Ghosts, the new drama from the film-maker Nick Broomfield based on the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers at Morecambe Bay, is a brilliant and damning indictment of the UK's treatment of illegal immigrants. But Broomfield's request for audiences to contribute to the Morecambe Bay Victims' Fund has raised serious ethical questions.
The fund aims to raise £500,000 for the families of the Morecambe Bay victims, many of whom are still indebted to the traffickers who brought their relatives to the UK. "By paying these people off wouldn't we simply be contributing to the cycle of exploitation?" asked an audience member at the film's première when Broomfield made his proposal. "Are you asking us to give money to gangsters?" chipped in another. For a moment Broomfield, who is more accustomed to making his own interviewees squirm, looked distinctly uncomfortable.
His film follows the story of Ai Qin, a single mother who borrows money to travel to England in the back of a lorry. When she arrives, she is forced to live and work in increasingly harsh conditions. Eventually, in desperation, she accepts the hazardous cockle-picking job, which costs her her life. Broomfield hopes that the film will "raise awareness about the exploitation of immigrants which forms the backbone of food production in this country".
He established the Morecambe Bay Victims' Fund with the film's producer Jez Lewis and the Guardian journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai after a research trip to China.
"The families live in a very poor part of the country, and they are now struggling with debts of £15,000 each," he says. "There is one family in which both parents drowned, leaving a boy and a girl orphaned. They are now responsible for the debt, and in order to pay it off the girl will be forced into prostitution."
He rejects the notion that the aims of the fund are ethically questionable. "It's all very well for the audience in the rarefied setting of the Odeon West End to raise this issue," he says. "But these moneylenders are not like your friendly aunt - if you don't pay them, they will kill you. This is a way in which some of the immediate victims can be helped."
Mike Kaye, of Anti-Slavery International, says that the Morecambe Bay families are in a "unique" situation, but warns that in some instances paying off such debts can be counter-productive. "In Sudan, for example, it is widely accepted that paying for slaves' freedom is not the solution, as it helps to fuel the civil war," he says. "But the ethics depend on the detail of each case. Governments have to take responsibility for people trafficking."
The British-Chinese support organisation Min Quan has been lobbying the British government for compensation for the incident, so far without success. "It is the UK's immigration rules which create the lucrative environment in which these gangsters operate," says its spokesman, Jabez Lam. "And besides, we should give immediate assistance to these families simply on humanitarian grounds."