Architecture of Exclusion

Christopher Bertram

Three weeks ago I wrote about the deaths of the 39 people found in a container in Grays, Essex on 23 October. Initial speculation had been that the victims had come from countries in the Middle East, but the police quickly announced that they were Chinese nationals. Now we know that this too was incorrect, and that the dead all came from Vietnam. The parents of Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh province, released her last text message, fearing she might be among the victims. Other families came forward. The police published a complete list of the dead on Friday.

They were young people, as those who risk dangerous journeys usually are. The oldest was 44. Ten of them were teenagers and two were only 15. Most came from two provinces, Ha Tinh and Nghe An. Ha Tinh in particular is a place of poverty, where already meagre opportunities were further reduced in 2016, when pollution from a plant owned by Formosa Steel caused the near destruction of the local fishing industry.

Responses by UK politicians and journalists have overwhelmingly centred on ‘human trafficking’ and exploitation, including sexual exploitation. Even those who have a record supportive of migration, such as Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, responded to the deaths by calling for increased security. The young men and women who made this fatal journey across continents have been instrumentalised in support of a moralised agenda of crime and security in which the ‘obvious’ solution is to increase the powers and resources of border guards.

They deserve better than this. There is no evidence that they were duped or coerced into travelling. They made a choice to risk a dangerous journey to make money in the West. Some of them had done it before. The reason it’s dangerous is that there is no possibility of poor people from poor countries making such a journey legally. Wealthy countries, including the UK, have built an architecture of exclusion that reaches far beyond our borders to prevent the unwanted from accessing our economies and the opportunities they offer.

Our governments deny visas to people from the wrong places, places that are often identified by the fact that their inhabitants are likely to have good reasons to flee from them. We collaborate with countries whose lack of human rights laws leave them freer to coerce travellers than Western states are. Airlines and shipping companies monitor would-be passengers and, for fear of financial penalties, exclude those likely to be unwelcome at their chosen destination. Our border personnel are stationed on the territory of states that either feel compelled to go along with our wishes or are bribed to do so.

But as with other activities that our states don’t want people to engage in – such as the consumption of illegal drugs – there is a market for evasion and there are entrepreneurs willing to provide a service, at a price. Individuals cannot hope to make the journey without the expertise and resources that smugglers have. The price is high because the activity is criminal, but people are willing to pay it because their prospects are dismal otherwise. Relatives are willing to chip in, in the hope of remittances in the future. Those who can’t pay up front may instead incur a debt, to be discharged through work at their destination. And some of that work is unpleasant or immoral.

People smuggling is a business of large and complex networks. It requires money, specialist personnel, intelligence, advertising, corruption of officials and coercive force. It involves disciplining the cargo and being willing to lose some of it if necessary. Some of the participants are the evil and unscrupulous masterminds of the politician’s imagination; others are ordinary people, sometimes migrants themselves, playing a tiny role in an extensive division of labour. Such businesses exist because the obstacles we have placed to free movement mean they are the only way that some people can escape their persecutors or, like Pham Thi Tra My, hope to realise their ambitions.


  • 12 November 2019 at 7:38am
    FoolCount says:
    Exclusion? I am not sure what is being suggested here. Letting everyone in easily, I presume? There are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the world who would move to a Western country tomorrow, if told that they could do so. Leaving aside the devastating effect that would have on their native countries, are we prepared to accommodate all those migrants in our midst? Don't we have too many already even with visas being hard to get? No, the only way to save all those victims of human trafficking is to apply the Australian model and remove any possibility of successful illegal migration.

    • 12 November 2019 at 9:27am
      farthington says: @ FoolCount
      The Australian 'model' is otherwise.
      Those who come by boat are turned back.
      Save for those in offshore concentration camps being tortured, going mad and dying.
      (A handful have been accepted in other countries.)
      Those who come by plane, now arriving in droves, are readily
      There is also a large scale student visa rorting aimed at longterm residency that vastly overshadows any would-be boat arrivals.
      There appears to be a racial/ethnic profiling in the admittances but nobody in authority is owning up.
      Don't look for a rationale from those in the current federal government, probably the most wretched cabal in Australian political history.

  • 12 November 2019 at 11:25am
    staberinde says:
    Nothing new here, unfortunately.

    We've heard the utopian 'no borders' argument before, but the flaws remain unaddressed.

    Imagined communities are defined by their members, and if membership is open to all then those imagined communities will change. The fact that many members of a particular imagined community would prefer it not to change is irrelevant to the borderless utopians. And then they grumble at nationalism, as if it isn't a response to perceived threats to imagined communities.

    The utopians also tend to blame mass migration on wars, unfair trade and climate change - fair enough. But they ignore the reality of unpleasant regimes which restrict freedom, pollute their own environments, torture and discriminate. "Don't intervene!" they cry, "Just take as many as can escape." Russia has realised that creating a huge refugee problem on Europe's borders is a very good way to destabilise its rival.

    I find it interesting that many of the people who argue against the precariousness of economic life, from the gig economy to the lack of rights for renters are somehow also able to advocate for cultural precariousness. As if one is an incontestable good and the other is not.

    As the son of a migrant, see migration as a good thing. But we must surely also view disruption as a bad thing. Large scale migration over short time periods is disruptive, and surely requires us to manage migration better (for example, matching the supply of local services to increased demand), adopt a target and create a long-term strategy which all major parties can get behind (if Left and Right can agree to cede monetary policy to an independent central bank, why not something similar for migration policy?)

    This borderless utopianism is a best nothing more than emotional hand-wringing and at worst an attempt to undermine established and cherished culture. It's the least helpful argument one could actually make for migration, and I do wish people would stop.

  • 12 November 2019 at 4:13pm
    Graucho says:
    Can't help reflecting that 1st nation or native or whatever the currently acceptable term is Indians probably wish that they had banished European boat people to a concentration camp on some remote island. Being world class experts in settling en masse in other people's abodes for a better life we know what it leads to and hence are fearful of it.

  • 13 November 2019 at 6:54pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    Open Borders, Open Shop.
    I would prefer, when reading a writer nominally on the left, something other than the libertarian argument for open immigration.

  • 19 November 2019 at 6:21pm
    Petalyn Albert says:
    Although this piece may appear on the surface to point toward a pro Utopian ‘solution’, I must have missed the part where the writer actually said that. What I did read among the set-up of his case, were these very key words:
    “ But as with other activities that our states don’t want people to engage in – such as the consumption of illegal drugs – there is a market for evasion and there are entrepreneurs willing to provide a service, at a price.”
    This is the key to every crime against humanity and the environment. And until we all begin to own up to the facts of our (all too human) nature, we are all culpable. The issues aren’t someone else’s fault or caused by some system we can ‘exclude’ from ourselves. The problem is in our nature. As big a problem to unravel as we each see that it is, I believe it is even deeper than the systems in place. It is in how we, as a species, define ourselves and believe ourselves to own the rights to. Among the most pivotal of issues is the increasing gap between what we can do (because we can) and what we are willing to take responsibility for. I’d love to see where that conversation leads over significant time to get somewhere with it. Likely not in one lifetime.

  • 19 November 2019 at 9:39pm
    Sixtyniner says:
    Where are the ‘freedom’ conservatives? Free enterprise, free trade, free speech etc? Why not freedom of movement to travel where you think you might get a better shake in life? That’s freedom.

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