British Marxists on Syrian refugee crisis and open borders

SYRIAN-REFUGEES_2693250bby Peter Manson

At all costs, ‘we’ must have the right to determine who is or is not allowed to enter ‘our’ territory. That is the insistence of both the narrow nationalists like UK prime minister David Cameron and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, and the supporters of a more closely integrated European Union, the cheerleaders of ‘Fortress Europe’.

The current refugee crisis – resulting from the devastation wreaked in the Middle East and north Africa by a series of imperialist wars and interventions and the largely reactionary response they have provoked – has utterly exposed the bankruptcy of bourgeois thinking on border controls and revealed deep divisions among leaders of the various states.

German need for more workers

According to the EU Dublin regulation, refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the EU country where they first arrive, but, as German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel explained, his country needs “more workers”. Which is why Germany was encouraging migrants who had reached southern, eastern and central Europe to travel onwards – Germany was expecting to take in some 800,000 refugees this year and could handle up to half a million a year afterwards. In response Orbán, who had been denying migrants, including those who had valid train tickets, the right to travel to Germany, declared that their welfare was a “German problem”. This provoked a comment from UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who said: “In a crisis, national interests always prevail over European ideology.” He has a point when it comes to bourgeois politicians.

Up to the last couple of weeks empathy and solidarity for the plight of those attempting to flee civil war, unrest, dire poverty and repression in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and so on was very much a minority sentiment. Yes, the deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean or in sealed trucks made the headlines, but the mainstream response was to point the finger at the ‘people traffickers’ (as if those providing unsafe or inadequate means of transport are more culpable than those who wish to deny it altogether). Meanwhile the presence of just two-three thousand young men in Calais attempting to enter Britain by whatever means was the cause for antipathy, not concern for the welfare of people looking for a better life.

Of course, what really sparked the change in mood was the publication of images of three-year-old AylanKurdi, whose body was washed up on a Turkish shore after the boat on which his family was travelling to Europe sank, as so many others had before it. A young, innocent life had been destroyed simply because of the establishment consensus decreeing that the overwhelming majority of refugees must stay put.

Cameron declared that “as a father” he was “deeply moved” by the images. But the answer was not for Britain to take “more and more” people. In fact calls for Britain to take its “fair share” of the migrants now stuck somewhere in Europe were actually “encouraging” people to make the “potentially lethal” journey across the Mediterranean.

‘Greedy’ for the good life?

But the likes of Cameron could demonstrate their human concern by contrasting their reaction to the death of Aylan with that of, for example, Peter Bucklitsch, the former Ukip council candidate who said that the boy was clearly “well clothed and fed”. In other words, his parents were not destitute and so there was no reason for them to want to flee Syria. They were just “greedy for the good life in Europe”.

It is in fact true that those who place their fate in the hands of the ‘people traffickers’ are generally not among the most poverty-stricken of the migrants – those crossings in vessels that are less than seaworthy do not come cheap and many of the refugees who make it to Europe are clearly well educated. Yet the fact that such families are prepared to embark upon such journeys with little more than the clothes they are wearing says a lot about the precarity of their lives in their country of origin. The point, however, is that everyone should have the right to seek a better life, not just those at the very bottom of the pile.

The speculation had been that Cameron would commit to taking around 10,000 refugees, but, with France’s François Hollande pledging more than twice that the day before, Cameron announced on September 8 that Britain would relocate 20,000 refugees “by 2020”.

In the same speech to parliament, Cameron took the opportunity to report that in August two British members of Islamic State had been killed by an unmanned drone in Syria. He claimed they had been plotting to launch murderous attacks in Britain and in fact one of them, Reyaad Khan, had intended to assassinate the queen. So the attack was an act of “self-defence” or, as the headline in The Daily Telegraph put it, the jihadists had been killed “to save the queen” (September 8).

The revelation of the August attack was an attempt to demonstrate that the way to end the refugee crisis was by military action. Yes, they really want us to believe that yet more of the same disastrous imperialist intervention that has wreaked havoc across the entire region will this time put everything to rights. Former defence minister Anna Soubry claimed it had been a “very, very big mistake” when parliament voted not to launch a military intervention in Syria in 2013. Not that this stopped the latest drone strike.

Left response

Unsurprisingly, both the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party in England and Wales have been less than persuasive in their responses to the latest crisis. The reason for this is the fact that both buy into the mainstream consensus that immigration is a problem and that it must be ‘controlled’.

SPEW deputy general secretary Hannah Sell, speaking to the January 24 conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, defended the proposal to include in Tusc’s electoral programme opposition only to “racist” immigration controls: “We can’t just make the bald demand” for no controls at all, she said. That was not the way to win support amongst workers.

Comrade Sell has just published an article outlining SPEW’s position in relation to the current crisis, entitled ‘Solidarity with refugees – defend the right to asylum’. The words of the headline – like those in the article – are carefully chosen: SPEW’s “solidarity” is with “refugees”, as opposed to migrants, and it defends the right to “asylum”, not migration.

True, in the future, everyone will be able to live wherever they choose:

A socialist society would harness the wealth, science and technique created by capitalism in order to meet the needs of the majority worldwide. Only on that basis would it be possible to have a world where people are free to move if they wish to, but are not forced to do so by the nightmare conditions they face at home.

In the meantime, however, comrade Sell clearly implies that only ‘genuine’ refugees should have the right to migrate. And she proposes a better way of rooting out the impostors:

Control of decisions whether to grant asylum cannot be left in the hands of this callous government. We demand that elected committees of ordinary working people, including representatives of migrants’ organisations, have the right to review asylum cases and grant asylum.\1

Very radical, don’t you think?

The CPB, which like SPEW is opposed only to “racist” immigration controls, also limits its “solidarity” to asylum-seekers. Despite the front-page headline in the Morning Starreferring to the plight of those stranded in Hungary, which reads, “Let them travel”, the editorial in the same issue asserts: “Yvette Cooper’s call for distinguishing asylum-seekers … and economic migrants is a step forward.”\2

Another editorial uses the opportunity of the migrant crisis to have a bash at what the CPB contends is the workers’ main enemy amongst the bourgeoisie – I mean the EU, of course. Placing sneering quote marks around “Fortress Europe”, it notes that the “so-called ‘free’ movement of workers” within the EU is in fact “more often economically forced”. However, “the attitude to people seeking to enter from outside is quite different” – almost €2 billion is allocated “for control of external borders”.

Quite right. But what is the answer? Well,

There needs to be a political response in ending direct and proxy western military interventions in the Middle East, while assisting peoples of countries outside the EU to determine their own future, free of economic control by transnational corporations.\3

But who should have the right to migrate? I am afraid we are not told. Although, as with SPEW, the strong implication is that only bone fide asylum-seekers or refugees need apply. After all, “Britain will take in just 20,000 refugees over the next five years” despite the “recommendations made last year by the UN High Commission for Refugees …, which stated that Britain should offer help to 30,000 people”.\4

Open the borders

Thankfully, the approach of the Socialist Workers Party is much more principled – a pity the comrades insist on confusing the question of border controls with “racism”, as if the two are synonymous. For instance, Socialist Worker’s lead story on September 1 was headed: “Stop this murder” and underneath it was stated: “Open the borders. Let them in.” All migrants “have every right to try and find a better and safer life for themselves and their children” was the conclusion. Quite right. But the online version of the headline inserted “racist” before “murder”.\5

There was an attempt to justify this the following week in a box headed: “Are immigration controls racist?” The answer is apparently ‘yes’, because

… all immigration controls encourage the idea that there are certain groups of people who shouldn’t live here. And that usually means people from eastern Europe, or black and Asian people. This gives cops and bosses a green light to discriminate against them. It paves the way for racist attacks on people who ‘don’t belong in Britain’.

I do not find this very convincing. The “certain groups of people who shouldn’t live here” are actually just about everybody apart from those already in the country. But, once again, the conclusion is correct: “We think people should be able to go where they like – whatever the reason.”\6

As I write, the lead on Left Unity’s website is the article written by Simon Hardy, who “calls for solidarity and open borders”. He points out: “Left Unity has a position of opposing all immigration controls and borders” and adds: “As socialists we do not make a distinction between the rights of refugees and the rights of people to escape poverty. We are all human beings and we must have solidarity with each other.”\7

You can criticise LU for all sorts of failings, but one of its welcome strengths has been the position adopted on this question.



  2. Morning Star September 2.

  3. Morning Star September 4.

  4. Morning Star September 8.

  5. Socialist Worker September 1.

  6. Socialist Worker September 8.