Scenes of desperate migrants and refugees dominate the news: from Calais to Greek islands; from camps in Libya, Syria, Jordan and Turkey, to Hungary and Serbia; from pictures of grief and tragedy on beaches and in the backs of lorries to riot police with pepper spray and attacks on refugee hostels in Germany.
The weakness of the ruling classes’ response has been demonstrated amply by citizens of the richest European nations seizing the initiative themselves, often without reference or in opposition to their own governments. After Iceland offered to resettle only a tiny number of refugees, over 11,000 households came forward via an online petition to offer accommodation. Families stepping off trains from Hungary into Austrian and Bavarian railway stations were greeted with throngs of applauding citizens, banners bearing messages of welcome in numerous languages, and co-ordinated teams of charities and government agencies offering food, clothing and medical attention. In Munich, the quantity of donations proved so overwhelming that the city’s police were obliged to announce via Twitter that the amount already donated would be sufficient for several days, and that no more was required.
We applaud these demonstrations of solidarity with those in dire need – and all the more so because they clearly demonstrate a spirit of internationalism and tolerance contrasting sharply with the xenophobia of the right.
This sudden surge in migration has not come out of the blue, or even developed in the past few years. This is only the latest chapter in a cat and mouse battle between the immigration state and migrants in the Mediterranean and Aegean that goes back more than a decade. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa escaping poverty, war and persecution are now joined by Syrians fleeing the Assad regime and the sectarian strife it has fostered. The recent change is that immigration authorities of various European countries and the pan-European Frontex have steadily increased patrols, pushing migrants into more and more dangerous routes, requiring the ‘services’ of traffickers.
The government has grudgingly made minor concessions, allowing some refugees entry to the UK. British Prime Minister Cameron’s response has been among the worst from all European leaders, as he tries to shield Britain from European freedom of movement. He wants to restrict this to a proportion of Syrian refugees – and significantly seeks to limit this only to those currently in refugee camps in the Middle East. However, he has proposed allowing in only a mere 20,000 over the next five years. A video of Labour MP Gerald Kaufman in the House of Commons has been circulating widely online in which he laments the inadequacy of this response and notes that Germany recently accepted 10,000 people in a single day. Cameron refuses to participate in any mandatory quota system agreed by the EU, allocating specific numbers of refugees to member states as proposed by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. There is no legitimate reason for Britain to avoid making a commitment at least proportionately equal to that of Germany.
Britain must acknowledge its own responsibility for the present crisis. It has been caused partly by the role played by British foreign policy. The displacement we are seeing of so many people fleeing from Iraq and Syria flows from war and its consequences.
The government’s response also reinforces the sharp [but artificial] distinction between refugees and economic migrants. We reject this divisive filtering. If people have risked death crossing the sea, clambering under lorries and trains, breaking into refrigerated trucks with no ventilation, then does it really matter whether they did so because they had a reasonable fear of persecution or because they are destitute? We don’t think so.
We demand that the migrants should be let in. Instead of building more fences the Calais border should be opened. Faced with heightened security, people in the Calais ‘jungle’ will simply take greater risks and more people will be killed as the barriers are made more dangerous, just as more people have been killed by the strengthening of borders with North Africa.
Britain must participate fully in a collective European response. And that response must be as extensive as necessary. Cherry-picking a small number of refugees exclusively from the camps in and around Syria is woefully inadequate, and will in time lend itself to the demands of xenophobes who advocate preferential treatment for those of certain religions.
We oppose all immigration controls. Immigration controls deny people the basic right to move freely around the world. Immigration controls criminalise people because of who they are, where they were born, where their parents were born, the language they speak, the colour of their skin, by deeming them “illegal immigrants”. This must stop.
We oppose the existence of a two-tier welfare system designed to penalise migrants, the exploitative systems of visa sponsorship and of unequal employment rights. Refugees are put in an impossible situation, condemned by the right-wing media which incites hostility towards them for supposedly coming to “sponge” rather than “contribute”, yet the law specifically forbids them from finding paid work.
There are many who will argue, as they have done since the turn of the 19th century that Britain is full up – we cannot cope with these “swarms” of refugees and migrants. Any humanitarian crisis puts an economic strain on those who are trying to help. But helping others in need is part of what makes us human. And there is more than enough wealth in the world to help its oppressed and dispossessed. This crisis calls out for a debate about the sort of world we live in, when governments refuse to stretch out the hand of common humanity to help those in need.
We have to fight for a more equal world. War, exploitation, poverty and climate change are all causes of the movement of people from their homes. However, the United Nations estimates that in 2013 just 2.3% of people were living outside their country of birth. In itself this shows that migration is not undertaken lightly or without good reason. But it should also serve as a warning: there will come a time when this number increases, especially as capitalism continues to destroy our environment. For Europe to continue hiding behind walls and fences in those circumstances would create an even greater human catastrophe than we are seeing now. We must be ready to challenge the agenda of the capitalist class and fight for a new way of organising global society, with democratic control over our communities and resources.
It is easy to think after reading the tabloids and listening to the politicians that people are generally hostile to migrants and refugees. Indeed, YouGov’s polling has shown 51% in favour of admitting the same number, fewer, or no refugees at all – in contrast to the 36% who want Britain to admit more. We place our hopes in the potential significance of that 36%, and aim to persuade all those who have been misled by right-wing propaganda that they have nothing to fear from migrants so much as from the ruling class.
Opening the borders may not eradicate the underlying problems that cause people to be displaced but doing so will prevent a human tragedy of monumental proportions. Keeping them open will help to prevent future tragedies. The practical acts of kindness and solidarity shown by thousands across Europe and beyond reveal the potential for a future society of mutual solidarity.