As the number of people crossing the English Channel to enter Britain illegally grows, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has mooted life sentences for individuals convicted of human trafficking. The right-wing press was predictably jubilant about this hard stance on illegal immigration and, I imagine, many people would agree with her.
And why not?
The spectre conjured by the Home Secretary is detestable: the human trafficker is an exploiter, a gangster, a criminal, a slave-trader. They ought to be locked up and the key should be thrown in the Channel.
But is this phantasm based more in myth than reality? Or is it yet another pantomime villain invented to fuel the bilious monotony of tabloid outrage about illegal immigrants?
In my recent book I argued that those living in severe poverty are not simply the victims of bad luck or local cultures that don’t have a ‘good work ethic’; extreme poverty is produced by a global economic system that is rigged in favour of wealthy states and their citizens. It is an injustice that is comparable to a crime against humanity. People born into severe poverty have the right to resist a system that foreseeably and avoidably violates their basic rights.
Resistance can take on many different forms. We should not expect the global poor to take to the streets in the style of the French or Russian Revolutions. The imbalance of power is too great, but they can rely on what James C. Scott calls ‘the weapons of the weak’. These are practices that allow oppressed people to avoid and escape injustices.
Consider the example of Frederick Douglass, the great anti-slavery campaigner and political philosopher. He was born into slavery, abhorred his condition, but knew the only way he could oppose it was to escape to the free states in the North. He was assisted in this by members of the Underground Railroad and managed to reach freedom in New York.
Did he do anything wrong?
He certainly broke the law, but a law that makes people into property is not a law that commands respect or obedience. If you believe that the fugitive slave did nothing wrong by running away, then how can you say the person living in severe poverty does something wrong when they cross a border illegally?
By extension if you think that the members of the Underground Railroad did nothing wrong by helping fugitive slaves, then how can we support the Home Secretary’s wish to imprison those who help illegal immigrants for life?
You might say that doesn’t really characterise the human traffickers who help illegal immigrants. If the Underground Railroad delivered fugitive slaves into a worst condition of slavery, then it’s members would be morally repugnant. The same is true for people who exploit the desperation of people fleeing poverty or war to sell them into conditions of modern slavery. Certainly, we should not seek to lionise human traffickers. They are often tied to organised crime and especially to sexual exploitation of women and children.
But this is not the whole story.