Channel 4 rustled a lot of feathers last week with its new show, Smuggled. Critics have warned the series glamorises clandestine crossings while others just found it outright insensitive. However, the flawed application of the experiment coupled with a lack of professional voices stinks of anti-migration mania – yet airs within inches of a general election. This article has been written by Olivia Bridge.
Smuggled acts as an “unprecedented national security experiment” in which eight participants – split over two episodes – attempt to put UK border forces to the test. Producers boast: “no one has ever tested our borders on this scale, with such a large variety of methods” as the groups pile aboard boats, lorries, ferries and cars.
Yet as the first episode hit our screens last Monday, viewers were left seething with rage as it aired just 11 days after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were discovered dead in the back of a refrigerator truck. Channel 4 held back initially but unveiled the show only one week later, deeming it a matter of “urgent public interest”.
Smuggled has catapulted immigration right back to the top of voters’ priorities, bringing with it a new lease of Brexiteer fervour and racism dressed up as ‘genuine concerns’ – all within weeks of a historic general election
However, there is one gaping hole in the methodology of the experiment: those playing refugee for the day are all British citizens. They are surreptitiously sneaking past border controls while breaking no laws – their passports ‘surrendered’ to the Channel 4 production team who escort the participants throughout.
The failed methodology: ‘playing refugee for the day’… while being British
Predictably, Brexiteer pearl-clutching pensioners made the cut. The self-proclaimed “traditional” couple, Carolynne and David, tested the borders of Caen and Portsmouth.
However, it is here that the show encounters its first inaccurate attempt at dress-up: very few asylum-seekers are afforded the luxury of cruising past immigration enforcement in a £30,000 motorhome with a white, elderly British chap at the helm to charm the guards. David even hollers back to his wife to secure her hiding place only moments before pulling up to passport control.
The second team involved just the one ‘fraudster’ who was “smuggled” into Newcastle using his friend’s passport. However, his smokescreen was as convincing as the motorhome technique: he hides in plain sight between three other British citizens who are travelling on their legitimate passports, in a British registered car and all-the-while chatting in their native, English tongues in full earshot of passport control.
…in actuality, experts know stringent border forces are precisely why asylum-seekers are arriving at the doorsteps of sanctuary already dead.
Another participant was palled up with a truck driver to evade notorious “border fortress” Calais while a Channel 4 producer sat in the front seat like a teacher supervising a school trip. Although high-tech scanners were spared on the truck and enforcement assessed the back container, the crafty participant hid under a pile of coats behind the driver’s seat to successfully sneak into Dover.
The final volunteer, Asher, travelled across the Channel in an inflatable dinghy, clinging on as he was hurled around the semi-flooded vessel with Dover just in sight.
Painfully inaccurate misrepresentation of the life-risking peril refugees face
Yet it is this slapdash, middle-class British imitation that makes Smuggled so spectacularly distasteful. The credulity of Channel 4 and its producers are found in the makeup of its famous four: a minuscule sample size of entirely British nationals does not make for an accurate trial of border forces.
… very few asylum-seekers are afforded the luxury of cruising past immigration enforcement in a £30,000 motorhome with a white, elderly British chap at the helm
By contrast, refugees do not and cannot have a plan B. They cannot hide their papers in the glove compartment in case they are rumbled. They are not granted the privilege of masquerading and blending between a small group of native English speakers or a Channel 4 producer. They can’t hoodwink passport control by debating the origins of a spring roll.
Asylum-seekers cannot expect the extravagance of spacious travel in a one-man scam, either: smugglers squeeze for profit, snatching life-savings or any other degrading forms of ‘payment’ to shove large groups into life-threatening predicaments in exchange.
The Missing Migrants Project notes 43 have died from suffocation, 23 from drowning, 16 by a vehicle and 4 by a train attempting to get into Europe in 2019. In the Mediterranean, 500 have drowned with a further 559 missing/presumed drowned while 85 have died from hypothermia, 7 from dehydration and 19 ‘unknown’. In Africa, migrants are most commonly dying from excessive physical abuse, starvation and a lack of access to medicine while in search of a better life.
While all four volunteers make it across the border without any hiccups, the parallels Channel 4 tries to inspire between the ‘nervous’ participants and actual asylum seekers is disturbing.
While Carolynne gets comfy-cosy in her pillow-laden cubbyhole for five minutes (that she says she could sleep in), asylum-seekers cram into tiny spaces for hours on end without food and water – and are often forced to make the perilous voyage with their children. To pick just one case, an Entriean pregnant woman writhed in silent pain beneath the floorboards of a lorry when police trampled all over her stomach and, although she was the only one out of 30 to go undetected and successfully reach the UK hours later, she arrived covered head-to-toe in blood. She then learned that she had lost her baby as a result of the ordeal.
[refugees] can’t hoodwink passport control by debating the origins of a spring roll.
Channel 4’s dinghy participant further pontificates his solo ride, deciding that if you “carry yourself as just a normal person pleasure boating” then “what is there to suspect?”
Yet asylum-seekers can’t don a pleasure boating disguise while aboard a flooded inflatable boat holding thirty other individuals. Asher sails through in broad daylight, equipped with an actual life jacket and escorted by a Channel 4 safety boat that follows narrowly behind.
It’s a farce to suggest the two crossings are in any way similar – and on this note, if it were easy to breeze past border forces while hiding under a coat, then why do so many toy with their lives by clinging to the undercarriage of a lorry for hours on end as it travels through the Eurotunnel? Why do so many pay thousands and thousands of pounds to snatch one limited space in a precarious boat for their children? Why are teenagers huddling inside -25-degree refrigerator trucks?
Reignited anti-migration mania
Although Channel 4 reminds viewers that asylum-seekers are legally permitted to enter the UK by however means necessary in order to claim asylum, the takeaway message of the entire programme is that border forces allow them in too easily.
The absence of immigration professionals, lawyers and refugee charities is telling in Channel 4’s series. Experts know that stringent border forces are precisely why asylum-seekers are arriving at the doorsteps of sanctuary already dead, yet Smuggled doesn’t even entertain the idea that the UK-EU’s boobytraps scattered across safe paths is only pushing refugees into deadlier routes. If asylum seekers could lodge their claim abroad, they wouldn’t need to enter ‘illegally’ to be heard and right-wing protestors wouldn’t need to get their knickers in a twist at the sight of their arrival.
Yet Smuggled achieves precisely that: it panders to right-wing narratives by reigniting anti-migration mania based on its flawed methodology and wild, artificial experiment. It has catapulted immigration right back to the top of voters’ priorities, bringing with it a new lease of Brexiteer fervour and racism dressed up as ‘genuine concerns’ – all within weeks of a historic general election.
One only hopes that the programme prematurely retires Boris Johnson’s bellowing about ‘taking control of our borders’ or at least turns Priti Patel’s sickly-sweet smile upside down.
But we wait with bated breath for episode two tonight, hoping that in this round all four get caught. Asylum-seekers don’t need or deserve the bad press right now.