We made the people-smugglers rich

Behind the Dover stowaway deaths lies a booming business, created by western politicians as surely a

Journalists are meant to ask five questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? The most basic of these is: What? What's happening? What's your name? What do you mean? And, in the case of the 60 who boarded a coffin lorry to Dover: what on earth drove them to do that? Basic questions can produce unpalatable answers. So, when the presenter of Radio 4's PM programme asked "What were they doing there?", he reached hastily for a reassuring conclusion: "The most likely explanation is that they were part of the human-trafficking trade." Tony Blair agreed. He was making sure that "this trade, which is an evil trade in human beings, is stamped out". The right-wing press had no problem with that but what struck this listener about the discussions of the greatest mass death on British soil since the Omagh bombing was the willingness of independent BBC and ITN commentators - who usually take each breaking news story as a prompt to harry and hypothesise - to let the politicians off the hook.

Human-trafficking is a crime inspired by western politicians, as surely as bootlegging was created by Prohibitionists. European Union governments have made it all but impossible for refugees and economic migrants from the third world legally to breach the walls of their fortress. Desperate people grasp desperate solutions. They turn to criminal smugglers and, by definition, become criminals themselves. They have suffered deaths by poison, suffocation, and hypothermia - and have, indeed, been murdered - as a result. The Dover case may have been a "tragedy", as Jack Straw sobbed. But in his grief he forgot to add that he and his Prime Minister had earlier put the finishing touch to a long and mendacious process of exclusion. They closed the last legitimate escape routes for tens of thousands of people, brought profit to the criminal, and punishment - on occasion, fatal - to the innocent, in the name of the fight against crime.

At the time of writing, it is too early to say whether the Chinese wanted to get here to work or claim asylum. They were probably migrants rather than refugees, but the distinction no longer matters much. Until recently, it mattered enormously. Legal immigration from developing countries to western Europe slowed to a trickle in the 1980s after the collapse of Keynesian expansion. There, was, however, an exception. The 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees bestowed the right to claim sanctuary in a safe country. If exiles could prove they had a well-founded fear of persecution, they were entitled to protection. As an expression of the "never again" idealism of the generation that defeated Hitler, the 1951 convention was hard to beat. Yet it had a fault. The optimistic drafters assumed that, once a refugee had escaped his enemies, the free world which proclaimed its opposition to the prison states of Stalinism wouldn't dream of stopping him travelling to claim asylum in his chosen country. As the fall of the Berlin Wall opened Europe to refugees from Eurasia and from the disintegrating post-cold-war states of Africa, interior ministries across Europe realised that the well-intentioned oversight could be used to subvert the convention.

Britain was a leader in the loophole-exploiting business. In 1988, Douglas Hurd, the then home secretary, was faced with 800 people fleeing Sri Lanka's endless race wars. He freely admitted that their arrival was "an immediate spur" to privatise immigration control and blur the differences between legal and illegal migrants.

Hurd's Carriers Liability Act fined airlines that accepted unauthorised passengers. If potential migrants from selected countries wanted to fly, they had to have a British visa. There was a catch. There was no such thing as a visa for refugees. Even assuming you could wander into the British Embassy in Bogota, explain that the Colombian army and communist death squads were both out to get you and that, what with one thing and another, you'd take it as a favour if you received the papers to get you on the next flight to Heathrow, you would be refused. The staff would have no form to fill headed "Visa for Asylum-Seeker".

To avoid fines of £2,000 per undocumented passenger, airlines have been forced to go to great bureaucratic lengths to ensure that no one without a visa flies. For all the wheedling coos from Whitehall and Fleet Street about "Britain having nothing against genuine refugees", the history of visas shows that the undisguised aim of the Home Office has been to prevent the authentic refugee, as well as the migrant, from crossing the English Channel. Civil war begins in Algeria in 1990, visa restrictions follow. The Turks and the Kurds start a decade of massacres, visa restrictions follow. Yugoslavia collapses, visa restrictions follow. A nation can be certain that all is lost only when Britain demands visas from its travellers.

It is hard to breach the visa controls at airport security desks and stow away on a plane. Docks are open areas by comparison. In a study for the Refugee Council of how asylum-seekers reached Britain, John Morrison found that, for many, boats and lorries beat planes every time. A 27-year-old man from Sierra Leone, who had walked for a month to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, described how he was told to get out of his refugee camp or he'd "be dead". He "waited till the Muslim guys were all down praying" and sneaked on board a ship that looked as if it was bound for Europe. Modern lorries are equally accessible. They are often loaded without their cargo being checked. If you can sneak inside, you have a chance of avoiding detection.

One serious disadvantage with hiding on a ship or a lorry is that you're far more likely to die. Stowaways at sea climb into containers no different in their design from the container that was brought to Dover. In 1994, the bodies of four Romanians were found when a sealed container was opened at Felixstowe. A toxic cleaning solution used to keep the container pristine had poisoned them. In 1997, seven bodies arrived in Humberside ports - again, the dead had been asphyxiated by the fumes in the deep holds.

The sensible alternative is to scramble out and declare yourself to the crew. But openness has its dangers. Carrier liability costs the international shipping industry $20m a year in fines from western governments, according to the insurers at P&I Clubs. The legal reform group Justice estimated that about 1,000 stowaways were thrown overboard in 1998 by crews in European waters who were determined to avoid punishment. The figure is hard to confirm because stowaway murder can be the perfect crime - no body, no clues, no way of the police knowing that a victim was on board and that there is a death to investigate. Every now and again, a hostile witness survives. In 1992, Kingsley Ofusu described what had happened to seven Ghanaians who crept on board the MC Ruby bound for Le Havre. Sailors spotted them and in the ensuing struggle Ofusu was smashed on the skull with an iron bar. As he staggered for cover across the deck in the darkness, he heard his brother cry: "Kojo! Kojo! They are killing me!" His brother was picked up and dropped over the side. The dirt-poor Ukrainian sailors told the police that their owner had been fined when they had handed over stowaways in Rotterdam. He was furious and docked their pay until he got his money back. They preferred to kill rather than risk losing money again.

In 1996, Filipino crew members told how their Taiwanese shipmates on the Maersk Dubai hurled three Romanians into the sea after leaving Spain for Canada. Frightened of reprisals, they demanded asylum from the Canadian authorities before agreeing to give evidence.

In these circumstances, people-smugglers can seem an attractive alternative. Not all are Chinese triads or members of the Russian mafia. John Morrison interviewed a 17-year-old Algerian girl whose father wanted to save her from the war between Islamic fundamentalists and the quasi-military dictatorship. A family friend at Algiers airport was persuaded to let her on a plane and, with the help of a small bribe, his daughter was in London in hours. Other "smugglers" are motivated by principle rather than greed. The Kurdish conflict has produced clandestine travel agents as feted by the compatriots they save as Oskar Schindler. But most smugglers are the genuine article. As the Dover Chinese and the 280 who drowned in a locked hold when the overloaded Yiohan sank in the Mediterranean four years ago discovered in their dying moments, true smugglers have little interest in passenger safety once they have collected their fees.

The people-trafficking industry has been a promising criminal investment since the late Eighties. It took new Labour to turn its British subsidiary into gilt-edged stock. In opposition, Gerald Kaufman said the Tory party "abandoned any standards of decency" when it imposed fines on airlines. Labour's home affairs spokesman (some bloke called Blair) accurately pinpointed the rather obvious fault with carrier liability when he said that the "objectionable" measure made "no distinction between bogus and genuine claims".

In office, Blair extended the "objectionable" legislation to cover every means of transport. The owners of lorries, cars, vans, caravans, camper-vans, people-carriers and trains, as well as planes and ships carrying asylum-seekers or migrants, wittingly or unwittingly, as passengers or stowaways, are now fined and risk the confiscation of their vehicles if they do not pay promptly. The state doesn't have to show that a lorry driver knew there was a frightened man hiding in the back of his container. The driver has to show that he did not. In the name of the defence of Britain, the fundamental principle of British justice - that a defendant is innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt - has been binned.

Even the right wing of the Tory party found the sealing of the borders too much to stomach. Julian Lewis, a red-baiting Conservative who spent much of the Eighties branding anyone who worried about the nuclear arms race a Politburo stooge, attacked Labour. Wouldn't Anne Frank have been arrested if Blair had been in power and she had tried to escape from Holland, he asked.

The honest answer is yes. But modern Franks are still reaching Britain. I, and many others, expected migration to collapse after the ferocious penalties came into force in April. The numbers have fallen, but not excessively. People are breaking into the fortress, despite the restrictions on movement and the plans by Britain and the European signatories of the Schengen agreement to fingerprint all asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants. If the world's mafias had a shred of gratitude in their corrupt bodies, they would line their halls with pictures of the European statesmen who have made them rich.

In the end, the atrocious baby-boomer generation now in power will be glad that their controls weren't vicious enough. The greying children of the Sixties have failed, carelessly, to produce sufficient children to create the wealth to fund their pensions. Sooner or later, there will be amnesties and renewed immigration, as boomers realise that closed ports will bring them unaccustomed privation. Germany has already told the third world that it welcomes computer programmers, regardless of colour or creed. Britain's asylum slums and internment camps have idle doctors and nurses whom the NHS could put to work in days.

While we wait for the inevitable change in climate, we can wonder why diligent broadcasters have failed to ask what British governments have done to foster people-smuggling. I suspect something other than laziness and bias is behind the avoidance of the unavoidable issue.

If a foreigner asked what it was that made you proud to be British, you would doubtless mumble about tolerance, decency and fair play. The knowledge that Britain has used the most duplicitous legal manoeuvres to prevent anyone, however deserving, reaching its shores cannot be accommodated into the national myth. Far better to stay silent and put a mental block in the way of disillusioning information.

Just before Blair announced that he was the scourge rather than the promoter of "evil" traffickers, he expressed his disgust with the Euro 2000 rioters. These brutes didn't represent England. They had "disgraced" the national way of life of "a decent people, a tolerant people".

Caliban at least had the guts to confront the face in the mirror.

Darcus Howe, page 22

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich