It is not known how many illegal migrants there are in Britain. Some estimates put them at around 650,000 +/- 200,000! What is clear, however is that people will take huge risks to enter the UK in search of work. What is also clear is that security has been tightened at the main ports and that smugglers have switched to other ports. For example, at Dover lorries may be searched with the use of x-rays, dogs, carbon dioxide sniffers and heartbeat monitors whereas as smaller ports, such as Purfleet, there is far less surveillance. In Europe, it is estimated that only 1% of sealed containers are x-rayed and none are checked for heat from hidden migrants. Yet, up to 7,000 containers pass through Zeebrugge daily. According to the National Crime Agency smugglers are getting more ruthless and sophisticated.

There have been a number of tragedies in the smuggling of people. In 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in a lorry that had travelled to Dover. Tragedies are not confined to the UK – in 2008 54 Myanmar migrants were discovered dead when the air-conditioning in a seafood container failed in Thailand, and in 2015 Australian police found an abandoned lorry with 71 refugees that had suffocated. The refugees were from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

In October 2019, 39 people were found dead in the back of a lorry in Gray’s Essex. The tragedy involved a number of Vietnamese economic migrants in search of work. There is a growing problem of Vietnamese children and young adults being smuggled/trafficked into the UK. Some boys have been forced to work on cannabis farms whereas girls and young women more frequently end up in nail bars. Not all are trafficked. Many are very willing to travel to the UK and will pay a people smuggler to organise the journey and find employment for them.

The cost of reaching the UK from Vietnam can vary from about £8,000 to £30,000. Even for those who reach the UK and find a job, their families back in Vietnam may be heavily in debt to the smugglers and may remain in debt bondage for many years or decades.

People who are fleeing the threat of murder, rape or torture cannot claim asylum (refugee status) in Britain unless they have already reached Britain (apart from a limited number of Syrian refugees as part of a resettlement programme). This is, in part, forcing some would-be refugees to undertake life-threatening journeys to reach the UK and other destinations.


More information:
Precarious journeys – a report published by anti-slavery charities