Some 27,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean

Cost of Fortress Europe

Those who horrifically drowned off the Greek coast were fleeing intolerable conditions. Eddie Ford argues for free movement, citizenship rights and effective trade unions

Last week a rusty 25-metre fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Greek coast. Passengers had paid thousands of dollars each for a place on the battered trawler. Their hope was of a better life.

We do not know how many died. It could be 500, it could be 700. Reports vary. Just 104 survived - none of them women or children. Pictures taken from the air show the boat jam-packed from bow to stern, apparently with people stuffed below deck like human sardines. That is where the women and children were.

Of course, that is yesterday’s news. The world’s mainstream media is now focused on the missing Titan submersible and the fate of five very rich thrill seekers who paid £195,000 each to gawp at the wreck of the Titanic. No expense is being spared in the attempt to find them.

What a contrast with the treatment faced by those fleeing war, climate catasrophe and economic collapse. There are conflicting and confusing accounts about the role of the Greek coastguards. They claim to have been in constant contact with the aged trawler by radio, sat-phone and helicopter, saying that the vessel was not in difficulty - rather, it was moving “at a steady course and speed” towards Italy after it set sail from Tobruk, while they kept a “discreet distance” from the boat. But tracking data supplied by the UK-based MariTrace service indicates that the ship had not moved for several hours before it capsized, while two Greek coastguard vessels stood by or circled round it for about four hours.

Indeed, some have accused the coastguards of flipping the boat over when they made a botched attempt to tow it - something denied by the Greek authorities. An official said they had used a rope to “stabilise” the boat, “to approach, to see if they wanted any help” - not tow it - but they refused the offer of help and continued on their way to Italy.

A Moroccan-Italian social worker and activist has testified the opposite, saying that the passengers were pleading for help a day before it sank - “asking to be saved by any authority”. Another testimony says that the trawler’s engine failed days before it sank, making it likely the crew would have sought help - though maybe they were afraid to contact the authorities, as it was an illegal ‘people-smuggling’ operation. Unsurprisingly, the United Nations and others have called for an investigation into Greece’s handling of the disaster - why did the coastguards not intervene earlier, given that it was obviously dangerously overcrowded? Has there been a cover-up?

Details have also emerged of the conditions on the boat. Witness accounts suggest that women and children were effectively “locked up” in the hold, apparently to be “protected” from the men. Others say that Pakistani nationals were also kept below deck, only to be maltreated by crew members when they appeared in search of fresh water or tried to escape - other nationalities were allowed on the top deck, where they had a far greater chance of surviving a sinking. In fact, conditions on the boat were so appalling that even before it sank there had already been six deaths after it ran out of fresh water.

But we know that the coastguards in Italy and Greece, which both have rightwing governments, turn a deaf ear to migrant ships in distress. Italy has imposed severe restrictions and even impounded humanitarian vessels, while Greece faces multiple allegations that it pushes people back to Turkey, illegally preventing them from claiming asylum. It is certainly true that, when a migrant boat is in trouble, there is a ‘no-reply policy’ in many countries - refugees are effectively left to drown.

The Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies has accused many European Union countries of “weaponising time” by delaying rescue as long as they possibly can - entering a “phase of strategic neglect and abandonment”. In other words, they have deliberately built delays into European engagement at sea - essentially hiding from migrant boats, so that they are not drawn into rescue operations.

Yanis Varoufakis, the so-called “erratic” Marxist and former finance minister under the disastrous Syriza-led government of Alexis Tsipras, has expressed his abhorrence too over EU policy - which has created “a hecatomb at sea”. The sea did not drown those refugees/migrants, he points out: they were drowned by the EU’s policy of “being a fortress” that “treats people as objects of hatred”.

As a consequence, since 2014 an estimated 27,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean - a journey that grows ever more perilous. More than 21,000 of those deaths have occurred on the so-called central Mediterranean route from Libya or Tunisia to Greece or Italy - a crossing that can take several days and is often made in unseaworthy and overloaded boats. Because the trek up to western or northern Europe from Greece also involves an often arduous crossing of the Balkans, many migrants now seek to bypass Greece. Instead, large numbers now head for Italy, which has recorded 55,160 “irregular” arrivals in Europe so far this year - more than double the number in 2022 - mostly from Ivory Coast, Egypt, Guinea, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, has ordered an immediate crackdown on agents engaged in people smuggling, saying they would be severely punished. He also announced a national day of mourning for the victims, with the national flag flying at half-mast. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the week, a court in southern Greece postponed a hearing of nine Egyptian men accused of organising and piloting the ill-fated fishing boat in order to hear more testimonies from survivors.

Citizenship rights

Yes, of course, we are in favour of people mixing freely with each other. But it is not a healthy situation when you get millions of people being forced by intolerable conditions to leave their homeland and their loved ones - leave behind the culture, the language, the friends and family they know. The intermingling of people is progressive, but mass migration of people, such as the Irish since the mid-19th century, is the result of a barbaric system.

Therefore, as Marxists, we call for a change to the appalling situation that pushes people to do almost anything to try to get into the advanced capitalist countries - the US, Britain, France, Germany, etc. We need to blame imperialism, structural adjustment programmes, neoliberalism, kleptocracies, and so on. Crucially, however, where we can really make a difference is here at home in Britain, with the right response from the labour movement. Our approach is not to say that every migrant is a refugee fleeing intolerable political persecution, therefore deserving of our sympathy - an essentially liberal approach. Of course, it goes without saying that some of them are political refugees or asylum-seekers - but that is almost an incidental point.

In reality, the majority of those who drowned - though this is not a fashionable term - were ‘economic refugees’ (cue howls of outrage from the rightwing media and embarrassed obfuscation from the liberal press). But, from a communist perspective, what on earth is wrong with trying to find a better life abroad for economic reasons? If you are young and dynamic, yet find yourself in a hell-hole, what is wrong with trying to get out to live a half-decent life? If you were in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, with people around you starving to death, what was wrong with scraping together the money needed to get a boat to Liverpool or Boston?

So how exactly should the labour movement in Britain respond? People who come to this country should have citizenship rights after a short period of time - say, six months - which will give them the right to vote and other legal rights, because the reality is that economic migrants will keep coming to the US, UK, Germany, etc. No matter how many walls, fences and patrols, they will keep trying to improve their lives. But communists go further, saying that workers should have the right to join a trade union - an effective one, that is, not the ineffective ones we currently have in Britain, thanks to wave and after wave of anti-trade union laws.

In this way. they can be fully integrated into British politics - which is the first step in limiting competition between workers. This is a fundamental principle of the political economy of the working class - a class that is born of capitalism, but pushes against capitalism and can go beyond capitalism. We stand for the free movement of people, but also organising labour in Britain and internationally. We are not out to preserve the position of the working class in Britain or anywhere else by keeping workers out with so-called ‘non-racist’ immigration controls, whatever they are. Our class is global and its interests are internationalist. In the view of communists, people should have the right to live anywhere they want on the planet in order to better their lives - hence our demand for open borders.

Logically then, this also means that refugees - economic and political - should have the right to join a political party that is actually committed to transforming Europe into a socialist Europe, fighting for their long-term interests. That can make a real difference to conditions in Asia, Africa, Latin America, by spreading the flame of socialism to these countries - acting as a prelude towards the reconstruction of the world economy in the interests of all its inhabitants, no matter where they come from or where they live.