Open the borders

We should end the distinction between refugees and economic migrants, declares Anne McShane.

Labour’s manifesto backtracks on the resolution adopted at the Brighton conference this year, which included a commitment to “protect and extend” freedom of movement for European Union migrants, close detention centres, extend the right to vote to all migrants, and end restrictions on social welfare and housing. With the Tories pledging to close UK borders to all excepting the most highly skilled migrants, it looks like any policies which assist the less advantaged will provoke a political storm.

But, while the conference resolution has many progressive aspects - not least the closure of the barbaric detention centres, which currently imprison more than 25,000 people considered to be illegal migrants - it does not deal with the fundamental problem of immigration controls. It does not propose their abolition in respect of migrants from outside the EU. And crucially it does not propose to end the arbitrary distinction between asylum and other forms of migration.

As Paul Demarty pointed out in his article on the recent deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants,1 the plight of economic migrants is no less deserving than those fleeing political, religious and other forms of oppression. This is evident in the hundreds of thousands on the move today in an attempt to find a better life. And they are prepared to suffer considerable hardship, take enormous risks and hand over large sums of money to ‘people smugglers’ to get to where they want to go.

The system of immigration controls which created the distinction between ‘genuine’ refugees and economic migrants is a profoundly reactionary one. It is primarily targeted at preventing entry of unskilled labour from counties wreaked by imperialist-sponsored wars, IMF structural adjustment programmes and state failure. The characterisation of a refugee is highly restrictive: a person who has a “well-founded fear” of persecution, based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or holding of a particular political opinion. Asylum-seekers who can prove that they face a “serious and real risk of serious harm” in their country of origin can also be granted protection. But this is time-limited and can be removed later.

The definition of those who can be granted asylum has been restricted even further by a 2005 EU directive, which allows the governments of individual member-states to deem certain countries as ‘safe’ - places where there is apparently “no serious risk of persecution” and where the state guarantees democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities. Thus the UK list for 2018 contains 23 countries that the government considers as incapable of producing refugees. Former Soviet-bloc and African states figure prominently in the list, which includes Ukraine, Bolivia, India, Nigeria, South Africa and Albania, many of which are not exactly well known for their positive records on human rights and democracy. The lists are essentially arbitrary - with each EU country having its own list - and in reality are based on what migrant group is seen as problematic for that state and on diplomatic or economic deals.

The safe country policy targets entire national groups as bogus asylum-seekers and fast-tracks their applications to rush them through the system to deportation. Only 6% of Albanians, 3% of Georgians and under 6% of Nigerians who applied for asylum in Europe this year have so far been granted it. Does that mean that those claims rejected were all fake? I do not think so. Nigerian women seeking asylum in the UK on grounds of forced marriage or sexual violence are routinely disbelieved, despite the well documented abuse of Nigerian women - and the fact that officially the country is only considered safe for men.

Georgians persecuted as oppositionists to the current Georgian Dream government - widely known for its mistreatment of political dissidents - are rejected, despite proof of political involvement and medical evidence confirming that they have been tortured. The German government has repatriated plane-loads of failed asylum-seekers to parts of Afghanistan - which it has placed on its ‘safe’ list, despite objective evidence to the contrary. And it is hardly a coincidence that the UK government has placed Nigeria on its safe list, given that it provides £240 million in military aid to its armed forces.2

Georgia has entered into a number of trade agreements with the EU, and is ever hopeful of membership. Albania was in line for accession this year, although that now seems to have been put on hold. The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, recently criticised what he described as “a lot of people from Georgia and Albania coming with fake documents”, which is a “big driver” of the increase in asylum-seekers, he said.3 The comments were obviously intended to increase animosity towards Georgians and Albanians, and to intimidate any others planning to travel. Varadkar promised increased controls at ports and airports - and the Georgian ambassador to Ireland, George Zurabashvili, chimed in to say there are “no political circumstances” for a Georgian to seek asylum. Another illustration of the highly politicised, arbitrary and perilous nature of the asylum process for those who enter into it.


Obviously applicants from allegedly ‘safe’ countries are at an immediate, almost insurmountable disadvantage. But all asylum-seekers are viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities. The key is that they must prove they have a “well-founded fear”, and be credible in all aspects of their claim. Applicants are forced to undergo interviews which are stony-faced interrogations, not humanitarian assessments. The EU has, of course, produced lengthy guidance on the need for all state officials to exercise sensitivity, be culturally aware and have knowledge of the conditions on the ground in the country of origin. Extensive country of origin information (COI) is produced by both states and NGOs, much of which will support the applicant’s account of their experience. But this is often meaningless when the test of ‘credibility’ is a weapon to be used against the applicant - to undermine and deny them asylum. Officers conducting the interviews are by the nature of the system encouraged to find reasons to refuse applications. The rejection rate at first instance in Ireland in 2018 was 70.3%. This figure reflects the European average of 34% applicants being granted asylum as of September 2019.

So the vast bulk of asylum-seekers - more than two thirds - are unsuccessful. Again I do not think that this is because these are all ‘bogus’ claims. British or Irish views of what is credible are often substituted for an understanding of what would be likely to happen in Iraq or Pakistan. Out of date COI and disingenuous questioning methods are used to undermine the applicant’s claim and impossible evidential demands are made. It is very difficult, for instance, to provide death certificates - commonly requested by immigration authorities - to prove that family members were killed by a regime. For instance, in Nigeria there are regular disappearances of supporters of national rights movements, such as the Indigenous People of Biafra. It is widely reported that the bodies of people killed by state forces are burned and dumped in pits.

In Russia and eastern Europe those injured following arrest often do not go to hospital for fear of causing more problems for themselves, as hospital authorities are obliged to report such attendances to the police. Rape victims in Pakistan, India, Africa and many other parts of the world do not tend to report the attacks for reasons of safety and stigma. Neither do victims of homophobic attacks. COI reports from Amnesty International and even the US department of state show that the police are usually not the friends of the weak and vulnerable, and victims are often further attacked and discriminated against.

So victims or their families and friends instead borrow money and find an agent to take them, in the back of a truck, a boat or a flight to somewhere safe. While they are undoubtedly exploited by agents and placed in danger, for those seeking an escape it is the only way out. When they arrive in Europe, they are forced to recount their traumatic experiences in sufficient detail to satisfy an immigration official - lack of specificity is a common reason for refusal. Survivors of torture are expected to remember the exact address and layout of the police stations where they were held and provide the names of their persecutors. They are even expected to account for why state security did not kill them at the time. It is not uncommon for cases to be refused on the basis that if the threat was really so serious they would not be alive. Thus the system, in the name of filtering out the ‘bogus’ from the ‘genuine’, penalises the most traumatised refugees.

Genuine or economic?

There is an idea propagated by rightwing politicians and media that there is a clear division between ‘genuine’ asylum-seekers and economic migrants - the latter are semi-criminals who travel to Britain, Ireland and elsewhere to leech off the social welfare system, steal ‘our’ jobs and homes and generally abuse the benefits provided to the genuine. But in reality there is not such a clear-cut division between economic deprivation and persecution.

Poverty makes people vulnerable in a wide range of ways. They are often forced to borrow heavily to survive and then become victims of money-lending operations and criminal gangs. Georgia is a pertinent example of this. The country has struggled to survive since the collapse of the Soviet Union and remains in the shadow of Russia - with two autonomous regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, declaring loyalty to Moscow. These conflicts have led to the displacement of large sections of the population and the creation of shanty towns for displaced persons. Individual debt has rocketed and recent reports state that 64% of the population have an official loan contract, including children and pensioners. In June 2018 prime minister Mamuka Bakhtadze stated that 630,000 Georgians have a debt they are unable to pay off - a third of the economically active.

Claims for asylum from Georgia often feature people being unable to pay loans back to money-lenders and being beaten and threatened. The police are unsympathetic to their situation - and are sometimes in the pay of these criminal gangs. Victims state that not only was it be useless to make a complaint, but dangerous to do so. Despite the official anti-corruption reforms adopted as part of the process of EU alignment, Transparency International ranks Georgia as the most corrupt of all eastern Europe and central Asia countries.4 Suicide is on the rise, apparently as a result of the incredible pressures of debt. So it is mainly Georgian men who leave, to escape the tyranny of the money-lender and in the hope of getting work to pay off their debts and provide for their families.

There are many more such examples of economic deprivation making people vulnerable to political and other forms of persecution. I know I am preaching to the converted when addressing readers of the Weekly Worker with this argument, so I will not pursue it: suffice to say that it is very important that we recognise that economic and political or social problems are intertwined. Wealthy politicians are a rarity in the asylum system, usually having direct connections or homes abroad.

It may sound very progressive to assert that ‘refugees are welcome here’, but the problem is that this slogan plays into the logic of an inhuman and capricious system, which in reality operates to prevent the movement of the poorest and most vulnerable of the world’s population. It reinforces notions of the deserving refugees and undeserving ‘economic migrants’, which generate resentment, division and xenophobia. Migrants should not have to make special pleading to be allowed to enter and become part of the working class.


I was very impressed by the resolution on migration passed by the Second International at its 1907 Stuttgart congress.5 This was a time in history when the major powers were beginning to put in place obstacles to movement. The 1907 Immigration Act was passed by the US Congress, putting limitations on who could enter the country. The UK had passed the 1905 Aliens Act which particularly targeted Russian and eastern European Jews. Migrants were usually lowest paid labour and were resented for the fact that they drove down the wages and conditions of indigenous workers.

The Stuttgart congress proposed a progressive, internationalist solution to the conflicts created by mass migration under capitalism. It stood firmly for the ending of all border controls on refugees and migrants, and demanded an end to political, economic and social restrictions. Recognising migration as an integral part of the capitalist system, the congress called for trade unions to campaign to recruit migrant workers into trade unions alongside indigenous workers and to initiate a collective fight for equal terms and conditions. It advocated the creation of an international trade union for workers, to forge solidarity and prevent the use of one section against the other. In other words, migrants should be integrated into the working class movement as equals in the struggle against international capitalism.

One of the problems for asylum-seekers are restrictions on integration and crucially on becoming part of the workforce. The Irish government was forced to concede a limited right to work in 2018 following a court challenge. It remains far more difficult in the UK. Clearly governments want to isolate asylum-seekers from the rest of the population and prevent their integration. Also asylum-seekers are either incarcerated in direct provision (Ireland), detention centres (UK) or pushed into dreadful housing in hostile estates. Resentment against asylum-seekers and migrants in general is exacerbated by these policies.

We must insist that full political and social rights are accorded to all migrants and that the distinction between asylum-seekers and other migrants is ended. And we need to push for migrants to be recruited into all working class organisations, housing campaigns, tenancy committees, trade unions and crucially our political organisations. We need a programme that integrates migrants in the struggle for socialism lmigration shoud be about hope.

  1. ‘Another avoidable tragedy’ Weekly Worker October 3 .↩︎

  2. www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/01/uk-could-boost-military-support-to-help-nigeria-defeat-boko-haram.↩︎

  3. www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/varadkar-s-comments-on-illegal-immigration-dangerous-says-rights-group-1.4070902.↩︎

  4. https://voices.transparency.org/from-concentrated-power-to-state-capture-georgias-backsliding-anti-corruption-reforms-c94d76bb2b21.↩︎

  5. ‘Reactionary by nature’ Weekly Worker November 7.↩︎