Socialist Worker

‘I could’ve been one of the 39 who died’—refugees speak out over lorry deaths

The deaths of 39 people last week shone a light on the horrendous reality of Britain’s racist border policies. Tomáš Tengely-Evans and Gabby Thorpe look at how government clampdowns across Europe have made deaths more likely

Issue No. 2678

One refugee, Ahmad, says we should ask whats behind the refugee crisis

One refugee, Ahmad, says we should ask what's behind the refugee crisis

The horrific deaths of 39 people found in the back of a lorry in Essex brought back terrible memories for many refugees.

Gabir, a refugee from Sudan, told Socialist Worker that everyone who is forced to use the method is “faced with death”. He came to Britain in the back of a refrigerated lorry in 2016.

“You can’t do anything when you’re inside,” he said. “You could bang for the whole day and no one would hear you.

“I was there alone for six bloody, nail-biting hours among the ice cream. There is hardly any oxygen. You’re in a huge fridge. I lost feeling in the lower half of my body—I could barely move.”

The 39 people who died came in the lorry to the port of Purfleet from Zeebrugge in Belgium at around 12.30am last Wednesday. Ambulance workers discovered their bodies a few hours later at an industrial estate in Thurrock, Essex.

As soon as Ahmad al-Rashid, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, saw the news it “brought a picture of my own experience to mind”.

He made the perilous journey to Britain in the back of a refrigerated truck in 2015. “I saw the suffering and the horror,” he told Socialist Worker. “You are surrounded by death. Everything you smell is death.

“You find yourself locked in back of the truck with frozen chickens and you think, ‘What is happening?’”

Gabir described trying to “hold on to life” while “images of people at my funeral” flashed before his eyes. “Every three minutes feels like three hours when you’re stuck in the back,” he said.

When Gabir’s mobile phone showed that he was in Britain, he called the emergency services who tracked down the lorry. He was in an ambulance for 40 minutes before he regained the use of his lower body.

Refugees speak out on Tories’ sham border crisis
Refugees speak out on Tories’ sham border crisis
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Gabir said he’s “lucky” because he didn’t have to rely on people smugglers to get him onto a truck. He said, “I moved with my friend from Calais to Bologne where we found this parked lorry going to Britain. He said it was my turn to try and make it.

“He opened the door for me, then locked it from the outside.

I had to try very hard not to make any noise, to stay calm until the driver wanted to start his engine.”

Ahmed relied on smugglers he met on Facebook to get him from Syria to Turkey and across Europe. “It was a 55-day journey of land, air and sea,” he said. “I got to Greece on the back of a dinghy.

“Then on a Bulgarian fake passport I went to Marseille in France. In Calais I was chasing cars, and smugglers put me in the back of lorries a couple of times.”

Tory politicians and the press are grandstanding over people smugglers. Police have raided three properties in Northern Ireland as part of the investigation into the Essex deaths.

The National Crime Agency (NCA)—which has some responsibility for border security—is working to establish if “organised crime” was involved. And there have been reports of police investigating a possible Irish smuggling ring.

But people smugglers are small gangsters—the real criminals are in parliament. If refugees could come here freely, there would be no need to turn to people smugglers. But immigration policies have made it ever harder for people to travel safely.

Refugees turned to refrigerated trucks after governments began to use thermal imaging technology to detect them. Every crackdown pushes people towards more dangerous methods.

Harsher laws don’t deter refugees because the reasons people move—war, poverty, climate chaos—remain. But they do make deaths more likely.

As Ahmad said, “The issue of smugglers needs to be tackled, but trying to address the problem’s causes is key.

“People don’t want to leave homes and loved ones, but they are desperate.”

Since the beginning of the “refugee crisis” in 2015, European states have tried to close off routes.


In 2015 the European Union and Turkey signed a deal that made it easier to deport Syrian refugees who made it Greece.

This made it harder to travel across the Aegean Sea, forcing them to take the longer route across from North Africa across the Mediterranean.

In war-torn Libya—destroyed by Western bombing and civil war—refugees have faced slave camps and torture. Gabir said, “When I was in Libya, there were people buying and selling people.

“Someone would say, ‘I’ll help you get across but only if you do this job.’”

Across northern France and Belgium, hundreds of refugees live in makeshift settlements.

Frontex—Fortress Europe’s racist border force
Frontex—Fortress Europe’s racist border force
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Tory home secretary Priti Patel and French interior minister Christophe Castaner agreed a plan to increase border security in the English Channel last month. They deployed more British and French patrol boats, and increased surveillance on land.

And French police evicted and levelled the largest refugee settlements in Calais and Dunkirk last month.

The Anglo-French deal was drawn up in response to an increase in refugees trying to make it across the channel in boats. Some ask why refugees don’t stay in France, rather than try and come to Britain. But those higher numbers were being driven by police intimidation and violence.

Gabir said, “If you’re outside the situation, if you haven’t had to cross a border, it can seem like a very difficult thing to do. But when you have no options, you do whatever you need to do.”

Ahmad said, “People do not want to leave homes. People don’t choose death. You do not walk to death. You are forced to. There is a reason why people are taking horrendous journeys.”

Both Gabir and Ahmad have been given papers to remain in Britain. But many more face the humiliating process of applying for asylum seeker status.

It sets people up to fail and leaves them living in poverty with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

Had the 39 survived, the same politicians and pundits calling it a tragedy now would scapegoat them as “scroungers”.

Across the world refugees are fleeing war, poverty and dictatorship – often caused by Western government policies – in search of a better life.

Anti-racists have to fight to dismantle the British state’s racist immigration system and for the right of people to come to Britain safely—and stay.

Gabir is a pseudonym

Why do people flee?  

Ahmad from Syria

The town became a battlefield between opposition and government forces

“I basically had a normal life going to university in Aleppo in Syria. Then there is no water and no electricity, and the town becomes a battlefield between the opposition and the government.

“So people are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“I left Syria in early 2013 and went to Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the county.

“I was in Mosul and thought I would be safe there and then there was the Isis massacre of the Yazidis.

“So I decided to return to Syria but it I couldn’t, so I crossed to Turkey and then to Europe.”

Ahmad had to flee Syria twice

Ahmad had to flee Syria twice

Gabir from Sudan

If you had views that are different to the military government, you would be thrown directly into prison and no one would know

“When I came here, there was no safety in Sudan.

“If you had any political views that are different to the military government, you would be thrown directly into prison and no one would know.

“There was corruption everywhere.

“And my part of the country, Darfur, was a very bloody region—people have been raped in front of their families by militias.

“I moved for safety for myself and my family who have now joined me.”

Tougher laws will only bring more tragedies

In 2000 the bodies of  58 Chinese migrants were found in a lorry at the port of Dover.

In 2000 the bodies of 58 Chinese migrants were found in a lorry at the port of Dover.

The 39 deaths are racist murder. And the Tory politicians, whose immigration policies force refugees to take dangerous routes and push them into the hands of people smugglers, are guilty.

Now politicians and the press want even harsher controls. And it isn’t only Tories.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbottspoke to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the deaths on Friday. She didn’t start by blasting the racist policies that caused them. Instead she said the solution is to make it even harder for people to come here.

“The first step is to look at security at those smaller east coast ports,” she said. “The second step is to look at international cooperation.”

“If we come out of the EU we’d lose access to European arrest warrants, we’d lose access to important databases around crime and missing persons.”

It’s a disgraceful response. The EU’s goal of creating Fortress Europe has seen it pour tens of millions of pounds into keeping refugees out.

Both Labour and the Tories have a long history of implementing racist immigration policies that have horrific consequences for refugees.


In 2000 the bodies of 58 Chinese migrants were found in a lorry at the port of Dover. A post?mortem showed that they had died of asphyxiation. Two people survived because more oxygen became available as others died.

But instead of making it safer for refugees to travel, Tony Blair’s Labour government increased security checks for vehicles. And they cracked down on those people who made it to Britain.

In 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe Bay when the tide came in. They had come in search of a better life, but instead faced brutal exploitation as undocumented migrants.

In July this year an African man fell 3,500 feet from the undercarriage of a Kenyan Airways flight into a garden in Clapham, south London.

He was forced to endure a severe lack of oxygen and temperatures as low as -60 degrees.

Calls for tighter security were instantly taken up. Little was said by the government or the media about what would drive a person to stow away in a plane.

In August this year an Iraqi man died trying to swim across the English Channel. Just days later, British and French authorities met to ramp up border security, condemning more to take dangerous routes.

Boris Johnson called the deaths last Wednesday an “unimaginable tragedy”. In fact they are entirely predictable —and government policies are responsible.


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