Nov 27, 2015
The following article first appeared in Class Struggle Issue 106, Winter 2015, the journal of British comrades of Workers Fight.
Never has the social catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East and northern Africa been so crudely highlighted than over the past few months.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of refugees, young and old, women, men and children, should risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean in un-seaworthy boats, breaking through barbed wire walls and confronting the riot police sent to stop them, undoubtedly gives a measure of their despair. Their search for a safe haven in western and northern Europe was not just driven by their aspiration for a better life, but by something even more vital than that – their attempt to survive by escaping the wars, destruction and poverty that are plaguing their home countries!
However, while all the European governments have, directly or indirectly, some responsibility in the social catastrophe that these refugees are fleeing, none of them has shown any willingness to help these new “wretched of the earth,” to use the words of the Internationale, created by their imperialist system of world domination.
On the contrary, they embarked on a passing-the-buck exercise, bickering over the number of refugees each of them would be prepared to accept. They eventually agreed on a “quota” system – although not even all EU governments signed on to it, especially not Cameron’s. But even these minimal commitments were too much for them. No sooner was the system agreed upon, then they began to find excuses to cynically ignore their pledges, while pandering to the xenophobic rants of their domestic far-right currents. And to top it all, at the time of writing, they have now seized on the Paris terrorist attacks to close down their borders to new refugees, whom they implicitly label as potential terrorists.
The phenomenon of refugees coming from across Africa, the Middle East and Asia to Europe to find work or flee the wars created by imperialism goes back many decades. But the scale of the present crisis sets it apart – it is the largest movement of refugees since the 1947 partition of British colonial India caused over 10 million people to leave their homes in order to move either to India or Pakistan.
Last year, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – the highest figure since World War II. And the rate of increase of this refugee population was going up – with an estimated 42,500 people fleeing war zones every day. They were predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan – and this did not include Palestine, which has the world’s largest displaced population. The refugees coming to western and northern Europe today are predominantly from these same countries, with a small minority fleeing the social devastation of southeastern Europe.
The UNHCR has now registered over 4.3 million Syrian refugees outside the country – or 19% of the Syrian population. About half – over 2.1 million – are in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon and Jordan where they represent a huge burden for the limited resources of these countries. The population of Lebanon, for instance, has increased by 20% due to the influx of refugees. Living conditions are often unbearable. Camp Za’atari, in Jordan, houses more than 120,000 refugees – making it the world’s second largest refugee camp. Barbed wire walls surround the camp and no one can leave without the permission of the camp authorities. There is no clean running water and there are frequent power outages. In fact, the situation is so intolerable that some residents have chosen to risk their lives by crossing Syria, despite the civil war, in order to get to Turkey. This country is the single largest destination for Syrian refugees, with 1.9 million registered there with the UNHCR. This is due to the fact that Turkey has a long border with Syria and that the border region between the two countries has seen the worst of the civil war’s fighting. But this is also because Turkey is seen as a gateway to Europe and many refugees hope to be able to travel from there to the richest parts of Europe.
Most of the refugees coming from the African continent travel to Libya in order to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. They are fleeing recurrent famine that has spread over large parts of northern Sudan, or the brutal rule of Islamic and ethnic militias in Sub-Saharan countries and in the Horn of Africa. But as soon as they get to Libya – which is itself run by rival militias – the refugees get rounded up, beaten up and locked up for days without food or water by local gangs, which seek to be paid for policing the borders.
The refugees who manage to escape from the grip of the Libyan gangs risk their lives on boats filled far beyond capacity in order to cross the Mediterranean. Between the year 2000 and 2014, 22,000 may have died in the process, according to the International Organization for Migration – although this is probably a huge underestimation. In the first 10 months of this year, another 3,510 were drowned, according to the UNHCR. Its figures also show that, taking into account those who crossed from Turkey to Greece, over 874,000 refugees have managed to reach Europe since the beginning of the year.
With winter approaching the situation of those who are continuing their journey on foot through Turkey or Eastern Europe is getting worse. There have already been reports of hypothermia and pneumonia among the refugees. The UNHCR has been handing out warm blankets – but the numbers are totally inadequate – just as inadequate as the tents used in the emergency refugee camps when there are heavy rains or where temperatures drop close to zero.
When the scandal of the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean waters began to emerge in the European media, what also emerged was how little the EU governments had been doing to rescue the refugees at sea. All in all, their search-and-rescue operation – code-named “Operation Triton” – could only rely on two surveillance aircraft and three ships to cover an area over 1.5 million square miles! Even then, some EU leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, wanted this operation to be stopped altogether, under the ludicrous pretext that it was giving the refugees an incentive to risk their lives, rather than encouraging them to keep away from Europe – and that, instead, punitive expeditions should be organized in Libya against “people smugglers.” How cynical could they get!
So far, an estimated 454,000 Syrian refugees made it to Europe this year or slightly over 10% of the total number. It is estimated that, for the time being, around 750,000 refugees need to find resettlement in Europe – or just one refugee for every 700 EU inhabitants! But this did not stop all EU governments from protesting that their countries could not cope with taking in these refugees.
Of course, their excuses have nothing to do with what these governments can or cannot “afford” to do. But they have everything to do with their respective domestic politicking and the ongoing bidding war that is taking place in all EU countries over the need to put what they call the “national interest” first, in a time of crisis. In this bidding war, all governments – whether they overtly position themselves on the right, as in Britain and Hungary, or whether they claim left credentials as in France – willingly allow the xenophobic polemics of the far-right to set the tone.
As a result, the agreement passed between EU governments in September was only for the relocation of 120,000 refugees. But even then, the quotas which were agreed on (in the short term) only concerned 66,000 who were stuck in Greece and Italy, to ease the immediate pressure on these two countries. The allocation of the other 54,000 Syrians was to be considered later. The remaining estimated 630,000 were left to their own devices!
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was applauded by some for pledging to take the largest single quota. But, faced with a rebellion from the right-wing of her own party and the far-right, she soon changed tack, lashing out against refugees from the Balkans and Afghanistan and arguing that they should go back and rebuild their own countries. As if the Afghan refugees were not fleeing a bloody civil war stoked and primed by the imperialist powers and as if those from the Balkans – who come mostly from Albania – were not fleeing the catastrophic devastation caused in their country by the civil war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia! Now, however, it appears that even Syrian refugees will not be given full refugee status in Germany; they will only be able to stay for one year and their families will not be allowed to join them!
Meanwhile the Hungarian right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban, as part of his xenophobic bidding war with the country’s far-right Jobbik party, was trying to stop the flow of refugees from crossing his country to get to Austria and Germany by building a razor-topped wall along its border with Serbia and Croatia. Similar defenses against refugees are also being erected, although not on such a crazy scale, by the Austrian, Slovenian and Bulgarian governments.
The EU’s “open-border policy” is fast becoming a myth!
When it comes to xenophobic demagogy and lack of any humanitarian policy, however, Cameron has topped the European league.
Of course, unlike Orban, one of his closest allies in the EU, Cameron didn’t build a razor-topped wall around Britain. But then he didn’t need to, since Britain is an island, while the heavily-patrolled English Channel is a most effective wall.
As mentioned above, his first response to the refugee crisis was to refuse to contribute to the search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean. Then his government embarked on a scaremongering campaign against the “swarms” of refugees that were supposedly threatening Britain from Calais. It seemed as if Britain was about to be invaded! Never mind that the 5,000 or so refugees gathered in Calais (less than one for every 12,000 British citizens, as if there was not enough space or resources in Britain to allow all of them in!) are only a tiny fraction of the flow of refugees to the rest of Europe, most of whom are not particularly attracted by Britain, anyway.
All this anti-refugee rhetoric had only one aim – to placate the Tory right-wing while preempting the predictable anti-refugee stance of the UK Independent Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party. Likewise for the line drawn by Home Secretary, Theresa May, at her party’s conference, between the “refugees in desperate need of help” and “economic migrants who simply want to live in a more prosperous society” – in other words, between “deserving” political refugees and “undeserving” economic migrants. As if both categories were not driven by the same level of despair! Haven’t they all risked their lives in order to flee from hell?
Theresa May made the argument that “excessive” immigration would be too much of a burden for schools, hospitals, transport and housing and that it would push wages down and unemployment up – an argument shamefully endorsed by the Labor Party. As if the main burden on public services weren’t the government’s own reckless cost-cutting! And as if it weren’t the capitalist bosses who were driving wages down and cutting jobs to boost their profits!
Yet another argument peddled by Cameron and the media is that the refugees who made it to Europe are somehow “privileged” compared to those who are stuck in Middle Eastern refugee camps – either because they were rich enough to pay for their sea passage, or because they were fit enough to endure the journey. As if, after having risked their lives to come to Europe, they no longer needed any help! To back this argument up, Cameron boasted about the nearly 1.5 billion dollars his government is supposed to have spent to help refugees in Jordanian and Lebanese camps. In fact, however, the figures published by his own Department for International Development show that, by the end of October, only 468 million dollars of this money had been spent – not even one third of the total!
In the September quota agreement, France, the only EU country comparable to Britain in terms of wealth and population, had only accepted 25,000 refugees immediately. But Cameron stood out by opting out of this agreement altogether and announcing a plan of his own to take just 20,000 refugees – and only over the next five years. In addition, none of the refugees who made it to Europe would be allowed into Britain – under the hypocritical pretext that they were not the most in need. Instead, the British authorities would handpick refugees from the camps in Jordan or Lebanon. But, so far, despite being asked seven times by Members of Parliament, the Home Office Minister for Refugees Richard Harrington has refused to disclose the number of Syrian refugees actually admitted to Britain. As if they had something sinister to hide – which they probably do.
Once in Britain, what should these refugees expect? Cameron has made a point of refusing them “asylum” status – which would have given them indefinite leave to remain. Instead, they’ll be granted so-called “humanitarian” status, meaning that they’ll be able to live and work in Britain for five years. After that, they may be able to apply for asylum – an application process that could take up to one year, during which time applicants are not allowed to work!
Together with the host of punitive measures planned – or, in some cases, already implemented – to deprive migrants of many welfare provisions, Cameron’s policy in dealing with the refugee crisis is obviously part of his attempt to pull the xenophobic carpet from under UKIP’s feet. There’s no humanity in this, just politicking – at the expense of the lives of the hundreds of thousands who could easily be welcomed and resettled in a country as rich as Britain.
Yet the same rich European powers that are closing their borders to the flood of refugees all have a direct responsibility in the catastrophes these desperate people are fleeing. These are the direct and indirect results of the imperialist interventions in these countries.
It was first the occupation of Afghanistan, and then that of Iraq, followed by the bombing of Libya, which created a political vacuum in all these countries and paved the way for the emergence of rival Islamic militias vying for political power. Ever since then, these countries have been turned into war zones, in which the populations are caught in the crossfire between rival militias and subjected to their brutal rule. The destruction caused by Western aggression has been aggravated by the devastation caused by rampant civil wars. Economic collapse has reduced the population to destitution. There is no future for anyone in these lands.
Syria was no exception in this respect. Of course, the Western governments claim the high moral ground by blaming the Assad regime. No one questions that it is a ruthless dictatorship. However, it was not his regime that armed the Syrian militias, but the Western powers’ regional allies – from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Qatar, which were all pursuing their own particular ambitions, hoping that the demise of the Syrian dictator would eventually bolster their own regional clout. For them, it did not matter what the cost would be for the Syrian population. And the Western powers, although knowing full well what kind of forces they were arming, turned a blind eye – because they wanted the maverick Assad to go, anyway, just as they had wanted Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi to go before that.
And much the same can be said about Sub-Saharan Africa or the Horn of Africa, even if, with the exception of Somalia and some of the French-speaking sub-Saharan countries, the imperialist armies haven’t been involved recently in full-scale aggression in these regions. But the big imperialist companies never stopped looting their resources, whether oil in Sudan and Nigeria, or uranium and other precious metals in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger. And in order to protect their looting of these natural resources, they have propped up and armed brutal dictators for many decades. The ethnic and Islamic militias that have emerged in these countries, terrorizing the population, merely feed on the anger caused by the brutality of these dictators and on the deprivation caused by the looting of the multinationals.
Now, the boomerang effect is in full swing. The refugee crisis is the direct byproduct of the imperialist powers playing with fire in the Middle East and across the whole African continent. Their leaders should not be allowed to wash their hands of the catastrophic fate of these refugees. Whatever their color, religion or language, they are the “wretched of the earth,” the brothers and sisters of the European working classes with whom they share the same enemy – the capitalist classes of the rich countries. Not only should they be welcomed here as refugees, but they should be given every means to resettle if that is what they wish to do. There is more than enough space for them. As for resources, if it is necessary for the capitalists to pay the additional bill out of their vast profits, so be it – it is more than high time that they pay their debt!