Horrendous overcrowding

Victims of capitalism

The needless death of hundreds of refugees puts the left to the test, says Tina Becker

Leaders of European Union countries are meeting in an emergency summit on April 23 to deal with the “refugees crisis” that has been sparked by the capsizing of a small fishing boat packed full of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, which collided with another vessel, killing an estimated 800 people. More than 1,400 refugees have drowned in just one week.

There is no need to hold our breath in the hope that the EU will produce policies that will get even close to ‘solving’ the crisis. Least of all should we expect that the EU leaders will take responsibility for the fact that the system of capitalism is producing millions of refugees, who would rather risk death than rot away in countries ravaged by war, persecution or just plain and simple poverty.

This summit is mainly about money. Italy has been demanding for some time that other EU countries step in to “share the burden” of dealing with the increasing number of refugees who are trying to make it to Europe. In October 2014, the Italian government simply stopped its naval rescue operations, which were replaced by a much smaller EU force with about a third of the vessels, staff and, crucially, at a third of the cost (not supported by the British government, incidentally). But, so far this year, 1,700 people are known to have drowned on their precarious journey across the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 30,000 people might lose their lives attempting the same journey in 2015.1 In comparison, in 2014 ‘only’ 3,000 people drowned.

But death and misery is, of course, factored into the calculations - the risk is supposed to act as a deterrent. But clearly things are getting out of hand. The EU summit is therefore also supposed to show that ‘something is being done’. Politicians are not just standing by, as hundreds of people drown, you see. EU leaders want to look like responsible guardians of their borders, not callous money-pinchers who shrug their shoulders at the sight of yet another dead baby.

If pressed, many of them would probably sympathise with the outrage that a column by the deeply alienated Katie Hopkins in The Sun has caused, which was pretty nasty even by her standards:

Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb … Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum-seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.2

Incidentally, 250,000 people have signed a well-meaning, but rather pointless appeal to Rupert Murdoch to have her removed as a columnist - this is, after all, how the woman makes her living, no doubt to the delight of her bosses.3

Perhaps less controversial will be Hopkins’ call for “gunships” to stop people crossing the Mediterranean. For example, Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott (a much-cherished ally of David Cameron and co), has used the opportunity to advocate the “very successful” policy adopted by his own government: a military-led operation to turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers before they reach Australia. For the last 18 months, there have been “virtually no asylum-seeker boat arrivals and no reported deaths at sea”. Abbott has urged the EU to copy the policy, as “it’s the only way to save lives”.4 Or, more precisely, it is the only way to stop people dying on your own doorstep, in front of the cameras.

And the EU’s proposed “emergency measures” do in fact show that these are exactly the kind of plans our bourgeois politicians have in mind: while the German government demands a “fairer” distribution of the refugees who make it to Europe, the main focus on the summit is on “prevention”. Prevention of refugees coming close to Europe, that is - not prevention of the causes of mass migration, naturally. The proposed measures include an increase in the financial resources of Frontex, the agency that protects EU borders. According to the BBC, “there will also be a new campaign to destroy traffickers’ boats” and, of course, more targeting of the “people smugglers”.

It goes without saying that human traffickers are a pretty nasty kind of business people - the kind who make a sizable profit out of human misery: “A fishing vessel of the type that sank yesterday might cost $10,000 (£6,700). But hundreds of passengers paying a minimum of £1,000, provides a handsome earning multiple - a return on investment of almost 6,000%,” calculates TheGuardian.5 But they are simply a symptom and, like all good business people, are merely exploiting a gap in the market.

Also, it is unlikely that any of the real string-pullers will ever get caught. In the latest tragedy the authorities have jumped on Mohammed Ali Malek, the 27-year-old Tunisian captain and one of 28 survivors of the capsized fishing trawler. Despite the fact that the accident seems to have been caused by a mixture of his “steering mistakes” and the panic that led hundreds of refugees to clamber onto one side of the boat, causing it to capsize, Malek will face charges for “reckless multiple homicide”.6 But clearly he is not the person who organised the operation.

Open borders

Despite such rank hypocrisy, it is still somewhat surprising that the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage was the first bourgeois politician to come out with something at least halfway sensible:

It was the European response that caused this problem in the first place - the fanaticism of Sarkozy and Cameron to bomb Libya. They have completely destabilised Libya, to turn it into a country with much savagery, to turn it into a place where for Christians the place is now virtually impossible. We ought to be honest and say we have directly caused this problem.7

But Farage is no more concerned about the plight of would-be migrants than the more mainstream politicians. Clearly, he is mostly concerned about preventing deeper European cooperation and a strengthening of EU ties and is using the occasion to have a go at the current government.

Capitalism produces - and must produce - war after war and unimaginable economic hardship for billions of people. Mass migration can only increase under these conditions. And who can blame people for trying to flee a life of misery and war? As we say in the CPGB Draft programme,

As a matter of principle communists are for the free movement of people and against all measures preventing them entering or leaving countries. Simultaneously, we seek to end poverty, lack of opportunity, war and persecution everywhere.

The CPGB believes that people have a right to live and work wherever on the planet they choose.8

It is to the credit of Left Unity that at its 2014 policy conference an overwhelming majority supported the call for open borders and the abolition of all immigration controls. What a shame then that the official LU statement put out by national speaker Felicity Dowling on April 19 falls way short - it does not even mention LU’s policy. Even if she was one of the few people at conference who voted against it, as an elected officer she should clearly be bound by what was agreed. This is her text in full:

Left Unity mourns the deaths of the hundreds of migrants who have died this weekend and the many thousands who have drowned over the year. We need to call this what it is: the use of drowning as border control. Governments, including the British government, knew that this would happen when they stopped their funding for search-and-rescue operations. People are dying in the sea because of the main parties’ toxic politics on immigration. The death of each person matters and cries out for justice. The governments of Europe must fund effective rescue operations, and asylum systems. We will be working together with campaigns across Europe, Africa and the Middle East to stop any more deaths.9

As I write, there is nothing to be found on the issue on the website of the main leftwing electoral challenge at this year’s general election, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Unfortunately though, we know that the comrades have only recently rejected the call for open borders.

At Tusc’s conference in January, the Socialist Party in England and Wales used its numerical strength to argue and vote against an amendment to change its current position from opposition to “all racist immigration controls” to opposition to “all immigration controls”. In doing so, the comrades displayed a worrying opportunism. For example, a black SPEW comrade thought that the word “racist” should be retained, because “We won’t be taken seriously if we say ‘no border controls’ - imagine if thousands of people came from, say, Sri Lanka. It would cut us off from the working class.”10

Of course, the demand for open borders is not particularly popular, mainly because of the vicious, scare-mongering campaigns conducted by all major parties, the media and the likes of Katie Hopkins.

But does that mean we should shy away from saying what needs to be said? Does that mean we should close our eyes to the human suffering on much of the planet, because, well, what can we do? They can’t all come here, can they? The reformist plea for non-racist immigration controls plays directly into the hands of our exploiters. It concedes the right of the state to bar workers from entering Britain and strengthens the hand of those who are responsible for creating the ‘migrant crisis’ in the first place. Socialists should call for open borders, while at the same time explaining that, without the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of the whole of the world, there will always be millions of economic refugees and asylum-seekers.

Also, one might ask Tusc if the EU border controls that have led to these deaths are amongst the “racist” ones it opposes. Or are they of the non-racist type? Clearly, most of the victims were black. But the same border controls also stop poor whites from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus settling in the EU.

The comrades think they might have gotten away with a mealy-mouthed position that protects their right and left flank, but they are wrong. At the Tusc conference, a SPEW comrade argued: “If we don’t keep ‘racist’, the press will get hold of that and use it as a stick to beat us with.” Not surprisingly, the press (where it can be bothered) is beating the left with any stick it can find - for example with precisely its lack of a progressive policy on immigration, which puts its pretty close to some unsavoury allies. For example, the London Review of Books interviewed all general election candidates in Grimsby, including Val O’Flynn, a SPEW member standing for Tusc:

We talked for a while about Tusc, its desire for a socialist transformation of society and its policy of quitting the EU - “nothing more than a pro-business, neoliberal organisation”. I could see, when she talked about immigration, what a gaping space there was on the radical left for Ukip to enter. The open door immigration policy, she said, “suited the capitalist because it increases the labour force, it has a downward effect on wages, and immigrants are much easier to exploit. Immigrants come over here partly because of the faults of capitalism in their own countries. What is a minimum wage here is a good wage compared to what it would be at home. That brings the wages down for the rest of us.”11

This extract clearly demonstrates why Tusc’s opportunistic tightrope walks simply do not cut it. For a start, despite what comrade O’Flynn said, Tusc has no official position on the EU, because its federal, non-party structure allows a supporting organisation (in this case the RMT union) to veto decisions. Maybe comrade O’Flynn was talking as a member of SPEW, but clearly the journalist thought that this was Tusc policy. And who can blame him, really? Standing in a general election without an official policy on the EU is pretty crass.

And, by refusing to come out against all immigration controls, comrade O’Flynn’s comments on migrants allowed this bourgeois journalist to interpret them as a leftwing version of Ukip’s anti-immigration policies. Cutting political corners in order to attract more votes or avoid awkward discussions with working class people clearly does not work.


1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32399433.

2. The Sun April 17.

3. www.change.org/p/the-sun-newspaper-remove-katie-hopkins-as-a-columnist?source_location=trending_petitions_home_page&algorithm=curated_trending.

4. Daily Mail online, April 21 2015.

5. The Guardian April 20 2015.

6. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32399433.

7. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/nigel-farage/11548171/Nigel-Farage-David-Cameron-directly-caused-Libyan-migrant-crisis.html.

8. www.cpgb.org.uk/home/about-the-cpgb/draft-programme/3.-immediate-demands.

9. http://leftunity.org/migrant-boat-disaster-governments-must-end-drowning-as-border-control.

10. ‘Dishonesty and opportunism’ Weekly Worker January 29 2015.

11. www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n08/james-meek/why-are-you-still-here.