- Created: Friday, 02 October 2015 09:17
- Written by Tom Vickers
Since the beginning of 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants have crossed Europe’s borders; hundreds of thousands more are expected to try to do so over the coming months. The vast majority are fleeing the ravages of imperialist-backed wars in Syria and Afghanistan; others are escaping civil war, poverty, desperation and human rights abuses in Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East that are the legacy of years of exploitation, intervention and under-development by imperialist nations. Many have risked their lives to reach safety and embark on a better life for themselves and their families in the wealthy countries of northern Europe. Their sheer determination has overcome all the brutal and racist attempts of Fortress Europe to shut its borders against them, and has exposed the deep fault-lines of the European Union. Tom Vickers reports.
A crisis of Europe’s making
The so-called crisis is not the inevitable result of the numbers of people involved. Migration is a global fact. There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today, in addition to millions forced to move because of economic necessity. The 500,000 unauthorised crossings since the start of the year reported by the EU’s Frontex enforcement agency is significantly higher than 2014, but still only amounts to 0.8% of refugees in the world and 0.1% of the population of the EU – a number that could easily be accommodated. The ‘crisis’ has been created by the response of the EU states.
The EU accounts for nearly a quarter of global GDP and sucks in profits from every corner of the world. Immigration controls are simply another means to control the working class and oppressed and to protect the EU’s imperialist plunder. The attempt to differentiate between ‘deserving’ refugees and undeserving ‘economic migrants’ is a distinction FRFI rejects. European imperialism has driven people from their homes; it is almost impossible for poor people from oppressed nations to enter the EU through legal channels; rather they end up paying hundreds, even thousands of pounds, to unscrupulous people smugglers. Nearly three thousand people, including children, have already died this year crossing the Mediterranean on makeshift rafts and overcrowded boats and dinghies. Others have died in lorries attempting to cross Europe’s land borders. Many more suffer violent abuse en route. This lethal trade is the direct result of Europe’s racist immigration policies.
A similar number died during the same period in 2011, yet there was no such public outcry. What has changed is the level of migrants’ resistance to immigration controls, which has opened up splits in the European ruling classes. Limited accommodation of refugees, particularly where it will help with labour shortages, is being combined with increased repression.
Fortress Europe – battening down the hatches
‘It is clear the greatest tide of refugees and migrants is yet to come. So we need to correct our policy of open doors and windows. Now the focus should be on proper protection of our external borders.’
Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, 23 September 2015
Migrants have refused to be stopped by European border controls and attempts to prevent them travelling to the rich imperialist countries of northern Europe. In doing so, they have left European policy in disarray, revealing deep inequalities of wealth and power. An imperialist Europe founded on the principles of open internal borders can only function if the impoverished masses of the oppressed nations are kept at bay. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attempts to manage the ‘crisis’ in the interests of Germany and the wealthy northern imperialist nations have backfired as the poorer nations on the fringes of Europe, tasked with acting as gatekeepers to the EU, are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the numbers of people arriving at their borders. Small wonder the EU has struggled to achieve a united policy, and has only been able to force member states to accept a share of a meagre quota of 120,000 migrants with the threat of fines for those who refuse. Even so, four eastern European countries, including Hungary, have refused point-blank to participate.
At the beginning of September Germany said it would take 500,000 refugees a year, in addition to 800,000 expected by the end of 2015. This attempt to seize the initiative reflects Germany’s shortage of young skilled workers, with predictions that by 2060 more than a third of Germany’s adult population will be over 65. Besides, the country can afford it. And the apparent largesse is underpinned by greater restrictions and repression. On 13 September Germany instituted border controls, effectively suspending its membership of the Schengen free-movement area – followed by Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands. Days later it published draft reforms to its asylum system including: an extension to the period of compulsory stay in a ‘reception centre’ from three to six months; new powers to arrest asylum seekers arriving by plane; removal of state welfare for asylum seekers who arrived via another EU country, and penalties for actively trying to avoid deportation. Meanwhile, the EU has agreed that new camps to process migrants are to be built at the main entry points to Europe and external borders are to be strengthened. Its enforcement agency Frontex is getting a 54% increase to its budget. At the same time the right-wing Fidesz government in Hungary has built a razor-wire fence along its border and authorised the army and police to use ‘non-lethal’ force, including rubber bullets and tear gas, against migrants, and has criminalised unauthorised border crossings. The liberal façade of rights for asylum seekers, enshrined in the United Nations Refugee Convention, is being stripped away.
Calais: repression and resistance
At the French port of Calais, up to 4,000 people are trapped in squalid camps just beyond the British border. There they face a lack of welfare provision, and constant harassment, detention and violence by the French state, backed up at times by racist gangs. Over recent months numbers have been increasing, as have levels of organisation and collective resistance. The focus of migrant demonstrations has shifted from the Eurotunnel entrance to the centre of Calais. On 20 August British Home Secretary Theresa May and French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve visited Calais and were met by protests. Riot police prevented any migrants from the ‘Jungle’ – as the camps are called – from entering Calais, and migrants responded by occupying the motorway for over an hour, giving many people the opportunity to enter trucks bound for Britain.
On 3 September migrants picketed the Jules Ferry centre, which distributes aid and provides accommodation for women and children, and issued a statement protesting at the conditions in which they were being forced to live, and criticising the charities who profit from their misery. The next day 200 migrants marched from the distribution centre into the centre of Calais and for the first time the Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart came out to speak to them, but offered only excuses. More protests followed. On 10 September 150 Syrians held a candle-lit vigil outside the Calais town hall, calling for a legal and safe route into Britain to claim asylum. They were attacked by police including seven vans of CRIS (riot police), who dispersed the protest and forced the refugees back to the Jungle. On 21 September CRIS and council workers evicted migrants from the three camps outside the Jungle, bulldozing tents, seizing belongings including passports and putting migrants’ belongings into a rubbish compactor.
Britain: migrants’ rights under attack
Talk of Britain’s generosity towards refugees has been exposed as a lie. After condemning the Calais migrants as a ‘swarm’, on 7 September under political pressure Prime Minister David Cameron reversed government policy on refugees and announced that Britain would take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. This is tiny compared to the estimated four million who have fled Syria so far. The 20,000 will be given a limited period of leave to remain in Britain of five years, and unaccompanied minors will be deported once they are 18. They will be hand-picked from camps on the borders of Syria, and will not include those already in Britain or in Calais.
The government is intent on driving migrants already in Britain into deeper misery. On 17 September the Immigration Bill 2015-16 was published. Those awaiting appeals on human rights grounds will be subject to deportation. In 2014, 28% of appeals against refusal of asylum were successful – people awaiting appeal hearings could now be deported before their cases are heard. The Bill creates a criminal offence for working without papers, potentially leading to a 12-month prison sentence and an unlimited fine. Immigration officers will be given new powers to enter and search premises, seize earnings and property and shut down businesses that employ migrants without permission to work, with a focus on small businesses that will particularly affect ethnic minority owners. Private landlords will face prison sentences of up to five years if they rent to a migrant who does not have a ‘right to rent’, and in some circumstances landlords may be committing an offence if somebody without this right stays the night in one of their properties, even if they are not on the tenancy agreement. This will encourage landlords to refuse lettings to anyone who looks or sounds ‘foreign’, and to check up on ethnic minority tenants in case they have an undocumented friend staying over. A new criminal offence will be created for driving while a migrant without papers, encouraging racial profiling for traffic stops. Banks will be expected to carry out periodic checks on the immigration status of their clients. Having already cut the level of financial support for families seeking asylum (FRFI 246), the Bill will withdraw support entirely for families whose asylum claims are refused. This will push more refugee families into destitution.
Despite ongoing resistance inside Britain’s immigration prisons, which has forced detention onto the political agenda, on 10 September the Home Office refused to introduce a time limit on how long people can be held. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s first actions following his election as leader of the Labour Party was to join a demonstration for refugees in London, but it remains to be seen whether he will rise to the challenge of changing a party that has always been racist, and which when last in power boasted of deporting one person every eight minutes, expanded immigration detention to over 3,500 places, and removed asylum seekers’ right to work.
In the past month there has been a surge in sympathy for refugees in the British media and in charity collections. Many put this down to the impact of the photograph of a Kurdish toddler drowned and washed up on a beach in Turkey on 2 September, but the image could not have had this impact without the determined resistance by migrants that forced splits within the ruling classes.
It is misleading to describe this as a ‘migrant crisis’ or a ‘refugee crisis’: it is a humanitarian crisis for the people caught between imperialism’s destabilisation of the Middle East and the many walls of Fortress Europe. But the migrants’ struggle is also creating a crisis within the racist fortress. A decisive working class response is needed that can connect the struggles against racist border controls with the struggles against austerity. This also needs to build working class solidarity between the EU countries north and south, east and west. The only alternative will be an even more rapid descent into an increasingly brutal, racist and divided Europe.
FRFI 247 October/November 2015