US-Mexican border: yet people are driven to cross

Toxic red-brown rhetoric

Mass migration is causing political instability across the whole world. Far-right support grows in leaps and bounds and the tailist left eagerly follows. But, asks Daniel Lazare, why are huge numbers of people moving in the first place?

Anne McShane reported last week that in Ireland “scaremongering over asylum-seekers has intensified as never before”.1 Carla Roberts quoted pseudo-leftist George Galloway in the same issue as warning that mass migration in Britain “will break society into identity wars and tribalism, no matter how much we would like it to be otherwise”.2

In Germany, according to Paul Demarty, the red-brown Sahra Wagenknecht says that women in her Bundestag group “are happy to live in a country that has by and large overcome patriarchy, and they don’t want to see it being reintroduced through the backdoor” by Muslim immigrants.3 And in the United States, of course, I also noted last week that Donald Trump is vowing to use the military to round up 11 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Central and South America, if elected in November.4

The picture is thus clear. Voters in growing numbers see immigration as little less than an inundation. Not only do they want it to stop, but many want to throw it in reverse via mass expulsions.

But what nobody is talking about is the reason for mass migration in the first place. If the phenomenon is growing in leaps and bounds, it is not because millions of third world residents have developed a sudden hankering to see other parts of the world. Rather, it is because social breakdown leaves them no choice but to pack up and leave.

A half century ago, the number of forcibly displaced people stood at just 3.5 million, according to UN estimates. Such numbers bounced around over the next two or three decades, as events like the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the 1990-91 Gulf War and the fratricidal slaughter in Rwanda sent millions fleeing for their lives. But they still remained at a relatively manageable 19.2 million as of the year 2000.

That was less than 0.3% of the global population at the time - or roughly one person in 345. But then the numbers began to climb in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. They reached 41 million in 2013 and 73 million five years later. Thanks to Covid-19, the numbers rose even more, hitting 90 million in 2020, 97 million in 2021, 132 million in 2022, and 134.2 million in 2023.5 Worldwide, that means that one person in 74 is now forcibly displaced, a 240% increase over the course of a decade. If the trend continues, the ratio will reach one person in 31 by the year 2033.

Hundreds of millions more people will find themselves in camps and shantytowns or on leaky boats heading for European shores. The nation-state system already functions as a multi-layered defence structure. Borders are loose and porous in the third world, which is why many of the five million people fleeing economic collapse in Venezuela have been able to find refuge in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru or why millions more fleeing war and breakdown in Afghanistan and Syria have made their way to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey.6

But defences are far stronger around the EU, Australia, Japan, Israel (which has seen a significant African influx) and the US. And they will grow stronger still, as the migratory wave grows and host-country resistance surges in response. Volatility - already at dangerous levels in countries like Ireland, Britain and the US - will become even worse. The same goes for repression, authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia - they will increase too.


Needless to say, this is bad news for social democrats eager for passions to cool and populations to stabilise, so they can get on with the business of incremental reform. But it is manna from heaven for ultra-rightists banking on a rising tide of resentment and alarm. Liberals may sneer at the ‘great replacement theory’ - the idea that international elites are conspiring to bring in millions of dark-skinned poor people for the sole purpose of outnumbering local whites. But it will seem more plausible rather than less, as migration swells and birth rates in advanced capitalist states continue to plummet due to rising living costs.

Yes, ‘they’ (ie, Jews, woke liberals, Marxists, feminists, etc) really are out to replace ‘us’ (ie, hard-pressed Irish, Brits or Germans). Or so it will seem, no matter how much well-heeled intellectuals sneer at the unwashed masses for entertaining such notions. Regardless of the details, the politics of migration are destined to grow bumpier and bumpier.

But if migration is a key mover, what is the cause of migration itself? The United Nations breaks down the process into three parts: war and violence; socio-economic breakdown; natural disasters and climate change. But such categories are misleading, because they leave out how they feed into one another and drive chaos to greater and greater heights. Last September’s massive flooding in Derna - a regional centre of 90,000 people in eastern Libya - was a textbook example of how such negative symbiosis works. It began when super-storm Daniel - a Mediterranean hurricane or ‘medicane’ driven to new extremes by climate change - unleashed millions of gallons on poorly maintained local dams weakened by more than a decade of anarchy and civil war. More than 10,000 lives were lost when the dams gave way and thousands more made homeless.7 War, climate change and economic decay all played a role.

Such neat categorisation leaves something else out too: the larger political forces shaping the general process. Given America’s role in all too many third world disasters and wars, it is clear where the responsibility lies. US imperialism, simply put, is setting in motion forces that it now seeks to combat with ever growing violence and repression. It is throwing itself into crisis in order to drive itself further and further to the right.

The three largest sources of international refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency, are Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine - countries in which the USA helped fan the flames of war, with uniformly disastrous results. The story is even clearer in terms of the gang violence that put 121,000 Haitians to flight in 2022 - along with 73,000 Salvadorans, according to the same UN data. Gang violence did not reach unprecedented heights because Central and South Americans suddenly turned trigger-happy. It rose instead because the international drug war - a prime US obsession for more than half a century - has caused a black market to spread over the region as a whole. Illegal markets are violent by definition, because they leave participants with no way of settling business disputes other than at the point of a gun. But, when astronomic sums are at stake - a 2014 study put the international drug trade at $652 billion - amid a general climate of poverty and desperation, they grow more violent still.8

This is why Haiti, which emerged as a major drug transshipment centre beginning in the 1990s, is now in a state of collapse, as drug gangs run riot and government officials cower in fear. It is why Ecuadoreans voted overwhelmingly last month for military patrols, stepped-up penalties and other emergency measures to deal with their own out-of-control drug trade, and why Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele has acquired near-dictatorial powers after imprisoning over one percent of the population on drug-related charges.9 It is the same thing that happened in Chicago and Detroit, when prohibition led to a vast black market for bootleg alcohol in the 1920s. But it is on a far more stupendous scale. As tough as Al Capone may have been, he would not have lasted a second against such super-predators as Los Zetas or the Sinaloa and Medellin cartels.

America also bears a high degree of responsibility for the Islamist chaos that has displaced nearly 800,000 people in the Sahel, according to the western-funded Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva.10 As much as America claims to combat jihadi terror, it was US-Nato intervention in Libya in 2011 that plunged the country into chaos by toppling strong man Muammar Gaddafi and letting loose a flood of military weaponry that has since fuelled countless marauding bands across the Sahara’s southern reaches. Of course, it was also the US-Saudi alliance that midwifed jihadism in the 1980s by funding holy war in Afghanistan. And it was the oil-based rentier capitalism of the Saudis and other Persian Gulf monarchies that allow them to pay for thousands of jihadis to battle the Soviets before going on to become foot soldiers for Islamic State and al Qa’eda (which the oil monarchies also supported to one extent or another).

If US imperialism causes the lion to lay down with the lamb over the next decade, the problem may well go away. Otherwise, it will continue to grow, as old wars ignite new ones and havoc spreads. As for climate change, that will also intensify, as the US leads the world in doubling down on oil and gas production.

Our response

So anti-refugee riots in Dublin and surging far-right poll numbers in Germany are merely one aspect of a complex international breakdown due to capitalist decay and imperial aggression. For socialists, there is only one possible response: proletarian internationalism. As Anne McShane put it last week,

The challenge for the left is to demand full citizenship rights for all migrants and take up the struggle, so that they become part of our movement - join trade unions and working class political parties and fight in a united way for the interests of our class.

Quite right - except that we must join their movement too, so as to combine the various elements all the more effectively.

For people like Wagenknecht and Galloway, the upshot will meanwhile be to throw the dead-end nature of red-brown politics into stark relief. A couple of months ago, Galloway went on an extended rant on his TV talk show about

65,000 people, uncharted, undocumented, unvetted ... who are now being put up in at least three-star hotels, sometimes a little better even than that, at the expense of the public, potentially forever more, when our forces cannot interdict a single one of the boats bringing illegal migrants ...11

Dangerous as such rhetoric is now, what happens when the tide rises even more? What will Galloway do then - rant even more furiously about the need for stepped-up interdiction? How will Wagenknecht respond? In a recent interview, she said of the refugee problem that “it’s essential that the scale of it doesn’t get out of hand and that sudden surges of migration are kept in check”.12

But keeping migration “in check” is utopian at a time when neocolonial storms are raging. Sudden surges will become more common rather than less, and, the more Wagenknecht tries to stop them, the more she will end up driving herself into the arms of an increasingly repressive bourgeois state. Instead of nationalism or protectionism, the only viable socialist response is to mobilise the international working class against the capitalist decay that fuels such crises to begin with.

Otherwise, we all might as well pack up and go home. While socialism undoubtedly faces a rocky path in the near term, stepped-up working class unity represents the only possible solution down the road. The journey will not be easy, but there is no alternative, as dear old Maggie Thatcher used to say. Workers stand not only to lose their chains as a consequence, but the wars, bankruptcies and disasters forcing them to set out across treacherous terrain.

They still have a world to win, as in 1848, but one that is many times more populous and productive.

  1. ‘Migrants as a means of diversion’ Weekly Worker May 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1490/migrants-as-a-means-of-diversion.↩︎

  2. ‘Third period Bennism’ Weekly Worker May 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1490/third-period-bennism.↩︎

  3. ‘Interview with an opportunist’ Weekly Worker May 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1490/interview-with-an-opportunist.↩︎

  4. ‘Egging on the mob’ Weekly Worker May 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1490/egging-on-the-mob.↩︎

  5. www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics.↩︎

  6. www.unhcr.org/global-trends-report-2022.↩︎

  7. yaleclimateconnections.org/2023/09/the-libya-floods-a-climate-and-infrastructure-catastrophe.↩︎

  8. See ‘Why is there a drug war?’ Weekly Worker February  8: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1477/why-is-there-a-drug-war.↩︎

  9. apnews.com/article/ecuador-referendum-gangs-noboa-85cf4190ba1bdd6028ff78180340499f; and www.gisreportsonline.com/r/scenarios-for-bukeles-el-salvador.↩︎

  10. api.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/IDMC_GRID_2023_Global_Report_on_Internal_Displacement_LR.pdf.↩︎

  11. twitter.com/paulmasonnews/status/1764207826853834914#.↩︎

  12. newleftreview.org/issues/ii146/articles/sahra-wagenknecht-condition-of-germany.↩︎