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Human Traffickers and the Politics of Demonisation

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.


Consider, for example, the case of Cédric Herrou, a farmer from Breil-sur-Roya near the Franco-Italian border who has been arrested multiple times for assisting illegal immigrants from Africa cross into France. He did not do this for money; he did this to help other human beings reach a better life. He was prosecuted for human trafficking, but was acquitted by the Constitutional Council because it was recognised that he was acting on the principle of ‘solidarity’ and that individuals have the freedom to give humanitarian assistance to others regardless of whether they are in a country legally.


There is a modern Underground Railroad.


The person helping desperate people escape from extreme poverty at great risk to themselves and for no profit is not exactly the human smuggler that Patel presents to the British people, but it is the person who she would seek to imprison for life for nothing more than the ‘crime of solidarity’.


The Home Secretary seeks to paint illegal immigrants and those who help them as ‘queue-jumpers’ and ‘gangsters’, respectively. This reduces complex moral problems rooted in historical and ongoing injustices to simplistic soundbites for a puerile press.


It reminds me of a passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith describes a night at the cinema:


Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean… there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause.


This is an extreme manifestation of the current political narrative that dulls the mind and helps to salve the conscience of an indescribably wealthy country manifestly unwilling to live up to its obligations to help the world’s worst-off people while at the same time benefitting from the global economic system that foreseeably and avoidably immiserates people in their millions.

*The reader may object to my use of the term ‘illegal immigrant’. I use this term as a deliberate provocation. Terms like ‘irregular’ or ‘undocumented’ evade the moral importance of law breaking. They concede the ground to anti-immigration discourse without questioning whether some laws deserve to be respected. This is precisely the ground I choose to fight on.


Written by Dr. David Blunt


Dr. Gwilym David Blunt is an award-winning political philosopher and Lecturer in International Politics at City, University of London. Prior to joining City, he was a Temporary University Lecturer and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge, where he was also a fellow of Corpus Christi College.