WeeklyWorker

13.08.2020
‘The immigrant’ (1917), directed by Charlie Chaplin. In 1952 he was expelled from the US, accused of being a communist

Poor, huddled and desperate

The Tory Party and sections of the press are whipping up a panic about ‘invading’ migrants, writes Eddie Ford

Not for the first time, the Tories and sections of the press are whipping up a panic about asylum-seekers and illegal migration. This time, of course, it’s migrants crossing the English Channel from France - often in dangerously small and overcrowded dinghies that could sink almost any time.

Instead of urging sympathy for the desperate plight of these people, taking their lives in their hands to get to Britain, Boris Johnson at the beginning of the week described the migrant crossings as “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal” - only adding fuel to the fire. The prime minister has said that the UK needs to consider changes to asylum laws to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel, as currently it is “very, very difficult” to legally return people who arrive in the UK from France using small boats. The UK government is presently following European Union asylum laws during the post-Brexit transition period, which includes the Dublin regulation that a person’s asylum claim can be transferred to the first member-state they entered. A spokesperson for Boris Johnson said Britain wanted to replace this “inflexible and rigid” regulation with a new agreement on returns after December - working with the French authorities to make the route “unviable”.

Meanwhile, a letter sent by a 25-strong group of “common sense” Tory MPs and peers to Chris Philp, the immigration minister, would have us believe that we are facing some sort of existential national crisis. Far from facing a hostile environment, the letter complains, it is “strikingly clear” that “invading migrants have been welcomed” - they can simply “paddle in” and be put up in “expensive hotels”, enjoying “immediate access” to financial help. Defending the letter - no doubt with some truth unfortunately - John Hayes MP said “we are reflecting the sentiment of a very large number of people” - who “do feel it is an invasion”. The group is now urging home secretary, Priti Patel, to get tougher by sending in royal navy warships on the grounds that the numbers crossing from France had reached “really extraordinary numbers”. Patel has appointed a former royal marine, Dan O’Mahoney - an expert in ship-to-ship operations who served in Kosova and Iraq - as her “small boats commander”, with the job of directing border-force patrol boats to intercept boats and combat the ‘people smugglers’. Or, if you prefer, her ‘clandestine channel threat commander’, with the task of drawing up plans to block and repel migrants from France.

At the moment, the ministry of defence is still considering the home secretary’s previous request for help - even if one of its officials did say that the idea was “completely potty”. But it is hard to imagine exactly what this MoD assistance is meant to be. In terms of basic operating procedures, if you intercept one of these boats by trying to block their path, or haul them back to Calais, you always run the very real danger that someone will fall into the water and potentially drown. Is Patel perhaps suggesting that the army should patrol the White Cliffs of Dover and open fire at incoming migrants? All this talk of the MoD, warships, getting tough, etc is obviously a political gesture that ‘something must be done’ about the flow of migrants. Over the weekend the MoD took the unusual step of deploying an RAF A400M Atlas plane to fly back and forth across the English side of the Channel to spot dinghies or other small vessels.

Anyway, putting things in a broader and more rational context, more than 4,100 migrants and refugees have reached the UK so far this year in small boats - at its peak on August 6, 235 people crossed over in 17 separate incidents. According to the UN refugee agency, there have been 14,288 sea arrivals in Italy so far in 2020, as well as 10,198 in Spain and 8,405 in Greece. Of course, the UK total is only a small part of the 36,000 asylum applications made last year in Britain - the vast majority arriving by other means rather than small boats. That figure compares with 165,615 asylum applications in Germany, 151,070 in France, 117,800 in Spain and 77,275 in Greece in the same period, according to Eurostat.

The plain reality is that migrants have been arriving illegally from northern France via unauthorised means for many years, the most common being stowing away in a lorry. But, since the coronavirus lockdown and heightened restrictions, the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children found in lorries at Dover port has reduced from several dozen a month to zero - therefore a new method was required.

Language

Those who arrived in the UK over the weekend have presented themselves as Iranian, Afghan, Yemini, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Eritrean, Sudanese or Syrian nationals. What the British government fundamentally objects to is these migrants claiming political asylum in Britain. They go to great lengths, as they travel through Europe, to avoid getting involved with the authorities (such as having their fingerprints taken), doing what they can not to claim political asylum in other countries - whether that is Greece, Bulgaria, Austria or even France.

But there is a very good reason why their preferred destination is Britain - it is called the English language, of course, rather than a deep love for the queen or Monty Python. The chances are that, if you are born in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, etc, your second language will be English - in part because of the legacy of the British empire, in part because its role as global hegemon was taken over by the English-speaking United States. For a couple of centuries, the dominant language in terms of business and politics has been English. When the BBC interviews migrants crossing the Channel, which will be a self-selecting group to a certain extent, most of them have no problem speaking basic English. Also, for the reasons just mentioned, many of these migrants - if not virtually all of them - will have contacts already in the UK: relatives or perhaps someone from the same town or village. That gives them the hope of landing on their feet and quickly finding a job. Compared to the hell they have left behind, Britain is a far better prospect.

When it comes to the wider question of migration, it is worthwhile looking back at history. Though it might come as a surprise to some people, the introduction of passports had nothing to do with border checks in the modern sense. Just look at your UK passport, which says:

Her Britannic Majesty’s secretary of state requests and requires in the name of her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

In other words, if you lived in Victorian times, producing your passport essentially meant queen Victoria was your protector as a traveller - along with a little bit of British diplomacy, gunboats or otherwise. In fact, during these times, nobody would have any trouble going from one end of Europe to the other - whether by foot, horse, train or boat. You were free to walk over the continent of Europe. The only exception was Russia, which had a system of internal passports - any serf who could not produce the required papers would find themselves in trouble.

In Britain, the first migration laws - or anti-immigration laws to be more exact - appeared in the early 20th century. They were brought in under the Tory prime minister Lord Balfour with the intention of keeping out Jews fleeing from tsarist Russia and poverty and pogroms. They headed west to countries like Germany, Austria and Britain, whilst those with a little more money generally went to the United States. This was not to the liking of the Tory Party, of course, nor was it to the liking - disgracefully - of some sections of the labour movement in Britain. TUC conferences, even a Labour Party conference, passed resolutions against the ‘evils’ of Jewish migration. The anti-Semitic arguments put forward by Labourites and trade union officials was that Jews were natural capitalists, even if desperately poor - they would side with the bosses. Interestingly, the likes of Lord Balfour and the Tories argued the exact opposite - the Jews are natural troublemakers, socialists, anarchists, etc. Therefore should be kept out at all costs.

It was not only Hitler, of course, who fused the tropes - Jews were natural bankers and cosmopolitan revolutionaries. Mikhail Bakunin, the founder of modern anarchism, wrote about the “whole Jewish world, comprising a single exploiting sect, a kind of blood-sucking people, a kind of organic, destructive, collective parasite, going beyond not only the frontiers of states, but of political opinion” - a world now “at the disposal of Marx, on the one hand, and of Rothschild, on the other”. The problem, Bakunin reasoned, was that “authoritarian socialism, Marxist communism, demands a strong centralisation of the state”, which by necessity means a central bank. And “where such a bank exists”, for Bakunin, “the parasitic Jewish nation, speculating with the labour of the people, will be found”.

When it comes to migration, the CPGB unashamedly bases itself on classical Marxism and the Second International. While there were those in the British and American labour movement who were opposed to Jewish migration from Russia or ‘coolie’ migration from Japan and China, the SI stood for free movement - people should be allowed to go where they choose. But it should be stressed, however, that the SI did not leave it there. They were fully aware that most people move not because they have a hankering for the wonders of America or Britain, but because the conditions back home are intolerable - they face extreme poverty or political oppression. Look at the countries from where today’s ‘boat people’ are fleeing: zones of near endless wars and sectarian conflicts. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, wars organised by the US and its British lapdog - resulting in millions of refugees. As for Syria, there has been a horrendous civil war, not least thanks to the intervention by the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, etc. Together they quickly turned what was a revolutionary upsurge against the Assad dictatorship into a counterrevolutionary hell hole.

Our position is not simply to say that the mixing of cultures is a great thing, from which we all benefit - though that is obviously true. Communists recognise that migration is often forced upon people in the wider context of the organisation of the world - and its economy - under the world hegemon. Another thing that needs to be understood is that though the USA remains the hegemon, it is a declining power - it no longer brings order, as it did post-World War II with the Marshall Plan. Nowadays, the US brings destruction and disorganisation.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk