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Western Press Review: Disaster At Dover

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The discovery yesterday of 58 dead bodies in a container truck in Dover -- one of Britain's main entry points -- has evoked a wave of commentary in the West European press. The dead, plus two others who survived the ordeal, were mostly Asians, thought to be illegal immigrants from China. Analysts discuss the implications of the tragedy for Britain and other Western countries' immigration policies and means of avoiding similar incidents in the future.


Four British dailies carry comments on the disaster at Dover. The Times says that the tragedy should prompt what it calls "fresh thinking on immigration" both in Britain and elsewhere. The paper writes: "The issue here is not whether the dead were refugees or economic migrants. It is that they died as victims of the international 'snakehead' trade in human cargo which has grown into a racket worth up to an estimated 7,500 million (7.5 billion) dollars a year worldwide."

The editorial urges both tighter control on the heavy flow of illegal immigrants to Britain and a re-examination of the country's immigration policy -- "or rather," it says, "its lack of one." Official British policy today, it adds, "virtually forces migration to be clandestine [while] the U.S. and Canada have highly effective visa programs to attract skilled manpower." It concludes: "Dover's tragic cargo should prompt more rational debate on immigration."


In its editorial, the Financial Times writes: "The business of trafficking immigrants is a large and profitable one. Hundreds of stowaways are found hiding on trucks entering Britain every week. Ironically," the paper goes on, "yesterday's tragedy occurred only weeks after new [tougher] measures had been introduced to tackle the problem. Fines are now imposed on truck drivers found to be carrying illegal entrants."

The new regulations, the editorial argues, "could partly account for a fall in the number of clandestine immigrants. Making it more difficult to get through the checks, though, will not stop the business of human trafficking -- it may only drive it further underground." The paper urges West European governments to reconsider their immigration policies to see if there are more civilized ways of controlling the flow of people across borders.

But the editorial also acknowledges what it calls "a major obstacle" to making West European immigration laws more humane. It describes the obstacle as "the climate of fear in Europe [today], based on a misplaced belief that any loosening of immigration laws will lead to a 'flood' of asylum seekers, at huge cost to taxpayers. In fact," the paper argues, "immigrants have generally been a very positive force for economic development -- the U.S. is proof enough of that."


The conservative Daily Telegraph and the liberal Guardian disagree on what the discovery at Dover means for British asylum policy. The Daily Telegraph says in an editorial that it represents "a salutary warning to those who want Britain, like most of our European Union partners, to lift internal frontier, passport, customs and immigration controls [as called for in the EU's 1997] Amsterdam Treaty."

Yet, the paper continues, "the asylum lobby has been quick to exploit this macabre incident to argue that Britain's immigration and asylum regime is too strict. The truth," the editorial says, "is, if anything, the reverse. On the reasonable assumption that these unfortunate people were among the estimated weekly total of 250 Chinese illegal immigrants, it is clear that a looser policy would only encourage even larger numbers to trek across two continents."

For the paper, "the root cause of the problem lies in the communist system itself. The Iron Curtain has lifted in Europe, but not in the Far East," it says. "Three-quarters of those who lived in communist states until 1989 are still under the same tyranny, the vast majority of them in mainland China." The editorial sums up: "It is only human to desire life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it would be inhumane to encourage anybody to undertake the hazardous journey which, for 58 individuals, ended yesterday in a black hole at Dover."


In the Guardian daily, commentator Alan Travis sees the matter quite differently. He urges what he calls "a more flexible immigration policy [that] would boost [Britain's] economy and stop people dying in the backs of [trucks]." Such tragedies, he goes on, "will continue until a better way of handling these migration flows is found. Politically," he admits, "it is difficult. Immigration has to be reinvented as a positive force and a way of reinvigorating our economy, culture and traditions in each generation, as it is in [the U.S.], Australia and Canada."

What, Travis asks, "would a new comprehensive immigration policy for the era of globalization in the 21st century look like? A policy of no immigration controls," he says, "would soon see any government in power turned out of office. But a policy of opening the door could undermine the clandestine trade and be in Britain's economic interests." Travis concludes: "The tide of migrants will continue to flow. The question is whether death while in the hands of criminal traffickers should be regarded as a normal part of life in the 21st century."


In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Wolfgang Roth warns that, in his words, "stricter laws only boost illegal immigration to Europe." He says: "The men behind the scenes [of the Dover tragedy] are the guilty ones, but their business thrives under conditions created by ever-more stringent asylum laws and asylum procedures in Europe."

His commentary goes on: "The more refugees' chances of successfully claiming asylum in Western Europe diminish, the more likely they are to try to enter illegally. Cutting Europe off to the rest of the world is not the answer to the problem," Roth argues. "There has to be a solution between the two [present] extremes -- an endlessly long asylum process with many court hearings, and a classification system that arbitrarily lumps people together according to their countries of origin. European states," he concludes, "should pursue this third way together."


Denmark's daily Information writes in an editorial: "Once upon a time, people who tried to flee from the East to the West got shot at the Berlin Wall. Today, there are other borders where people die, under different circumstances, in their search for economic prosperity and a better life. It is again a flight from the East to the West, sometimes from the South to the North. But," the paper says, "the results are the same."

The editorial continues: "Some 2,000 people have died since 1993 in their attempts to reach what increasingly looks like 'Fortress Europe.' Their tragedies," it says, "are symptomatic of a widespread problem in both the West and the East. The unchanging gap between the rich and the poor countries creates a permanent motivation for [Eastern] migration and a constant pressure on [Western] governments to erect ever less penetrable walls around their countries."

The paper also says: "It would be wise for West European countries to systematically reconsider their immigration policies and begin to perceive immigrants not merely as welfare sponges, but also as a huge economic potential, as is the case in the U.S." It adds: "There is a moral dimension as well. Only a few decades ago, Western Europe did encourage people [whom it needed for labor] to come to their countries -- and then without any danger to their lives."


In France, the daily Liberation wonders in an editorial what can be done to prevent such incidents in the future: "More severe punishment for the traffickers in human flesh?" it asks. "Of course. Greater control of European frontiers and ports? Certainly," it says, "but that's easier to say than to do."

The editorial goes on: "It's easy to stigmatize 'Fortress Europe' for closing its ports and increasing the risks for clandestine migrants. But," it points out, "it should be acknowledged what that means for the West -- notably, in the case of China, where potential candidates for emigration can be counted in the tens of millions."

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, the paper recalls, liked to ask his Western visitors who complained about Beijing's human-rights abuses: "Are you ready to receive 300 million Chinese?" Generally, the editorial concludes, "the conversation went no further."


Finally, the Wall Street Journal Europe writes in its editorial: "This calamity at Dover is far from an isolated case. It is a story, with few differences, that has been repeated on the shores of Hong Kong, Yokohama, Vancouver, Long Beach [California], and other ports at the edges of the developed world. Human smuggling." the paper says, "is an international business, which suggests that [anti-immigration moves by Britain] will have little effect."

The paper says further: "Government officials in [Britain], the U.S. and elsewhere shrug and say that these Chinese are simply 'economic migrants.' The lives [of those found at Dover] were tragically wasted, but immigration laws safeguard a rich country from being swamped by a poor one. We cannot bend the law for every hardship case, [officials] say, or we will have no law."

But the editorial argues: "The real tragedy is the law itself. Its severity makes human smuggling possible and profitable. Tougher laws and stricter enforcement haven't had much effect and are unlikely to do so in the future." The paper concludes: "The governments of the West should not bend their current immigration laws, but write new ones -- or be prepared to search for the desperate and the dead in every truck [that arrives]."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)