Recent weeks have seen hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to flee their homes, from tiny children to the very elderly, the majority from war-torn Syria, arriving in Europe, and facing yet more distress and trauma at its borders. September’s events came at the end of a summer of repeated man-made tragedies which saw hundreds of people drowning in the Mediterranean when their boats capsized off the Libyan coast, others dying from suffocation in trucks crossing into Europe, and yet others trapped in appalling conditions in makeshift camps in Calais and elsewhere on the French coast. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately 2,500 people are believed to have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe so far this year.
With a wave of public sympathy following the publication on 2 September of the shocking photographs of the body of three-year old Aylan al-Kurdi, who drowned with his family who were attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece, European governments appeared to open a chink - albeit a temporary and woefully inadequate one - in the gates of Fortress Europe, as a number of EU member states agreed to ‘accept’ more refugees - although Germany was the only country to make moves to admit significant numbers. Within a few days however, the Fortress was back in place with a vengeance, with Germany closing its borders with Austria (suspending its obligations to ensure free movement for citizens within the EU) and Hungary’s right-wing government completing a massive border fence with Serbia and police proceeding to unleash violence, teargas and water cannon on trapped refugees, including many with small children. Recent events have led to a recognition that there is a ‘refugee crisis’ – but many have argued that this is a misnomer. It is a crisis of racist borders, a crisis of imperialism, a crisis of globalised capitalism and its effects, as more and more people are forced to leave their homes by imperialist wars without end, livelihoods destroyed by neoliberalism, and environments vitiated by pollution and climate change. Understood in this way, the distinction between those stigmatized as ‘economic migrants’ and those recognized as ‘refugees’ (the latter defined narrowly in the terms of the Geneva Convention as those fleeing persecution) becomes increasingly blurred.
The last few weeks have been marked by the growing disjuncture between governments which continue to promote a discourse of racism and xenophobia and fear-mongering, and responses on the ground. While for example David Cameron notoriously described refugees as a ‘swarm’ of people ‘wanting to come to Britain’ and callously apologized for the inconvenience to ‘British holidaymakers’ travelling to France when a young Sudanese man was crushed to death by a truck in Calais while trying to reach the UK, this has contrasted with the mass demonstrations taking place in support of refugees in London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna and many other European cities, in some cases clashing with far-right anti-migrant protestors; banners proclaiming ‘Refugees Welcome’ being unfurled at football matches; people organising convoys of supplies for the camps in Calais and elsewhere in France; and spontaneous supportive responses being encountered by exhausted people who have been travelling on foot across Europe. In early September, 250,000 people in 48 hours signed a petition calling for Britain to take its ‘fair share’ of refugees. Many evoked parallels with the 1930s when Jewish refugees fled Hitler’s Germany, often facing a hostile reception whipped up by the same newspapers currently slandering ‘asylum-seekers’.
Of course, much of this is being expressed in the language of humanitarianism and ‘compassion’ rather than solidarity. But there is also a growing awareness of the inseparable historical and contemporary connections between Western governments’ actions and the ongoing forcible uprooting of people from their homes, making it all the more ironic that the British government should have responded to the crisis with assurances that it would once again seek to ‘bomb Syria’. In recent years West Asia has seen an endless cycle (now being repeated in Syria) where repressive leaders, previously armed and backed as allies of the West, have overnight been re-labelled as ‘evil’ dictators and legitimate targets of ‘regime change’ at the first sign of economic independence, or simply to fit into short and long-term gameplans of corporate capital; resistance movements have been mercilessly hijacked, progressive elements destroyed and the most reactionary elements within them fostered, trained and armed; and country after country has been devastated by imperialist military intervention. This has been central to creating the current crisis of mass displacement.
But refugee activists have also expressed concern that while the Syrian refugee crisis has dominated headlines, and European governments have been forced to respond, acute racism means that refugees from Africa – particularly the Horn and Sub-Saharan Africa - who make the even more lethal sea crossing from Libya to Italy (which 2,200 people, again including young children, have died making this year alone) continue to be ignored or demonized as ‘illegal immigrants’. These are people who have been forced to leave their homes by ongoing imperialist plunder and promotion of wars and conflicts across many parts of the continent. Many are also seeking to escape from state persecution of LGBT people and patriarchal practices like FGM, exposing the hypocrisy of Western governments which point to these issues to justify imperialist intervention, and then accuse those fleeing them of lying in order to refuse them asylum!
It is also important to recognize that the racism and inhumanity encountered by refugees at the borders cannot be separated from the way they are treated once within those borders. Recent months have also seen protests by refugees themselves in countries from Australia to Britain against the system of indefinite imprisonment in detention centres, and forcible deportations during which a number of refugees have been killed by immigration officers and private security companies. In Britain, these have centred on Yarl’s Wood, Britain’s only women’s detention centre which is run by the private security company Serco. The imprisoned women have staged repeated protests against the sexual assaults and racist abuse they face as well as the injustice of detention and deportation. This summer has seen a series of vibrant mass demonstrations in solidarity with the women inside, to ‘Surround Yarl’s Wood’ and demand the closure of all detention centres. The Movement for Justice, which organized these protests, was itself formed by refugees alongside other young anti-racist activists. Meanwhile, refugee and migrant women and men workers, some of whom have experience as political activists in their countries of origin, have been at the forefront of some of the most militant and sustained struggles of unorganized workers in Britain, such as those of contract cleaners in Universities and in the London Underground trains, and leading activists have been targeted for deportation as a result. It is now more than ever clear that across Europe the struggle for refugees’ and migrants’ rights must be at the heart of any politics which seeks to resist neoliberal austerity, racism and imperialist war.