I was on the way to a friend Abdul’s UK citizenship ceremony, when I heard about the 39 people who had died inside a refrigerated trailer in Essex.
The horrific news was made especially poignant as Abdul came to the UK under a lorry as a teenager. It was a terrifying journey across the Channel which he survived by a miracle, but those 39 souls, as frightened and desperate as he was, did not.
At 1am on Wednesday, the lorry carrying the lost 39 reached its final destination in Grays. At 2pm Abdul became British.
The anguished last hours of those people’s lives are almost unimaginable, except to those who have come that way. As a 15-year-old, Abdul clung on to the gap above the wheel of the lorry that brought him so dangerously to safety.
Another asylum seeker, Ahmad Al Rashid, travelled inside several lorries, two of them refrigerated, on his way to the UK from Syria.
Inside one such Nestle lorry, after two hours of not moving, he and his seven companions began suffocating.
“I could see death coming with my own eyes,” says Ahmad, who remains deeply traumatised. “No air, nothing but the smell of death.”
Yesterday all he could think of was that moment – “the panic, the feeling that all we were left with was death”.
Eventually, the smugglers responded to the banging and shouting and let them out. But, of his entire journey from Syria, he says this was the closest he came to dying.
In another lorry he climbed into at Calais, he and other migrants were almost submerged in bread flour. It was in their lungs and eyes, and the lorry was in total darkness.
“For seven or eight hours, we didn’t move anywhere,” he says. “After 11 hours, a child started suffocating. We were knocking and knocking. Eventually the driver let us out.”
Their journey was for nothing because the lorry had gone not north but south. “We weren’t in the UK but on the Italian border,” he says. “It was the wrong lorry.”
Ahmad eventually paid $15,000 to travel from Germany to Hull, where Britain gave him asylum and where he has been able to bring his wife and precious children from war-torn hell.
Every time we hear of deaths in lorries or from dinghies on the wild seas, people ask what on earth could propel people to make such journeys.
Maybe it should be enough to know that getting on a flimsy dinghy or into a frozen lorry seemed a better option.
In Ahmad’s case, ISIS had come to his town near Aleppo and beheaded people and left their heads as warnings. A critic of the regime, he had fled to Iraq where he used his skills as an English graduate to work for the UN.
But then Mosul fell to ISIS. They poisoned the wells with bodies and beheaded anyone who argued.
“Babies were born dead from lack of water and thrown away,” he says.
Ahmad fled to Turkey where he bought safe passage on a ‘luxury yacht’ in Izmir. Except, of course, it wasn’t a luxury yacht, but a flimsy dinghy crowded with men, women and children.
Somehow, he survived to Greece, then to Marseilles, then to Calais. Then the terrible detour to the Italian border and on to Germany and Hull.
In my friend Abdul’s case, his village in Darfur was burned to the ground by the Janjaweed, killing his parents. His journey as a child took him through the failed state of Chad, the war in Libya and destitution in France.
There are refugees with versions of this story in every town in the UK, some now in safety. Some live on the streets because they are so afraid of being locked up.
We don’t yet know the stories of those in that desperate lorry. It appears they may have come from China where human rights abuses are amongst the worst in the world.
But we know that whatever they were escaping from felt worse than climbing into a refrigerated container and taking their chance against the traffickers and the cold.
We believe they froze to death, and that the good people of the emergency services will never forget the experience of respectfully gathering their last remains.
The answer to this tragedy is not to harden our borders, but to ask what more we could be doing to promote human rights and peace in the world. And to ask why the prosperous, safe UK took only 1% of refugees through safe and legal routes last year.
As Ahmad says: “We are the same people. We have the same heart.”
Our hostile environment has utterly failed. Failed to cut immigration, and on every humanitarian measure. It has torn apart families, stained the UK’s reputation, and turned us into a failed fortress.
Both Ahmad and Abdul may one day go back to lead their countries out of darkness. But in the meantime, they are lucky to be alive, and Britain is lucky to have them.
This refrigerated tomb should be like a bomb going off at the epicentre of our immigration policy.
One that reveals our nation’s legendary heart.
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