With the Brexit deadline looming and the debate around free movement of European Union nationals reaching its xenophobic zenith, the wider plight of international migrants is all too often neglected.
Nationalism and anti-migrant rhetoric are on the rise internationally, and vulnerable people, fleeing war, oppression and climate disaster, are being refused entry into safer countries. In the USA, President Donald Trump’s anti-migrant policies have led to children as young as four months old being torn from their parents.
In Europe the migration from the Syrian war has led to a ramping up of Islamophobic rhetoric and persecution, fuelling the rise of the far right. This has created a climate of fear for those migrants lucky enough to break into “Fortress Europe”. Here in Britain, the Hostile Environment policy and the racist rhetoric surrounding the Brexit debate reflect the same trend.
The human cost is staggering; more than 34,000 deaths have been recorded as a direct result of the so-called migration crisis in Europe alone, with over 1,000 deaths in the Mediterranean in 2019.
War’s forgotten victims
The catastrophes from which these people are fleeing are caused by the actions of the imperialist Global North. The incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, begun near the turn of the century, are still causing turmoil nearly two decades later. The recent devastation in Syria, in which proxy armies of the USA and a reconstituted imperial Russia waged war for access to natural resources and political control, has led to the internal displacement of 6 million people, with 5 million more fleeing abroad.
The bourgeois press throughout Europe branded this human tragedy a “migrant crisis”, with tabloid papers referring to those fleeing the conflicts as “cockroaches” and David Cameron calling refugees at Calais a “swarm”. As a consequence the majority of migrants and refugees of war and climate disaster are forced to flee to semi-colonial countries, which are least equipped to support them.
While this human tragedy is clearly on a huge scale, it is nothing compared to what may be ahead of us as a result of the impending climate disaster. The World Bank estimates that climate change could result in the movement of 140 million people by 2050, most of these from the countries in the Global South, which have contributed the least to the emergency but which now face the brunt of the consequences.
Centuries of colonialism, extraction of resources and enslavement of the working class in the Global South has resulted in nation states which are unable to provide a basic standard of living for their citizens. This is exacerbated by political corruption among the semi-colonial bourgeoisie, who allow the natural resources of their countries to be exploited by western capitalists in exchange for dictatorial power and personal wealth.
Unfortunately, a section of the working class in the imperialist heartlands has been deluded by capitalist demagogues into blaming migrants for increased competition for public services and employment. Migrants have provided a convenient scapegoat to each successive neoliberal administration, whose policies are the true cause of the lack of decent jobs and vanishing social safety net.
Since the financial crash, austerity has been inflicted upon the working class of Europe, and the anger created by this has been channelled towards migrants, with the rise of fascism the direct and inevitable result. Right wing governments from Thatcher onwards have destroyed the British manufacturing sector and then proceeded to blame migrants for the economic downturn of provincial areas.
This destruction of industry was not simply a vindictive Thatcherite anti-union policy, but part of the wider shift in the international division of labour, which has seen the rapid expansion of manufacturing in the semi-colonies, where workers are forced to accept even higher rates of exploitation than their sisters and brothers in the imperialist centre.
Labour and the unions
It is the responsibility of socialists and trade unionists to reach out to workers who have bought these racist lies and convince them of the true causes of their suffering – capitalist exploitation and neoliberal globalisation. We have a duty to stand in solidarity with migrant workers fleeing the consequences of imperialism. This includes unions, who should support the rights of all workers, not just those with British citizenship. All workers should have access to equal social and political rights, regardless of their country of origin.
Refugees are often forced to work in the gig economy, on zero-hours contracts, and in other poorly regulated spaces where even meagre employment rights do not apply; they may not get access to protections which are taken for granted by most workers. A Labour government must strengthen workers’ rights and ensure that all those who work have access to full employment rights from day one.
The limited free movement of people within the EU is only a starting point but this gain is now under threat. This right is important in normalising the concept that people should be able to live and work wherever they choose, not to mention to protect the rights of those 3.7 million EU citizens already living in the UK.
By defending free movement in Europe, we seek to extend it. All border controls are racist. Those who oppose racism and exploitation must stand with those fleeing catastrophes, which Britain either caused or profits from. In fighting to make the slogan ‘workers of the world – unite’ a reality, we demand the end of borders and the free movement of all people across the globe.