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39 souls: trauma, memory, and rage at the UK's unjust border policies

Published on 24th October 2019

It took a few hours before Wednesday's news at finding 39 bodies in a refrigerated truck absorbed itself. I was on a bus, on my way to an event, running late. Not thinking. It wasn't until a message from a friend came about it - a friend who rarely bothers with the news so, when they do, you know it's serious - and how much it affects them.

Many of us who have worked in this field know people that came into the UK in the back of a lorry. Who have been called in the middle of the night by panicked friends telling us they are running out of oxygen, that they are too cold, that they can't breathe, that they haven't felt their baby kick for a while. That feeling of utter helplessness being sat at the end of the phone, calling the police, being reluctant to call the police, even though that is surely better than the alternative. 

I've been thinking lots about these 39, and I also think about those among us who have been left with trauma or vicarious trauma as a result of these experiences.

And, as well as horror, there are complicated feelings. Complicated because without lorries, most people we knew in camps in Northern France wouldn't have got to the UK. There was no other way. That knawing, scared, but also hopeful feeling when you knew that someone was going for 'try'. That the longer you hadn't heard from them, the more you hoped that no news was good news - sometimes it was. Other times, people ended up back at the camp hours, days later, having run out of phone battery, credit, food. Hope. 'No chance'. Life in a refugee camp without hope? That would be unliveable.

Lorries signified hope in a fucked up, terrible way that meant that smugglers were able to exploit, hurt and steal. That meant that parents medicated their children so they would sleep instead of cry. That meant that grown men and women wore nappies. We know how much money our friends paid to travel to the UK in such a dangerous, undignified and inhumane way.

Legality doesn't come into it. What is immoral is for the UK government to let people risk their lives to cross a border. And to then cry crocodile tears when the inevitable happens. In some parts of Europe, crossing borders happens almost without realisation. The Channel allows our politicians to make something as simple as applying for sanctuary in a country not just illegal, but a matter of life and death. *Everybody* has the right to apply for asylum in a safe country. That is an international human right.

If we need someone to blame for the state of our country, that fault doesn't lie with 39 bodies in the back of a refrigerated truck. It doesn't lie with those who believed us when we said 'Great Britain'.

Yes, the smugglers and the traffickers are guilty, but they are but a symptom of a rotten, unjust, racist system that decides who does and doesn't 'deserve' to come to these shores. A system that convenientally forgets the decades of colonialism, occupation, extractivism, arms sales, unfair trade rules and racist visa and border policies that lead to these moments.

Media giants reporting the news, and politicians commenting on the news, without context, will mean this urgent challenge to address these interconnected issues remains unheeded.


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