Open the borders

The tragic deaths of 58 Chinese illegal migrants underlines the urgent need for the left to make free movement and the ending of all border controls a basic demands, says Alan Fox

The tragic deaths of 58 Chinese illegal migrants - they suffocated in sweltering heat on board a hermetically sealed truck carrying them into Britain from Belgium - underlines the urgent need for the left to make free movement and the ending of all border controls a basic demand.

Every year thousands of such 'illegals' from many parts of the world are smuggled into Britain and other western countries by unscrupulous profiteers and mafia-like gangs. Overwhelmingly they are 'economic refugees' - people whose only crime is to try and escape the crushing poverty of their country of origin in the search for a better life. There is always an element of risk in such ventures and accidental deaths reach the hundreds every year throughout the world. Stories of refugee boats sinking, with all on board drowning, or individuals freezing to death in aircraft cargo holds have made the headlines from time to time, but these represent just a small portion of the total horror.

Of those who make it, many present themselves to the authorities and apply for political asylum. For example, in April this year 500 people arriving in Britain from China claimed such status, making China the second highest source country for asylum-seekers after Sri Lanka.

However, many more do not surrender themselves and, not having any official documents or status, are forced to rely on the drugs trade, prostitution, or employers who pay below-subsistence rates. This illegal labour market is big business - not only in the 'black economy', but for many ostensibly above-board companies. Ask-no-questions employment agencies provide cheap labour for several key industries - most notably farming, the rag trade and catering.

Many illegals - unable to pay in advance for their passage to the developed capitalist countries - commit themselves to pay the gangs of immigrant traffickers huge fees for the 'privilege' of being smuggled. Extortionate rates of interest are levied, adding to the debt - some people end up even worse off than in their country of origin. And of course, should the debtors default, the gangsters resort to blackmail, threats and outright violence - directed against the migrants themselves or their families they have left behind.

The reaction of government and opposition politicians - both to the 58 deaths and to the illegal trade - has been predictable. Home secretary Jack Straw shed crocodile tears for this "most terrible human tragedy". The victims "must have died a most terrible death". But he then conveniently went on to declare the deaths to be "a stark warning" to other would-be immigrants: 'Stay away,' was the unmistakable message.

The despicable Anne Widdecombe, the shadow home secretary, blamed the government for not putting in place foolproof means of preventing refugees entering the country, and repeated the Tory policy pledge to lock up all asylum-seekers pending deportation. Clearly this would do little to deter the illegal trade, instead driving even more migrants into the hands of the gangsters and slave labour operators. Straw himself has of course been busy boasting that the government is already locking up lots of asylum-seekers anyway.

It is difficult to find words to describe the despicable hypocrisy of those who condemn the traffickers for taking advantage of desperate people on the one hand, while on the other they themselves pitilessly add to their desperation by incarcerating them for months before finally throwing them back into poverty.

For example, European Union leaders, meeting in Portugal for their summit, bemoaned the "criminal acts of those who profit from such traffic in human beings". The Chinese government too pledged itself to stamp out the awful trade. It pretends it would prefer that its citizens remained in the 'socialist' motherland: nevertheless the money sent back by migrants makes a huge contribution to the economy and the balance of payments.

In actual fact, "those who profit from traffic in human beings" fall into two categories: the illegal and the legal. Charging people for transporting them from one country to another is under normal circumstances a perfectly lawful activity. As in so many other cases under capitalism (drugs, for example, immediately spring to mind), the very illegality itself produces 'criminal' activity which would not otherwise pose a problem. If the state did not insist on maintaining its inhuman border controls, there would, needless to say, be no illegal trafficking.

This is the point that we must hammer home again and again: who gives international capital the right to determine where workers can and cannot live? The world belongs to humanity as a whole, not to the ruling class of each state. Capital itself switches investment from one country to another, dislocating millions and forcing millions of others out of work. Yet those cast on the scrapheap as a result of this (legal) activity are expected to stay and rot. It is they who become illegal if they try and escape their predicament.

That is why communists are uncompromising in our demand for the smashing of all immigration controls. We say - if the product of labour is legal, so must be the worker. Every human being - from developed or undeveloped countries - must have the right to travel, visit, live and work where they choose. In addition we demand full citizen rights for all migrants after six months.

Clearly this can only be implemented fully and permanently through the realisation of our complete minimum programme, which strives for the empowerment of all of humanity, irrespective of their country, and, as an immediate demand, calls for a full life for every human being, wherever they live. Capitalism has already laid the material basis for this: but only working class power and socialism can make it a reality.

In view of this it was gratifying that, on the initiative of the CPGB, the London Socialist Alliance incorporated the call for the scrapping of all border controls in its platform for the Greater London Assembly elections. However, for the most part this essential demand was left on the back burner, with the LSA preferring to highlight the slogan, originating with the Socialist Workers Party, "Asylum-seekers welcome here".

There is nothing wrong with this per se, but clearly it is inadequate. As a Socialist Worker reader pointed out back in April, a more principled slogan would be, 'Immigrants welcome here.' The SWP, while formally favouring the call for open borders, has refused to make this part of its propaganda to combat the vicious assault on the rights of asylum-seekers. It concentrates almost exclusively on the plight of refugees fleeing political oppression, implying that overwhelmingly asylum-seekers are 'genuine', and therefore deserve to be accepted.

But the ruling class clampdown is based on the claim that most claimants are "bogus" - they are economic, not political refugees (as if that were justification for denying them entry). But to pretend that this is not so (the 58 Chinese dead were almost certainly not migrating for political reasons) is to undermine our case and actually plays into the hands of our enemies. The Socialist Party's Wally Kennedy was right when he told the June 11 LSA conference, "I am an economic refugee and proud of it" - although the SP itself is the only LSA component that refuses for opportunistic reasons ('workers would not understand') to openly state that it is for the free movement of people, including economic migrants.

But our other alliance partners have not been much better. Socialist Worker has occasionally been known to mention the demand, but only in the form of abstract propaganda - it is a policy to be implemented some time in the distant future. Socialist Outlook (June) carried an article entitled 'Oppose all immigration controls', but there was no reference to this headline in the story itself, which contented itself with opposing the media campaign, condemning Straw's voucher schemes and reproducing the statement by journalists in opposition to the anti-asylum-seeker crusade.

Workers Power is another paper which does make the correct call to end all immigration controls. However, its unthinking position is to repeat the well-worn line that they are "inherently racist" (June). Really? What about the temporary reintroduction of EU internal border controls by Belgium and the Netherlands for the duration of Euro 2000? Were they put in place to keep out the English as a 'race'? Or just to keep out the 'football hooligans', as was claimed? You really have to stretch the meaning of the term 'racism' to apply it in this case - although that is not to say that the new restrictions were not oppressive and anti-democratic.

This is not just a question of semantics. To insist that racism is what lies behind the state's policy is not mererly mistaken: it is disarming. We do not call for the abolition of immigration controls because we want to combat racism. Rather we want to defeat racism and all forms of chauvinism as part of the internationalist fight to bring about worldwide revolution.

Besides, it is just plain wrong to state that the ruling class wants to keep out the Chinese, Somalis, Kosovars or Romanians because they are Chinese, Somalis, Kosovars or Romanians. They are excluded because they are poor and working class, and therefore a 'drain' on the treasury during periods of relatively high unemployment. In the 1950s, when there was virtually full employment in Britain, and low paid, unskilled jobs were difficult to fill, such cheap labour was actively encouraged to migrate.

It is, however, correct to say that the attempts by Straw and Widdecombe each to outbid the other in the anti-asylum-seeker stakes "give succour to the racists" (Action for Solidarity May 23). This is a line repeated by the entire left. It is true that the likes of the British National Party seize upon the opportunity provided by the outcry to put out their pernicious propaganda for a 'pure British' Britain. But the BNP does not pose the main danger and this is not the main feature of the hysterical campaign against the 'deadly threat' from 'outsiders'. In this regard asylum-seekers are only the latest in a long line of scapegoats - single parents, gypsies, 'squeegee merchants' and - yes - England football hooligans.

The same Action for Solidarity article implies that The Sun's vicious "We need deportations [of 'bogus' asylum-seekers] on a huge scale" is part of the campaign of "racist lies". This is ironic in view of another quote from the same newspaper repeated by Socialist Worker during the trial of David Copeland, the unhinged individual who nail-bombed Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho: "At the time of the bombings The Sun declared that the bombers 'want us all to be scared. They want us to be fearful of the black community. Of Asians. Of Jews. Of gays. They seek to divide Britain. But they have failed'" (Socialist Worker June 10).

The SWP writer commented on the paper's hypocrisy: "Whipping up hatred against asylum-seekers encourages the racists and the Nazis." But Alex Callinicos goes further in the same issue: "The ruling class uses race to set workers against one another. It also tries to confuse black people by letting a select few into the establishment. Socialists have to help working people of all colours to see through these diversionary tactics and to unite against their common enemy."

So The Sun's editorial was not just hypocritical. Presumably it was also part of the "diversionary tactics" to "confuse black people". Clever, that - spout anti-racism and your opposition to the racists who want to divide us ... in order to cover up your racism, which of course you are secretly employing all the time in order to divide us yourself. Not very convincing, comrades.

The truth is that the ruling class's outbursts against asylum-seekers are not intended to divide black from white, but to unite us all under bourgeois hegemony in opposition to outsiders. You could not wish for a clearer expression of the British state's redefined ideology than that expressed in the Sun editorial. The ideology is anti-racist national chauvinism.

That is why the left's accusations of underlying racism are not only wide of the mark, but are actually counterproductive. They dovetail in neatly with the state's own official anti-racism - an example of a progressive idea that has been taken over and used for reactionary purposes. The state's anti-racism from above is based on 'Great Britain'. It is nationalist and backward-looking. By contrast proletarian anti-racism from below is first and foremost internationalist. It empowers our class by projecting a vision of the communist future.

Abolish all immigration controls! Only through consistently taking up this call can we effectively defend asylum-seekers and all refugees - economic as well as political. Only in this way can we defeat racism and national chauvinism.