The Last Man: Surviving the Morecambe Bay Tragedy

March 19 2022 / The Times


Richard had night sweats and bad dreams. In these dreams his

feet were submerged in quicksand and he could feel himself

sinking. Or he was up to his neck in water. Or his lungs were

filling with water. Sometimes he saw a woman on a foreshore, in

a long, dark coat, her face covered by a scarf, and she was calling

out to him as he walked across the sands. Sometimes he woke

with the word ‘mother’ on his lips and would find his wife asleep

beside him and the house quiet. He was sure, in these recurring

dreams, a woman had called out to him in a warm, familiar voice,

but not his wife, and she’d used another name, his real name. He

never used to be called Richard. He used to be called Li Hua, and

this is his story.


Li knew very little about England before leaving his home village

in China, beyond what he’d read about and seen on television –

and yet he already made of it in his imagination something

magnificent and welcoming. When he thought about England, he

imagined a light shining as if from a city on top of a distant hill.

In the early negotiations with Mr Chang, the local gangboss who

was part of a network smuggling Chinese workers to Western

Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, Li was told the journey

would take only a few weeks and that, at the end of it, he would

be guaranteed work in a factory or restaurant. He would be reunited

with his wife as soon as he’d found somewhere of his own to live

in England, he was told. The gang – Li called them ‘snakeheads’

– demanded an initial cash payment (the equivalent back then of

£10,000) and it was explained to him that he would be going via

Moscow, and from there he would fly direct to London. Further

payments would be required in the months ahead, and the full

debt would have to be repaid when he was settled in England.

To fund the first payment, Li borrowed money from his uncle,

who had borrowed money from a cousin. A man who worked for

Mr Chang had taken Li’s passport because, he was told, he would

need a visa to enter Russia. One morning Li received a one-way

train ticket to Beijing; the time of his departure was close. He felt

uneasy the night before he left the village in Fujian Province, as

if he had an emerging fever. He was reluctant to leave his wife

and their young son behind on the farm, with only his parents

and siblings to support them. But he knew if one day he and his

wife were to have more children of their own, as they wished, and

if these children were to have a better life, he had to go.

On the morning of his departure, Li held on to his wife for a

long, silent time. She was crying and he wiped the tears from her

face. He kissed her on the forehead and pulled her into a tight

embrace. He recalled this last, warm embrace in the lost, lonely

months that followed.

+ + +

When he arrived in Beijing, Li was greeted by a sullen, officious

woman who spoke briskly in an unfamiliar dialect. She said he

would stay in the city for several days until his visa was approved.

He was now part of a group of twenty other workers, all from

Fujian Province – ‘the Fujianese’ as they were known – and they

were all on their way to England. They were taken to a hostel,

where they slept and ate and were free to come and go. Within a

few days, the visas arrived and the Fujianese travellers boarded the

Moscow flight.

One of the other Fujianese immediately took control when

they arrived in Moscow led them smoothly through immigration

controls and, on the other side, to a car park where there were

several vans waiting. They were ordered into the vehicles and

their passports and money were taken away. They were driven to

a low-rise apartment block on a Soviet-era estate in the suburbs

of Moscow, what Russians call the sleeping districts of the city.

There Li would share a room with twelve others in the subdivided

block. They were given duvets, water bottles, coffee and cigarettes,

but there were no beds or pillows; they slept on the concrete


Europeans and Russian-speaking men controlled the house.

Most of the time they smoked, drank beer and vodka, talked on

their phones or watched pornography, football and other sports.

When the windows were closed, the smell inside the rooms was

rancid and at night Li was kept awake by the sound of coughing,

snoring and groaning – and sometimes by the sound of men who

cried in their sleep and then said nothing. One Chinese woman

in the house told him she’d been raped; she left the room one

evening and returned many hours later with her face swollen and

bruised. She was inconsolable when Li reached out to her. ‘Please

no, please no,’ she said.

+ + +

For the next several months, stretching into the summer, Li Hua

remained in Moscow, in the same room, in the same block. He

spent slow, empty days fantasizing about escape. The residential

apartment block had a shabby courtyard and they were allowed to

sit in it or walk around it; sometimes the room in which they slept

was locked from the outside, and Li would stare at the walls, willing

his mind to empty. During this period, he was convinced one of

the Fujianese men in the house had died; no one said what

happened to the body. He felt ashamed at his passivity and help-

lessness. When he complained, he was told he was free to go, but

where would be go? ‘Once you’re in, you are in,’ Mr Chang had

said to him. ‘There is no way out until you’ve paid the money


+ + +

One morning Li and some other men at his breakfast table –

breakfast was served in sittings of six – were told to pack their

rucksacks and prepare to depart: they were going to Ukraine.

They set off in vans later that evening and Li slept fitfully

for much of the long journey. Some time the next afternoon they

stopped close to a lake in what was presumably Ukraine. They

were given water and sweet biscuits and ordered to follow their

guides across fields and over hills. Carrying rucksacks, they

walked for several hours until they reached a road junction,

where several trucks were parked, apparently waiting for them.

The white European drivers never looked at their faces or into

their eyes. From there, after more hours on the road, they arrived

at a derelict farmhouse, where they stayed for at least another

week. Each day they were given a single baguette, some hard

cheese, coffee or sweet tea and a bottle of water, and each night

they slept on the floor in a small, fetid room. At night, Li heard

mice or rats scurrying beneath the floorboards and in the rafters


The next stage of the journey required Li and another Fujianese

man to get into the boot of a large car; they were covered with

blankets. They were told not to make any noise or to speak because

they would be crossing the border into Slovakia.

When they stopped, many hours later, and the boot was opened,

they were told they’d arrived. ‘We made it!’ one man said.

+ + +

They were given water and more bread and sweet biscuits and

soon afterwards were on the move again. Their next stop was some

kind of hostel, and they were given rice and fruit to eat. There

were no beds, however, and they slept huddled on the floor in a

narrow upstairs room, where there were more Chinese men already

waiting, introverted, subdued. On two occasions, they were driven

in small groups to the distant German border but it was considered

too dangerous to cross, and so they reluctantly returned.

After so long away from home, Li felt dejected and deeply

humiliated. ‘I did not want to carry on, and yet I had no choice

but to carry on,’ he said. He had no passport or identification

papers, no money, and he was in debt to the gangmaster back

home in China. He never knew for sure which country he was in

– Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany . . . Sometimes

when he could not sleep because of the heat and humidity and

the noise, he withdrew into his own memory palace and wandered

among its rooms. He pushed at doors and they opened on to

different scenes from his life: at school, on the farm, alone with

his mother, in bed with his wife.

As the weeks passed, he was allowed to go for short, supervised

walks. He could occasionally use a mobile phone to make brief calls

to his family in the village. These were charged at one dollar per

minute and were strictly monitored. Li was given a pre-prepared

statement to recount: there had been a ‘realignment of expectation’

and the overland journey was taking ‘much longer than expected’

because they were working to pay their way. He listened helplessly

as his wife pleaded for him to come home, to give up; during one

call he heard his mother crying in the background and his father’s

agitated voice. ‘Ask Mr Chang about England,’ Li said. ‘Ask him about

my job.’ And then the line went dead, as it always did after a few

minutes, as if a switch had been flicked or a cable cut. The next time

he spoke to his wife, she said that Mr Chang wanted another payment;

it was overdue. ‘I will send more money,’ Li said, and his wife asked

him to come home. ‘Why are you doing this?’ she said.

+ + +

One afternoon Li and two Fujianese workers were squeezed into

the back of a car; they were on their way to another hillside loca-

tion, close to the German border. After another drive they were

led by guides through dense woodland until, at the roadside, they

saw two parked cars. ‘Welcome to Germany,’ one of the Chinese

drivers said, in English, using a faux-American accent.

They were taken to a house on a residential estate; inevitably

it was full of more Chinese workers. Li was given some green tea,

white rolls and vegetable soup, and was then sent to wait in an

upstairs room with many others. One of the men started beating

his fists against the door when he heard it being locked from

outside, demanding to be let out. And perhaps he was heard because

not long afterwards police officers arrived at the house. It seemed

another trap had been set for them.

The workers were rounded up and transported in groups to a

detention centre, and so began another period of idleness and drift.

Li adapted to the new routine and rituals of life inside the centre:

regular hot meals, exercise in the grounds, a pillow and proper

bed to sleep on. He had his hair cut, he saw a dentist and doctor,

he began to feel less exhausted and slowly he gained some weight.

His lips stopped splitting. The metallic taste of blood in his mouth

faded. Once a week he was allowed to call his wife at home in the

village. Some mornings he woke early and forgot where he was or

what had happened, and then he remembered.

Li’s debts were accumulating. How safe were his family in the

village? If he escaped, or tried to escape, if he did not pay or could

not pay, or never returned, or even died, would they be hurt – or,

worse, killed?

One afternoon, during a meeting with a German official, Li

was told he would be released the next day but must leave Germany

immediately. The official did not care where he went as long as

he left the country. He was given a number to call, some euros

and identification papers. That same day Li received a call at the

centre and was told he would be collected early the next morning

by a Chinese-speaking driver.

The next morning the man arrived, as had been agreed, and

Li was driven to a bus station. He was instructed to take a long-

distance bus to the Netherlands; someone would collect him on

the other side of the border.

Li was in Western Europe now, the man said; people could

move freely and borders could be crossed easily, no questions asked.

He would be all right.

He was on the move again, passing through towns he would

never know, through countries to which he would never return.

His mother, a devoted Catholic, had impressed upon him from a

young age that he must pray, and every day now Li prayed. He

believed his mother was praying for him too, though she knew

nothing of his real plight. What sustained him? It was this: he

believed he was surrounded by a protective wall of prayer. Nothing

could break it down or break him down.

In Holland he was taken to another house, where he was greeted

by more Chinese men just like him, lost, emaciated, some of them

stinking and sick. At the end of each day, the gangboss in the

house would tell them what to do next and what they should expect.

From Holland they moved to Belgium and then to France, in small

groups, in small rooms, bearing the mark of men’s smudge and

sharing men’s smell. Li did not know these fellow travellers, but

he knew he was getting closer. You are close to the end now, Mr

Chang, or someone claiming to be him, had said.

He’d been travelling for a year, perhaps longer, and though he

prayed dutifully, as his mother would have wished, Li was spiritually

exhausted and profoundly alone. The journey will only take a few

weeks, he had been told back in China. Sometimes he recalled what

his father used to say to him as they worked together on the farm

– that he must be independent, that he must strive to live a good

life. Protect his son. Don’t beg, his father had said. Never beg. Don’t

expect. Don’t give in.

He had not given in.


The final phase of the journey was across the sea, across the English

Channel; Li was very close now, closer than he’d dared imagine when

he was at the German detention centre and resigned to being deported

to China. One evening he and a group of Chinese men from the

house in France where they’d been staying – fifteen of them – were

waiting by the side of the road close to a port. In his pocket, Li carried

a piece of paper he’d been given by the gangboss, on which was

written an address in London’s Chinatown, his final destination.

On this occasion, as they waited at the roadside, a large

canvas-covered truck pulled up. A ladder was dropped down from

inside and a Chinese man jumped down and urged Li and the

others to climb in, quickly, without hesitation. As the last of them

was ascending the ladder, the truck abruptly shunted forward; the

last man clung on to the ladder, his legs dangling like a trapeze

artist’s, before he fell. As the truck pulled away, Li peered at the

forlorn figure in the road, receding from view. He was on his knees,

beating the road with gloved hands.

Inside the truck, amid the crates and wooden pallets, Li felt

something like relief, if not yet hope, because already the truck

was shuddering to a stop. He could hear voices outside, and

reasoned they were at the border. The men murmured to one

another inside the truck; they’d been told to huddle together

beneath the blankets left inside for them. ‘Quiet now,’ one of them

whispered, as the canvas covering was pulled partially open from

outside; torchlight pierced the darkness and Li closed his eyes and

held his breath.

The check was merely cursory and soon they were moving

again, the throb of the engine keeping Li awake as they travelled

through the night. It was getting colder inside the truck – the men

huddled together like children for warmth – and he imagined ice

forming on the walls and even in the tangles of his hair.

Did the driver know the cargo he carried?

+ + +

It was light outside the next time the canvas covering was pulled

back, and there they were, revealed, in all their helplessness and

vulnerability. Someone shouted, ‘Run!’ – and they did, chaotically,

in different directions. It was another trap. Li had been told to look

out for the white cliffs and green fields of England. There were no

white cliffs or green fields. The men were rounded up and taken

by uniformed officials to a nearby detention centre, where they

were photographed, interviewed and fingerprinted. Li stayed there

for two days and nights, and, when he wasn’t being ignored or

fed, he was asked, through a translator, where he was from and

what he planned to do in England. What did he want and expect?

Why had he come? Li kept saying the same thing: he wanted to

work and had a job in London.

On the third day, Li was released, with new British identification

papers – name, age, country of origin. He was given a phone card

and a permit that allowed him to travel on a train to London. He

was on the move again.

+ + +

Chinatown was not a town: just some pedestrianized streets, crowded

with people, the hustle of traders and tourists, many languages

spoken, shoppers all around. Buildings were decorated with Chinese

symbols – dragons and lanterns – and Li could read the street signs

because they were written in Mandarin, as well as English.

The address he’d been given turned out to be the location of a

small, multipurpose supermarket. A Chinese man received him

warmly, and without surprise, introducing himself as Mr Wei. ‘I’ve

been expecting you,’ he said. They talked for a while about Li’s

journey; Mr Wei said he had shown ‘great fortitude’ and that he

should worry no longer because there was good work for him ‘in

the north’. Li would have his meals provided and share a house with

other Chinese workers in Liverpool. He was given a coach ticket,

the address of the house in the city and some money so that he

could pay for a taxi when he arrived. Perhaps for the first time since

leaving the farm, Li felt something close to happiness. ‘I am here

now,’ he said. Mr Wei rested a heavy hand on his shoulder, in reas-

surance and friendship. ‘God bless you my good man,’ he said.


The room in the terraced house in the Kensington area of Liverpool

was much like all the others: cold and damp, foul-smelling, locked

windows, frayed carpets, rotten floorboards, everyone sleeping on

the floor. The workers shared one putrid-reeking bathroom in

which the lavatory water ran black. There were cluster flies crawling

on the windows but so sluggish were their movements that it was

as if they craved only extinction.

Some of the workers in the house were also from Fujian

Province but there were other men from the north of China. They

all worked as cockle-pickers.

The next day, Li was driven from the house to Morecambe Bay

on the Lancashire coast. ‘Welcome to the office,’ the foreman said

as the minivan pulled up in the village of Hest Bank. By now, it

had been explained to Li exactly what was required of him in his

role as a cockle-picker and that it would take most of the day, from

morning light to early evening darkness, to fill just one of the

orange nylon bags he’d been given with cockles. These were small

edible saltwater clams found buried in sediment. In Morecambe

Bay the cockles were not dredged but hand-picked, as they had

been for centuries, and they were sold in bulk as seafood, especially

to continental markets.

Li had never encountered a landscape such as this before and

he surveyed the vast flatness of the bay. He recalled images of the

limitless empty spaces of the Gobi Desert and wondered, again,

how he’d ended up here, by the sea, on these sands, in winter.

This is not how he’d imagined England: isolating, crushingly cold,

so alien. He looked towards the distant hills but there he saw no

shining light to encourage him.

Li was given a pay-as-you-go mobile, waterproofs to wear, a

black beanie hat with an LED light attached, as useful in the winter

darkness as a miner’s Davy lamp was underground, and boots. He

pulled the beanie down tight over his ears against the hardness of

the weather: the ripping winds, squally showers and the oppressive

cold. Each worker was given a short-handled rake and Li was shown

how to use it to sift the sands, extracting the cockles when he could

find them, and being moved further along when he could not. But

mostly he found it easier to dig in the dirt with his bare hands as

he worked in the area of the bay around Warton Sands. He was

fascinated by the bilaterally symmetrical heart-shaped shells of the

cockles, firmly closed and ribbed to the touch, and wondered how

the fleshy substance inside would taste.

Through the day his back ached as he scrambled and raked for

cockles; he was convinced permanent damage had been done to

his lower spine from travelling in car boots on unmade roads, and

working on the sands only made the pain more persistent.

By mid-afternoon, it was already getting dark, and yet they were

being urged further out across the monotonous flatness of the wet

sands, following the retreating tides, with the fells and the moors

beyond, and the lights of the surrounding towns visible in the

gathering distance.

+ + +

Chinese workers had started appearing on the sands the previous

year. Local fishermen received them with suspicion and hostility

and controlled certain key sites, forcing the despised Chinese

pickers further out into the bay in search of more distant cockle

beds. What was peculiar, in retrospect, was that local people had

seen the cockle-pickers come and go, they knew they were out

there, but the authorities chose not to see them. They were just

shadows on the sands.

Morecambe Bay has the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats

and sandflats in the United Kingdom and is the confluence of four

principal estuaries: Leven, Kent, Lune and Wyre. The sands are

submerged at high tide, and when the sea is out in the bay they

are crosscut with continuously shifting river channels. These chan-

nels, combined with treacherous quicksands, deep hollows and

fast-moving incoming tides, are why there has been an official

Queen’s Guide to the Sands since the sixteenth century. Every

twelve hours and twenty-five minutes the tide comes in at a rate

swifter than a galloping horse, as the locals say.

Before the Furness railway link opened in 1857, crossing the

sands at Morecambe Bay estuary provided the most direct route

from mainland Lancashire to North Lonsdale (now part of Cumbria).

The journey by horse and carriage was hazardous. There were

drownings and disasters. In 1847, nine young people were returning

from a fair in Ulverston to Cartmel when the fisherman’s cart in

which they were travelling overturned in a hollow. The water closed

in and everyone drowned.


They had stayed too long on the sands. Now the tide was rushing

in and Li was being ordered back to the minivan. Water was surging

along deep channels, isolating the cockle-pickers and cutting them

off from the foreshore. They hurried towards the van as the driver

was attempting to start the engine. He turned the ignition but it

did not move: the wheels spun and churned in the mud. The water

was rising fast as they clambered into the van; the foreman, sitting

beside the driver in the front passenger seat, started shouting

obscenities, his panic palpable. The driver thrust the gears into

reverse and pressed down hard. The engine roared but the wheels

did not turn.

Li could see nothing because of the darkness but he could feel

the pressure of the rising water outside. Someone opened the doors

and seawater surged into the vehicle: dark, salt, hard, cold. Li forced

his way out and attempted to climb with some of the others onto

the roof. But he fell back into the water and tried to wade-push

against the currents, but they were too strong and he tumbled

backwards. Salty water flooded into his mouth and lungs. He

resurfaced, gasping. He found he could stand again, his head and

shoulders above the water-line. He held his mouth tightly shut and

reached for the phone in his pocket but it was saturated and

wouldn’t switch on. People were screaming around him, and one

man was desperately shouting in English: ‘Sinking water . . . Many,

many sinking water . . .’

Li removed the waterproofs that were weighing him down, and

the clothes beneath. He had no idea in which direction to start

swimming. Towards the lights that ringed the bay, but which ones,

and where? He tried to swim, but was hit by a wave, turned on

his back, and swept along in a channel of rushing water. This was

it . . . he came to rest on a raised bank and, with incredulity and

relief, felt the ground beneath his feet again. Firmer ground, much

firmer. He could stand without immediately sinking into the sands.

He stumbled, waded, and then simply stood still, breathlessly, the

water seething all around.

He couldn’t see the vehicle, nor hear human voices. The faraway

street and house lights seemed as remote and meaningless to him

as the impossibly distant light from dead stars. He thought about

his mother and how she used to pray every day and how she’d

urged him to do the same. He prayed, but he felt forsaken. He’d

been in England for only a few days. And this was his first day as

a cockle-picker, his very first day of work on the sands.

Why would God do this to me?

He’d always done as he was asked. He’d followed his father’s

advice – work, don’t ask, work, don’t beg. Was this his reward? To

die in the sea: the shame of it. Perhaps he’d died already, and yet,

even if this was the end, he could find nothing hopeless in having

lived. He felt as if he were already mourning the end of his own

life. He remembered something, from somewhere: In the midst of

life we are in death.

He believed his mother’s spirit was with him in the water. She

would look after his wife and their child, he knew that. His mother

was praying for all of them. The hope he had carried in his heart

like fire all the way on the trans-European journey was dissipating.

The near-naked man sank to his knees in the freezing water . . .

but hold on . . . there was brightness, a radiance that lifted him.

In the black sky above, he heard a loud disturbance, the sound of

something harshly mechanical, the thwack-thwack-thwack of what

he realized was a low-flying helicopter, its searchlights probing the

seething waters. He waved his hands and shouted out but it was

pointless – he could not be heard above the wind and the noise

of the engine. The helicopter circled above, pulled away, but

returned, its searchlights scanning the water in a restless arc. His

mother was praying.

Li jumped up and down, his arms outstretched and held aloft,

as if in manic celebration. There was a golden halo of light – he

was saturated in this light – and he felt a sudden, all-enveloping

warmth, as if a safety blanket, or heatsheet, had been wrapped

around his bare shoulders.

‘I thought I saw God in the water,’ he recalled. ‘The feeling at

that moment is very hard for me to explain. I was alive again.’


One summer afternoon in 2010 a human skull was found half-

buried in the sands near Silverdale on the Lancashire coast by a

guide leading a group of walkers across Morecambe Bay. Teeth

were taken from it and DNA tests confirmed that it was the skull

of Liu Qin Ying, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who, together with

her husband, had drowned when they were trapped by incoming

tides on the sands of Morecambe Bay on the night of 5 February

2004. They had been searching for cockles far out on Red Bank,

two and a half miles from the foreshore near Bolton-le-Sands. Their

thirteen-year-old son, Zhou, who had remained in southern China,

was orphaned that night.

Liu Qin was one of seventy undocumented immigrant Chinese

workers staying in four rented houses in Kensington, Liverpool.

She and many of the others had been smuggled in on a container

ship; triad-affiliated gangs moved them from the Liverpool docks

to the houses they controlled. One of Liu’s fellow workers, Guo

Bing Long, a former subsistence farmer in China, made at least

two phone calls as he struggled in the water. First, he called his

family in Ze Lang village, San Shan town, Fuqing city; his wife

and their two infant children, a son and an adopted daughter, were

asleep and he spoke to his parents. He told them he was up to his

neck in the sea and he asked them to pray for him. Next, he called

the emergency number 999; a female operator answered. The call

was recorded and, when you listen to it, you can hear people crying

and screaming as Guo Bing Long, in desperation, shouts, in

English: ‘Sinking water, many sinking water . . . Sinking water,

sinking water . . .’

After receiving the harrowing call from their son, Guo Bing’s

parents woke his wife and together they waited for another call

which never came. Guo Bing Long was twenty-eight when he died

and, after his body was recovered, family photographs were found

in his well-worn wallet and a white metal cross around his neck.

A year later his mother committed suicide.

Most of the cockles were picked and processed for export to

European countries and the Chinese workers were paid as little as

£5 per 25 kilos of cockles picked – or more accurately raked –

scandalously below the market rate. Many of them were from rural

or coastal villages in Fujian Province and their motivation for

risking their lives was to work and send money home to their

families in China. On the night of the disaster the leader of the

gang, Lin Liang Ren, a Chinese national who lived in Liverpool,

the so-called gangmaster or gangboss, had ignored warnings from

local fishermen about the severe weather forecast and imminent

high tides.

Morecambe Bay locals know all about the dangers – the sudden

tidal bores, the submerged channels, the quicksands – and that

night the Chinese workers were trapped by fast-rising tides in the

winter darkness. The workers were islanded, far from the foreshore,

and the water just kept on rising around them. ‘The tide crept up

behind them,’ recalled Cedric Robinson, the long-time official

Queen’s Guide to the Sands. ‘You can’t hear the tide out there

when there’s a wind. They were circled, there was nowhere to run.’

Later a second group of Chinese cockle-pickers were found

huddled together on the foreshore. Like their unfortunate colleagues,

they were carrying forged fishing permits and had been issued

with fake national insurance numbers. Among the group was Lin

Liang Ren, the gangmaster, and his closest associates. During police

questioning, Lin and the workers each initially told the same risible

story: that they were on the foreshore for a picnic, in the darkness

of deepest winter. It quickly became obvious to detectives that Lin

Liang Ren was not one of the abused: he was in control and the

others were terrified of him.

A Royal National Lifeboat Institute hovercraft searched the

sands the next day and, eventually, what was described as a ‘sea

of bodies’ was discovered. Twenty-three Chinese workers drowned

or died from hypothermia that night, including the foreman who

led the way across the sands and had slept in a separate room at

the house. The last man alive in the water was thirty-year-old Li

Hua, and he was rescued after being located by a search helicopter’s

thermal imaging camera. He was naked above the waist and

standing in water on Priest Skear, an expanse of raised land, covered

at high tide. Skear: from the old Norse ‘sker’, meaning rock in the

sea. Li Hua’s survival was described locally as the ‘miracle’ of the

sands. ‘The Devil’s beach’ was how one Chinese newspaper

described Morecambe Bay in the immediate aftermath.

+ + +

The inquiry into the tragedy was the largest ever undertaken by

Lancashire Constabulary. DNA samples were collected and taken

by police to southern China so that they could be matched with

relatives of the dead. The cockle-pickers were paid in monthly cash

payments which were deposited in high-street bank accounts. Most

of the money was transferred to accounts in China as debt repay-

ment. The workers were left with very little for themselves and

their families, which forced them to work even longer hours,

sometimes at night.

Lin Liang Ren was convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter

and served six years of his sentence before being deported to China.

The court was told that he had ‘cynically and callously’ exploited

the cockle-pickers and played the tables at nearby casinos while

they laboured on the sands. His much younger girlfriend and a

cousin were also convicted of breaches of immigration law and of

perverting the course of justice. His cousin’s pregnant English

girlfriend, Janie Bannister, from Merseyside, gave evidence against

the gang; on the night of the tragedy she’d called the coastguards

to alert them to the unfolding disaster. ‘I’ve got a lot of Chinese

boys in Morecambe Bay,’ she said, ‘and they are stuck because they

are cockle-pickers. They have to get out . . . The water, it’s around

their waist.’

Among the ‘boys’ were three women.

Early in the investigation some of the Chinese workers from

the second group found huddled on the foreshore disappeared

from an asylum centre. They were tracked to London’s Chinatown

but there the trail went cold. The police slowly won the trust of

some of those who did not flee, however, and they began to open

up about their ordeal.

Li Hua, the lone survivor, gave evidence at the trial, under a

witness protection scheme organized by Paul Francis, a now-retired

detective sergeant. Li spoke in court from behind a screen so that

he could not be identified. Paul believes that more than twenty-three

Chinese workers might have died in the water that night. ‘The

prosecutions were based on the number of corpses discovered,’ he

said. ‘There could have been more. They were illegal immigrants;

we had no idea how many were in the country.’

Before the Morecambe Bay investigation, Paul Francis had

arranged witness protection for killers (‘the people who pulled the

trigger first’) and members of organized crime gangs. Li Hua and

the cockle-pickers from the second group were different. ‘They

were good people,’ he recalled. ‘They wanted legal work and to pay

their taxes. They didn’t want to come to Britain to rip us off. For

Li, living on pennies a day at home, it was a simple business

decision. He could come to the UK and work for ten to fifteen

years and with the money he earned he could build five houses in

Fujian Province. For him, the cost of coming to the UK was £30,000

– he thought he could make that in nine months. The main focus

was to repay the debt. They have to pay half up front in China and

the other half over a period. That’s why they couldn’t walk away

– if they don’t repay the debt to the snakehead gangs, their family

in China will get it. They’re captured. They are slaves.’

Paul asked me if I knew Morecambe Bay and I said that we

had family living nearby in Silverdale and that, even on benign

summer days, we’d always approached the sands with extreme

caution and humility.

‘In summer,’ he said, ‘you can stand in the middle of the bay:

you’ve got the peaks of the Lake District, this beautiful expanse of

water, you’ve got a promenade that’s just been modernized, a nice

art deco hotel – to look at, it’s beautiful. And yet every day these

gangs of Chinese were coming in and the whole community just

ignored it: the police, the local authority, health and immigration

services. There were hundreds of them. Why did we allow it to

happen? We all knew they were there. Why didn’t we do something

about it? It seems to be the British way: until someone thumps

you on the nose, you don’t sit up and take notice.’

The police investigation was led by Mick Gradwell, also now

retired. ‘The crime scene was 120 square miles, there were vehicles

and bodies and evidence in Morecambe, Liverpool and elsewhere,’

he said. ‘I’m a Lancashire lad, used to dealing with crimes in

Lancashire, not international organized crime gangs and human

trafficking – it’s not what you expect, not on the landscaped shores

of Morecambe Bay. You’re thrown into investigating international

organized crime gangs, snakeheads, triads, international human

trafficking. We dealt with the people who were responsible for the

deaths on the night. But we did not make any dent into these wider

criminal gangs who traffic people around the world.’

Gradwell explained how the gangs operated in ‘plain sight’:

‘Tens of thousands of illegal Chinese workers were living in

England,’ he said. ‘Building up hidden communities and building

a life below official recognition. It was horrifying to discover what

was going on in this country.’

In 2003, Geraldine Smith, the Labour MP for Morecambe and

Lunesdale, wrote to the Home Office warning of the danger the

‘currents and quicksands’ posed to migrant workers in Morecambe

Bay. In a perfunctory reply, a Home Office minister said immigra-

tion services had too few resources to investigate. Too few resources:

we would hear this refrain, or excuse, again and again, in the years

to come, as one of the most pressing moral concerns of our times

was simply wished away: mass migration, legal or otherwise.


One morning, during the pandemic, Li Hua and I had a long

conversation. He still lives in the UK, runs a restaurant and owns

a house in which he lives with his wife, two grown-up children

and one grandchild. His original dreams of England have been

fulfilled, but not in ways that he could have ever imagined. He

speaks little English and so also joining us on a Zoom call were

Irene, a translator, and Paul Francis, the retired police officer who’d

organized Li’s witness protection and created a new identity for


Li has returned to Fujian Province only once since 2004; he

recalled that, when he used to work on the family farm, his father

would give a large proportion of their produce to the state as a

form of taxation. ‘Everything has changed now in the village and

farmers don’t have to pay the food tax,’ he said with a chuckle. It

was only in 2012 that he finally repaid the outstanding debt to the

gangmaster in China.

Li, Paul and Irene had a lovely, relaxed intimacy: the mutual

trust was hard earned. Li was reluctant to use Zoom because he

was suspicious of downloading software onto his laptop. At one

point, his wife appeared alongside him and waved into the camera.

‘Hello, hello everyone!’ she said.

‘Paul has treated me so well, given me so much support, mental

and physical,’ Li said. ‘He helped bring my wife and child to

England, and took care of us as we got to know the people, the

climate, the life. Paul is always in our hearts.’

Li was wearing a black leather jacket, a low-necked black T-shirt,

and his hair was spiky and cut severely short above the ears. He

was physically much heavier than when he was lifted from the

water that night, emaciated, traumatized, suffering from hypo-


‘Li, it’s good to see I’m not the only one putting on weight in

lockdown!’ Paul quipped, and we all laughed.

Li dreams often about that night in the water – the terror he

experienced and the hopelessness. He has panic attacks and night


He spoke directly to, and through, Irene, who could not always

understand what he was saying because of his dialect.

‘The horror is imprinted on my mind and I can’t get rid of it

totally,’ Li said. ‘I have many, many nightmares. I’m trying my best

to forget. I try every day not to let it bother me, to bother my work.

But the shadow is always there: it keeps bothering me. I didn’t

realize I was the only survivor until I was in the ambulance later

that night. I asked about the others. Where were they? What had

happened to them?’

They were searching for them, he was told.

The Chinese foreman had led them out on the sands and

demonstrated how to rake for cockles. ‘We were not warned about

the tides, never once,’ Li said. ‘We were exploited by the snakeheads.

I understand they wanted to make their money, but they should

have shown humanity. We have our families too. We were promised

proper legal work. We never expected to end up on the seashore

picking cockles. When one is desperate, hungry, lack of sleep, you

will take any job to escape from hunger and a restless mind. They

exploited our weakness: we were not familiar with English law.

Our fate was in their hands. We had nobody to depend on, we

knew no one who could speak for us. We were under their control.

I’d just arrived the day before. I desperately needed to find work

to fill my tummy. In Liverpool I found the house and was given

food and a blanket: we all slept on the floor. I was sick the next

morning – but sick or not sick, you just had to pick the cockles.

The more we pick the more we can earn. The tool was not efficient.

Each bag must be as full as possible with cockles, right to the top,


Li’s tone darkened. ‘They should have carefully watched the

time, the tide table, the sea. They should have told us in advance

when the tide will be high. They should have prepared us.’

I asked about his vision of God, the halo of golden light in the

water, and Irene stopped translating and lowered her head as if

distracted by something. There followed silence. She removed her

spectacles and lifted a handkerchief to her face, wiping her eyes

and nose. I realized she was crying and, for a while, no one spoke.

Li moved slightly to one side so that most of his face was now

obscured from the camera. He lowered his head and raised his

hands to his eyes: he too was crying, but silently. After a long

pause, he talked about what he had hoped for.

‘In my dreams England was beautiful and big,’ he said. ‘Peaceful

and friendly.’

He had thought about little else but the forthcoming journey

as he worked on the farm in China. It wasn’t escape he sought

from the drab, repetitive tasks in the fields or from his family – his

parents, three siblings, his wife and their young child – but rather

a more secure and prosperous future for all of them. ‘I knew

England is democratic system,’ Li said, speaking through Irene.

‘People are protected to live in peaceful and respectful environment,

citizens have freedom to speak. Police will catch the bad guys.

Everyone can find a job they can do. Or wish to do. My wish was

to live in a country like England. I was determined to make that

wish come true. Our village was so poor, finding work to survive

was nearly impossible. Our house was damaged and the farm could

not keep us all surviving. The soil was bad, worn out. I was told

by snakeheads I would have a job if I worked hard. If I’d stayed

in China, been stuck in China all those years, we would be a bunch

of miserable, unhappy people depending on a tiny farming income

to feed our unhappy, miserable family.’

But perhaps he had suffered too much.

‘Had I known I’d be in that horrible accident in Morecambe

Bay, would I have left? No. I would not have come. But now I feel

blessed. Fate brought me to England and kept me alive in the

water. When I was picking cockles, before the water came in, I

promised to myself I would one day find my own job, without link

to snakeheads.’

He looked directly into the camera, leaning forward just a little.

‘And, you know, I did that.’

Li Hua often thinks about other victims trafficked into slavery,

suffering in plain sight as the cockle-pickers did. He mourns the

dead whose stories briefly become news whenever their bodies

are discovered in lorry parks or in sealed containers, or when they

fall from the undercarriage of an aircraft. He thinks of all the

nameless people he shared rooms with and crossed borders with.

He thinks of those he slept alongside in the room in Moscow and

the room in Liverpool – the people who died on the sands. Even

at his most despondent, Li believed he would reach England and

would one day be free – until that night, when everything seemed


Then he saw God in the water.


The Morecambe Bay tragedy is a parable about borders and about

loss – of home, of identity, of agency. It is also a parable about

wilful blindness: from Blair to Cameron, the governing elites of

Britain turned away from the effects of uncontrolled migration and

the exploitation of people by traffickers and smuggler gangs, as if

they wished they weren’t happening. As national leaders they knew

they lacked control – or were losing control – but rather than

levelling with the public, they kept on making bogus promises

about capped net migration targets and British jobs for British

workers. Under their leadership Britain became embroiled in

foreign wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – while other more

pressing domestic matters were neglected. They equivocated while

Nigel Farage agitated and mobilized his people’s army.

By the time of the Brexit referendum, uncontrolled migration,

modern slavery, the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second

World War and legitimate freedom of movement within the EU

were wilfully conflated by the hardest Brexiteers and their media

cheerleaders to create a kind of moral panic. Anti-immigration

sentiment energized the most toxic extremes of the anti-European


The year of the Morecambe Bay tragedy was also the year in

which ten new countries joined the European Union; eight had

been part of the former communist Eastern Bloc, the so-called A8

(accession eight), the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia,

Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Of the existing member

states in 2004, only the UK, Sweden and Ireland chose not to

impose ‘transitional controls’ restricting incomers from the A8


The New Labour government’s provisional forecast was that as

few as 5,000–13,000 migrant workers per year would arrive in

Britain from Eastern Europe. In the event, over the next few years,

with Germany, France, Italy and Spain imposing the maximum

seven-year transition controls to restrict freedom of movement,

more than a million Eastern Europeans came to Britain. Annual

net migration rose inexorably. By 2012, there were estimated to be

700,000 Polish people alone working in Britain. Bulgaria and

Romania joined the EU in 2007, and this time the New Labour

government imposed seven-year transitional controls on the two

new accession states. By 2019, 427,000 Romanians were reported

to be living in the UK.

The economic crisis in the eurozone and sharply rising youth

unemployment in southern Europe were also push factors driving

large numbers of European workers to Britain, which – because

of its flexible labour market – became what the writer Helen

Thompson calls ‘the employer of last resort’ for the EU. All the

while, the population level was rising sharply. In 2021 official

figures revealed that, from 2012 onwards, net migration was in

fact 43,000 higher each year than official estimates had said.

‘Britain 2004–2019 is a textbook case of how to lose public trust

on migration,’ the political scientist Matthew Goodwin has written,

because for many voters, particularly those who voted Leave, immi-

gration ‘seemed to encapsulate the failure of a remote political

class to respond to their concerns’. The unanswerable question is

this: had the Blair government introduced transitional controls in

2004, would Brexit have happened?

‘We live in a world in which people move more easily between

countries than at any time before,’ wrote Ivan Krastev.

And it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish

between migrants and refugees. In a world defined by

rising wealth inequality between states and within states,

where social media enables people to peek at the ways even

the most distant others live, migration has become the new

revolutionary force. This is not the twentieth-century

revolution of the masses, but a twenty-first-century exit-

driven revolution enacted by individuals and families . . . A

simple crossing of the border into the EU is more attractive

than any utopia.

+ + +

In 2000, George Walden, a former diplomat and Conservative

government minister, published New Elites: A Career in the Masses,

a polemical book examining what he considered to be the liberal

populism of the New Labour years. A revised edition was

published during the pandemic. According to Walden’s updated

figures, ‘In 2004, the non-UK-born population was 5.3 million.

By 2018 it was 9.3 million – just over 14 per cent of the total

population – of whom 3.6 million were from the EU and 5.7

million from outside.’

Resentment was concentrated among those most likely to suffer

directly from immigration, whether economically or from pressure

created on housing, schools, the NHS, or among older people

unsettled by rapid demographic change.

‘BBC managers helped bottle up discontent by avoiding discus-

sion of the issue on the corporation’s news programming,’ Walden


Repressed anger frequently focused on Muslims, whether

for cultural or racist reasons or fears over terrorism, and

because non-EU migrants were the majority. Hence a huge

paradox. In the 2016 referendum many voted Leave in the

belief . . . that Brexit would stem immigration from all

sources. In this sense Dominic Cummings’ slogan to ‘Take

Back Control’ from Europe was a lie: Britain controlled

non-EU migration.

This is true but, as we have seen, the desire for ‘control’ was about

much more than the issues most people associated with Brussels.

It was about loss – the sort of loss experienced by my aunt and her

friends in Potter Street, Harlow, and in many other small towns.

In 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives had been elected on

a manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to less than 100,000

a year. It was an unrealistic, and dishonest, target. Cameron knew,

just as Gordon Brown knew before him when he pledged in his

first conference speech as the new prime minister to create ‘British

jobs for British workers’, that it could never be achieved under

freedom of movement and residence rules – a cornerstone of the

European citizenship bestowed upon citizens of the EU’s member

states by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

When the treaty was signed, Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch prime

minister and one of its architects, was convinced the British pro-Eu-

ropean elites were not being honest about what greater EU

integration entailed. ‘It was as if the makers did not dare to tell

the truth,’ he said.

+ + +

In the years after Maastricht, the arrival of many hundreds of

thousands of Eastern Europeans in Britain was welcomed by the

business community as a net benefit to the economy; most of

them were working and paying tax. ‘But it evidently benefited

some more than others: employers more than workers; the middle

classes more than the working classes,’ wrote Robert Tombs.

‘Between 2005 and 2007, 540,000 incomers found jobs, and

270,000 British workers lost them. For many people, this was the

most tangible consequence of EU membership, and larger

numbers started voting for the United Kingdom Independence


None of this was inevitable. Not only could successive British

governments have reduced immigration from outside the EU, they

could have raised wages and reformed the labour market, which

was far more flexible than in any other EU member-state, as well

as introducing restrictions on residence (as in Germany or France).

This, coupled with improved vocational and technical training,

would have reduced the substantial demand for skilled labour from

the EU. UK governments had scope for action that they chose not

to use.

In 2003, David Goodhart published an essay titled ‘Too Diverse?’

in Prospect magazine, of which he was founding editor. The essay

explores how in the author’s view greater diversity had undermined

social cohesion and solidarity in Britain and he argued that too

much immigration was weakening the consensus on which

redistributive welfare capitalism depended: the so-called progres-

sive dilemma. Without reciprocity and shared obligations, there

could be no stable social contract.

After the Morecambe Bay tragedy, Goodhart’s essay was widely

discussed; it was also misread as an anti-immigration diatribe.

It was not. What it did was raise questions about the conflict, as

Goodhart later explained, between rapidly increasing diversity

and the solidarity and trust required to sustain a generous welfare

state. A divide was growing between younger liberals, who

embraced the opportunities of globalization, and conservative-tra-

ditionalists who feared its destabilizing effects. These do not have

to be opposing sides and should never have been allowed to

become so.

‘My essay was not an essay on mass migration,’ Goodhart

recalled. ‘It was, rather, a tentative exploration of the boundaries

of people’s willingness to share in modern welfare states.’

In 2016, after the vote for Brexit, Goodhart published a timely

book, The Road to Somewhere, in which he described a binary divide

in society between ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’; between a highly

educated and mobile group who valued autonomy and diversity

and who dominated our politics, and a more rooted, less well-

educated group who valued security and familiarity. Somewheres

‘feel that their more socially conservative intuitions have been

excluded from the public space in recent decades’, Goodhart wrote,

and this resentment has ‘destabilised our politics and led to Brexit

and Trump’.

Nigel Farage is by temperament and lifestyle an Anywhere and

yet he paradoxically mobilized Somewheres to his great cause.

Through his blokeish banter and relentless, single-minded deter-

mination he did more than any other politician to create the

political conditions for the European referendum. He too considers

the year 2004 to be a significant turning point in the story of

modern Britain: EU enlargement and the failure to impose trans­

ition controls resulted in the largest unplanned migration in British

history and, inevitably, a populist backlash.

‘The European Union and immigration had ceased to be an

issue before 2004,’ Farage told me. ‘It was the mistake of letting

in the former communist countries. Many in UKIP said to me,

“No, no, don’t do that, you mustn’t do that. They’ll call us all the

names under the sun.” I knew that touching the immigration issue

was going to be very difficult. But I think the impact that had on

me, the family, all of that was bad. And frankly . . . the only thing

that upsets me about it is that, had it been wilfully and overtly a

racist message, I might have deserved some of it. But it wasn’t. It

never was. It never, ever was. For me it was a logical argument

about numbers, about society and control.’

Behind the scaremongering and xenophobia was a material

reality of everyday hardship and neglect that Farage and his allies

exploited and rival politicians from the two main parties ignored

or simply wished away. From 2010 onwards, people’s anxieties

about immigration were compounded by stagnant wages, spending

cuts which weakened public services – primary schools, maternity

units, doctors’ surgeries, libraries, social care, and the public realm

– just as the population was rising fast. By the time of the

referendum, annual net migration was running at 330,000. That

David Cameron chose to hold it during the 2015–16 European

refugee crisis merely reinforced how detached this smoothly insou-

ciant, risk-taking, self-confident charmer was from the realities of

most people’s everyday lives. Michael Portillo, a former Conservative

minister and a Brexit supporter himself, described Cameron’s

decision to call the referendum, and then to lead such a compla-

cent campaign, as the ‘greatest blunder ever made’ by a British

prime minister.

Migration was ‘the new revolutionary force of the twenty-first

century’, Ivan Krastev wrote and Cameron’s premiership would be

swept away by it.

It was as if the makers did not dare to tell the truth.

+ + +

If the story of immigration from 2004 to the Brexit referendum

was one of political mismanagement, false promises, missed targets

and careless disregard for public opinion, Brexit and the end of

freedom of movement have led to a cooling of the immigration

debate. But another world most of us would rather not think about

continues to thrive – the world of the smugglers and their victims.

Trafficked people are everywhere around us, labouring in plain

sight – in high-street nail bars, ‘Thai’ massage parlours, textile

factories, restaurant kitchens, sweatshops, warehouses, and abat-

toirs. Or they’re lost in the shadow economy, in marijuana farms

and brothels. Some of them are dying, without passports or iden-

tity papers, without dignity, as the cockle-pickers did in Morecambe


Pham Thi Tra My was a twenty-six-year-old woman who was

found dead alongside thirty-eight other Vietnamese people, aged

between fifteen and forty-four, in a refrigerated lorry container

parked at Purfleet Docks in October 2019. Two people-smugglers,

from Romania and Northern Ireland, were found guilty of thirty-

nine counts of manslaughter; two lorry drivers were also found

guilty of illegally conspiring to transport Vietnamese migrants from

northern France to southern England.<