980.
Look at the UK. Brexit, the campaign slogan went, was about “taking back control”.
This was effectively shorthand for taking back control of borders, blaming the various ills that had infected large sections of the population on immigrants. Essex, where this week’s tragedy surfaced, voted in every one of its electoral districts for Brexit.
Johnson, who wants to hunt down those responsible, accepts no personal responsibility for the dog whistles that informed the campaign he led.
Germany and Angela Merkel also provide a salutary example of growing hostility to the plight of refugees. Merkel attempted to be as welcoming as possible.
Her actions accelerated her departure from politics.
This country has not been insulated from these bitter winds. The recent controversies over Direct Provision centres in this country have concerned resentment at lack of consultation, proportionality and the efficacy of the system.
But the issue has provided opportunity for those who want to spread hate about immigrants. The extent of their success is debatable but they require constant vigilance.
So it is that in a time of global flux, the wealthiest are turning inwards, turning away from the notion of a shared planet where the strong have obligations to the weak.
How is this going to work out when the tide of immigrants is inflated by climate change?
Will the wealthiest refuse to accept that we have mucked up the planet in which the poorest are bearing the greatest brunt of the catastrophe?
Immigration is shaping the twenty-first century. Dealing with it efficiently and fairly is a horrendously complex task.
But tackling it from a point where intolerance rather than responsibility, not to mention basic empathy, is the default position ensures that desperate people are going to get even more desperate. In such a milieu unspeakable tragedy is going to occur with far greater frequency.