The horror of the recent discovery of 39 bodies of young Vietnamese citizens in a refrigerated truck at Purfleet in Essex, having crossed from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, raises a number of questions.
What conditions at home in Vietnam could possibly induce such apparently innocent people to leave their families and all they love – to undertake such a perilous journey at considerable cost (paid to criminal traffickers) – to particularly want to come to UK – why not stay in Belgium? But above all, to risk a completely uncertain future?
These are questions that Thriving Through Venture students were asking of ‘failed migrants’ in Marlborough’s link community of Gunjur in August 2019.
They were young men who had taken what they described as ‘the back way’ to Europe, but had reached Libya, only to be confronted by such appalling abuse and conflict that they had ‘turned tail’ and returned home to The Gambia.
Pa Sherriff Touray told us, as we sat together in Gunjur, that in 2016 he had sold land to pay the traffickers who provided trucks to transport migrants from Gambia, Senegal and Mali north across the Sahara.
On arrival in Libya and after five months in a refugee camp, he managed to board a dinghy on the coast of Libya – bound for Italy. The dinghy was designed for 30 people but had 96 people standing aboard as they left the Libyan beach.
He estimated that as, inevitably, conflict broke out as they crossed the Mediterranean, 35 people fell overboard. They were left to drown.
As for Pa Sherriff, having reached Saragosa in Sicily where his fingerprints were taken for future identification, he then travelled by bus to Florence where he successfully sought asylum in Italy.
But he really wanted to get to UK, and in trying to achieve that goal reached Austria, travelling overland, where, given his finger prints, he was told he should go back to Italy. However, he spent five months in a camp near Vienna and then moved to a camp nearer to the centre of the capital. Altogether he spent three and a half years in Austria. He was schooled there and learnt German.
Finally the Austrian Government forcibly deported him back to The Gambia. On his return home many welcomed him but others accused him of being a failure. He was left with no money. He has gone back to traditional farming near Gunjur.
Is there not a real irony that while some of us are desperate to leave the European Union and divorce ourselves from the international community, others from all over the world are equally desperate to come to UK which is seen as having ‘streets paved in gold’ and the reputation as one of the most welcoming countries in the world.
As refugees in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais reminded me when I worked there in 2016: “You welcomed the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and Hungarians following the invasion of that country by the Soviets in 1956. You welcomed Ugandan Asians fleeing the Idi Amin regime in that country in 1972 and the Vietnamese Boat People at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 – you have a reputation for being such welcoming people!”
Given the excellent and generous decision that was taken by UK Parliament in 2016 that 0.7 per cent of GDP should be spent on international development (the UK being the first country in the world to adopt this 1970 UN recommended figure), should not the question be raised as to what impact development aid is having on dissuading people to leave their countries of origin as irregular migrants seeking a better life in the UK?
Are we particularly targeting our development assistance on those countries from which migrants are fleeing?
We have had five Conservative International Development Secretaries in almost as many years, Justine Greening (2012), Priti Patel (2016), Penny Mordaunt (2017), Rory Stewart (2019) and then Alok Sharma (2019). This does not bode well for the development of long-term strategies to support those countries from which migrants are leaving to seek a better world.