Premonitions of Europe’s migration crisis become reality

A scenario dating back to the mid-90s illustrated how high the human costs could rise

Frederick Studemann

Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of 20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, poses with his son's photograph at their house in Can Loc district of Vietnam's Ha Tinh province on October 29, 2019. - Initially identified as Chinese, many of the 39 people who were found dead in a truck in Britain are now believed to be Vietnamese after families came forward saying they feared their relatives were in the refrigerated trailer. (Photo by Nhac NGUYEN / AFP) (Photo by NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Nguyen Dinh Gia, father of 20-year-old Nguyen Dinh Luong who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, poses with his son's photograph last month © Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty

Civil war on the fringes of Europe. Mass upheavals of people, fleeing conflict. Pressure on the borders of the EU, prompting ever-louder calls for action. Meanwhile, in the shadows, the sordid business of people smuggling grows. In the midst of all this, a refrigerated lorry is intercepted by officials who, opening up the vehicle, reveal its horrific cargo: scores of migrants who had risked their lives in search of a better life.

This may read like a snapshot of the migration crisis facing Europe right now. The discovery in the UK last month of 39 Vietnamese migrants who had frozen to death in a trailer truck delivered another grisly reminder of the realities of illegal migration.

But this scenario dates back to the mid-1990s and comes from the imagination of David Pirie, a British screenwriter and producer. His film Black Easter, a television drama made for the BBC, told the story of a policeman who, in the process of investigating the murder of a nurse, uncovers a sprawling web of people smuggling, corruption and murder.

While it won a prize, Black Easter was never rebroadcast and is now almost impossible to find in film libraries. And yet it has resonated over the decades. “A lot of people have been in touch to say how extraordinary it is, like a prophecy,” Mr Pirie explained this week.

This has been felt particularly in recent months not just because of the terrible multiple deaths of migrants, but also more widely as Europe marks 30 years since the collapse of communism and the fading of the dreams it spawned.

Black Easter, says Mr Pirie, was about the fading of the optimism unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Barely had people finished dancing in the streets at the elimination of the dividing walls and borders when events on the ground fuelled calls for the creation of new borders and walls.

Back in the 1990s, that may have seemed out of kilter with the temper of the times — the stuff of thriller fantasy. Today it is all too real.

The drama of Mr Pirie’s film is set against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of refugees crowded on Europe’s borders, many fleeing a civil war that has broken out in Russia. The authorities are battling to contain the situation. As a result, people smuggling is rife.

The drama is set in the then near future — the turn of the 21st century — as an illustration of how quickly events might turn nasty. The conflict in former Yugoslavia had already exposed a darker side to the systemic change unfurling across Europe and gave him material to work with.

The script drew on his research in the Czech Republic, at what was then the EU’s external border, where he visited a refugee camp located in a former Red Army base. Running up to the border there was the so-called “highway of love” — a main transport link along which prostitutes worked, many of whom had been trafficked from further east.

“There was an apocalyptic feel to it all,” Mr Pirie remembers. As voters, and eventually policymakers, started to react the term “Fortress Europe” began to emerge as a notion.

His fictional interpretation was too controversial for some of the film’s financial backers. Some of its German producers were particularly nervous. “Many of the themes — like deadly transportation — did after all have echoes of the past,” recalls Mr Pirie. A number of funders pulled out.

His own reaction to recent events is one of outrage and shame that such things can be allowed to happen and at how the whole issue of migration has been mishandled.

The case of the deaths in the trailer in Essex “really struck hard,” he says. In his script Mr Pirie sought to illustrate how quickly human life can come to be seen as expendable, how people can slip between the cracks in bigger political and social developments.

Black Easter takes this to a grisly conclusion when the policeman discovers the link between officials and criminals to conspire to find a solution to the migration problem through “disposal”.“This particularly alarmed our backers,” recalls Mr Pirie.

“And now it alarms me.” It is another aspect of Black Easter that the writer sincerely hopes never amounts to prophecy.

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