Border barbarism: the case of Tilbury Docks

Meet Singh Kapoor and his travelling companions are the victims of a barbaric system of border controls, argues Matthew Carr.

(Tilbury Docks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
(Tilbury Docks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On 16 August a 40-year-old Afghan Sikh named Meet Singh Kapoor was found dead in a container at Tilbury Docks.  Kapoor was travelling with his wife and sons with a group of 35 migrants, including 13 children.  He died after spending 18 hours in the container, and an even greater tragedy was only averted because his 34 travelling companions screamed and banged loud enough to alert the port authorities.

The Tilbury incident recalled the horrific deaths of 58 Chinese migrants who died in the back of a container at Dover in 2000, and both events provoked a very similar official and media response.  Then, as now, migrants were portrayed as victims of unscrupulous human smugglers or ‘people traffickers’.    The Home Office described the Tilbury incident as ‘a reminder of the devastating human consequences of illegal migration and warned ‘those who are tempted to put their lives in the hands of organised smugglers, that they are putting themselves and their families at risk.’

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales also expressed its empathy with the ‘vulnerable’ people forced to flee Afghanistan, while simultaneously expressing its support for the Home Secretary ‘in her commitment to making Britain a hostile place for human traffickers.’   The Daily Mail – one of the most consistent and ardent proponents of tough immigration controls in the British red top press, described the ‘shocking’ conditions endured by the migrants during their journey to Tilbury via Zeebrugge.

There is no doubt that the individuals who exposed their migrant ‘cargo’ to such appalling risks  deserve to be condemned and punished, but there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy and bad faith about the moral outrage directed towards them.     Governments, police and immigration officials often attempt to convince the public – and themselves – that their attempts to restrict illegal immigration are a response to people trafficking, but migrants would clearly not pay exorbitant sums of money to come to Britain in the back of a container if there were another safer way of reaching their destination.

The British government has done everything possible to limit and close down these routes.   According to reports, the Afghan Sikhs at Tilbury are now asking for asylum.   It is not yet confirmed if they are who they say they are – undocumented migrants do sometimes adopt nationalities that are most likely to facilitate their claims.    There are some 3,000 Sikhs in Afghanistan, the marginalized remnants of a larger community that has gradually left the country during three decades of civil war and foreign invasion and occupation.     Even the Telegraph describes the Afghan Sikhs as ‘one of the world’s smallest and most vulnerable minorities’ in a report in Tilbury, yet asked why it was necessary for the migrants to claim asylum in the UK rather than in Afghanistan itself.

The answer is fairly straightforward: it is almost impossible to apply for asylum in Afghanistan, where the British embassy does not like to give visas even to Afghans who have worked as translators with British forces.    As a result the Sikhs at Tilbury were obliged to make the same dangerous and difficult journeys that all Afghans who want to reach Britain are obliged to make.

Far from making these journeys safer, British ‘toughness’ on migration and asylum is precisely what makes them so dangerous, and the more the government hardens its borders and expands its ability to enforce its controls, the more likely it is that migrants will seek help from networks like the one that brought the Afghan Sikhs to Tilbury, in order to overcome the obstacles placed in their path.

And far from wanting to eliminate these dangers or protect migrants from them, the UK has an active interest in seeing this gauntlet preserved and even intensified,  in the hope of preventing or at least restricting the level of undocumented migration.  Of course no government will admit to this.  Politicians and home office officials will always insist on Britain’s ‘proud tradition’ of offering sanctuary to those in need.  This tradition is not imaginary, but it is invariably invoked in order to conceal the brutal inhumanity of 21st century border enforcement, and the unacknowledged principle of deterrence that underpins it.

Today, the British government’s essential concern is not providing sanctuary, but with the exclusion and repression of unwanted ‘illegal’ Third World migrants, through the establishment of an array of paper walls and physical obstacles – even in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where Britain has acted militarily in order to ‘save’ their inhabitants through a reprise of nineteenth century liberal interventionism. Until recently, the UK was prepared to go to war with Syria, supposedly in order to protect its population from tyranny and violence, and government ministers continually emphasised the plight of Syrian refugees as a justification for military strikes.  Yet Syrians have also been forced to rely on people traffickers to get them to Calais and across the Channel illegally, because of Britain’s reluctance to offer them asylum.

Syrians, like Afghans and Iraqis before them, are worth saving, it seems, only as long as they stay in their own countries and as far away from ours as possible.   But if they attempt to reach ours ‘without permission’, then they too will become infiltrators and intruders ‘with no right to be here’, to whom we occasionally express sympathy or show empathy when tragedies like Tilbury make it possible to depict them as the exploited victims of people traffickers.

But the reality is that Meet Singh Kapoor was not just a victim of people traffickers, he was also a casualty of the border itself.   And there are many more like him.  Like the 800 migrants estimated by UNHCR to have died trying to reach Europe in the first six months of this year.  Or the 220 migrants who have drowned trying to reach Australia or killed themselves in Australian detention centres over the last two years.  Or the hundreds of Central American and Mexican migrants who die every year trying to penetrate the deadly US-Mexico border known as ‘la frontera.’   Or the five to ten Honduran children murdered since February after being deported from the United States.

Let no one pretend that all this is due to gangsters, criminal networks and criminal traffickers exploiting desperate migrants.   They are everyday, normalised atrocities of a barbaric world order that has been constructed over many years, in which capital has become ‘borderless’, in which citizens of rich countries and rich citizens of poor countries can go anywhere, in which borders have become walls, filters and nets for scooping up the world’s unwanted people, whether seeking work or protection, and the risk of death and injury has become part of the process of keeping them out.

Matthew Carr is the author of Fortress Europe: Despatches from a Gated Continent. He blogs at



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