Early in the morning on Saturday 16th August, a container ship arrived at the port of Tilbury in Essex, from the Belgian village of Zeebrugge. There were 64 containers on the ship. Dock workers heard “banging and screaming” coming from inside one of them. It was opened. Inside the tight, airless container were 35 migrants. One, a man in his 40s, had died on the journey. The others, aged from one to 72, were suffering from severe dehydration and hypothermia.

The migrants were all Sikhs from Afghanistan, a religious group persecuted by the Taliban and fearful about its safety when the US pulls out of the country this year. During the Taliban-era, Sikhs were forced to wear yellow patches to differentiate them from other Afghans. Although there were around 200,000 Sikhs in the Afghanistan in the 1970s, there are now thought to be fewer than 5,000. In short, this is a persecuted, marginalised group – the desperation evident in the extreme methods they took to seek refuge.

Police have said that the people – who have all claimed asylum – were the victims of people trafficking by organised gangs. Legally, “human trafficking” refers to people transferred across borders for the purpose of exploitation, and the available facts about this case suggest that they were the victims of people smugglers. This means that they gave their consent to unscrupulous people who promised to get them across borders to the UK.

The case, in all its grim detail, highlights the dire plight of asylum seekers and migrants attempting to gain entry into Europe. An editorial in the Independent this week sums up the situation, saying that “EU law as it stands is a godsend to people-smugglers”. A European law known as the Dublin regulation dictates that asylum-seekers make their claim for asylum in the country in which they first land. That means, generally, poorer countries to the east and south of Europe, where employment opportunities are limited and asylum systems slow and overloaded. Italy and Greece have seen hundreds of thousands of migrants arrive so far this year. Because these countries on Europe’s peripheries are hardly waiting with open arms and, besides, have limited resources and jobs, many will seek to remain under the radar until they can reach Germany, Sweden, or Britain. This means that they will pay significant amounts to people-smugglers, criminals who transport refugees to northern Europe. It is testament to the desperation of these migrants and refugees that they will not only risk their lives in transit, but pay extortionate amounts of money to do so.

No figures exist for the number of people who make such journeys, because of the simple fact that when they are successful, they remain under the radar. The horror stories – the 35 found at Tilbury, or the 58 Chinese immigrants found dead in the back of a lorry in Dover 14 years ago – are thankfully relatively few and far between.

Speaking to the BBC, the former head of the UK Border Force, Tony Smith, said: "We really need to get a message out to migrants that if they want to come to this country there are legal routes that they need to explore and they need to apply for visas and permits." Informing refugees of legal routes into the UK is certainly one important part of the picture. But of course, it isn’t that simple. The Dublin regulation means there is a vested interest in remaining under the radar for as long as possible, thus making migrants vulnerable to exploitation and life-threatening situations. Upon arrival at destination, many face detention and deportation. There are numerous options for making the system more humane: relaxing the Dublin regulation and establishing a humanitarian route from Italy and Greece and into richer European nations, or establishing an EU-wide asylum system that apportioned migrants across the EU. The Independent points out that just 0.23 per cent of the British population is made up of asylum-seekers. The horrific plight of the 35 found at Tilbury should serve as a reminder that immigration policy is not simply a political hot potato over which to trade inflammatory rhetoric; seeking to make these policies more humane, to accommodate the world’s most vulnerable, is a matter of moral obligation.