TILBURY, UK—35 Sikh immigrants – including thirteen children aged between 1 and 12, eight women between 18 and 72, and nine men – were found in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks.
The discovery was made when “screaming and banging” were heard coming from inside of the container.
The group were found to be fleeing persecution from Afghanistan. They arrived on Saturday on a ship from Belgium, said by police to be victims of trafficking.
Members of the group were in poor physical condition. One man, in his 40s, was found dead. Others were taken to hospital for the treatment of severe hydration and hypothermia, and four of them remain at Southend Hospital.
The other Sikhs reside in a makeshift reception centre set up inside the terminal buildings at Tilbury Docks. Police are working with international authorities in order to establish what happened, and said the group are “being spoken to about their ordeal” before they are passed on to the UK Border Force.
“We have had a good deal of help from partners within the local Sikh community in the Tilbury area to ensure that these poor people, who would have been through a horrific ordeal, are supported in terms of their religious and clothing needs.”
Harjap Singh Bangal, an immigration lawyer, told the BBC that the Sikh community in Afghanistan had long faced verbal and physical harassment on the basis of their religion. “As a result Sikhs are leaving Afghanistan, and they feel persecuted, and they’re leaving for other countries in Europe such as Germany, France and the UK,” he said.
Sikh organisations have expressed an overwhelming concern for the welfare of Sikhs in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Sikh Council (UK) expressed their concern that Sikhs in such countries are experiencing religious persecution on an unprecedented scale.
Religious persecution in recent years has led to Sikhs leaving their homes to seek safety, and a community of 75,000 has now been reduced to 4,000 in Afghanistan.
The Sikh Council (UK) suggest that the persecution of minorities in the country began in 1992 by the mujahideen and the Taliban, and has increased dramatically in recent years. Examples of such on-going persecution include the forcible taking over of properties and businesses, kidnappings and ransom demands, jazia tax (a tax on non-Muslims) being imposed, the killing of Sikhs by beheading and funerals not being allowed to take place in accordance with Sikh traditions.
For many Sikhs, the story highlights the difficulties faced by the minority community in countries where their collective voices have remained unheard. Having faced a history of religious persecution as a minority community in India, many Sikhs feel such treatment to be a result of their place as a religious community with no independent state of its own.
Jagdeesh Singh of the Sikh Community Action Network (SCAN) said, “The Sikhs are like a ship without a place to anchor. History and modern global experience has shown that we will remain exposed and unsafe, until we have our own free state, again.”