Migrants and refugees: victims of capitalist decline, Part 3: The Cold War

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In the first article in this series, we gave a brief overview of the origins and function of migration in the capitalist system and how this has changed as that same system began its remorseless historical decline in the early 20th century. In part two, we examined the culmination of those trends in the horror of the Holocaust. But the defeat of the Nazi terror did not mean an end to the suffering and trauma of displaced people around the globe. As Nazi terror was replaced by the terror unleashed by the Stalinist and democratic powers, millions of displaced Jews, fresh from the horror of the concentration camps, became pawns in the imperialist struggle in the Middle East around the formation of the Israeli state. As the Cold War confrontation widened, millions more around the globe fled wars and massacres, victims of murderous rivalry between the global super-powers and their equally murderous local client states.


At the end of the Second World War, the disastrous destruction caused by imperialist confrontations created a world of ruin and desolation. In May 1945, 40 million people were displaced or refugees in Europe. To this must be added the 11.3 million workers who had been conscripted by Germany during the war. In other major regions of the world, the weakening of colonial powers caused instability and conflicts, particularly in Asia and Africa, leading over time to millions of migrants. All these population movements provoked terrible suffering and many deaths.

The "Iron Curtain": terror and the militarisation of borders

On the still smoking ruins of the world conflict following the conferences at Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945), the "Iron Curtain" that fell between the former allies (the Western powers behind the United States on one side and the USSR on the other) drove millions of people to flee from hatred and vengeance. With the division of the world into spheres of influence dominated by the victors and their allies, the new line of inter-imperialist confrontations was drawn. Hardly had the war ended than the confrontation between the Western and Eastern blocs began. The months that followed the end of the war were marked by the expulsion of 13 million Germans from the Eastern countries and the exile of more than a million Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Poles and Balts, all fleeing the Stalinist regimes. Ultimately, “Between 9 and 13 million people perished as a result of the policy of Allied imperialism between 1945-50. There were three main foci of this monstrous genocide:

-       Firstly amongst a total of 13.3 million ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern parts of Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc., as allowed by the Potsdam agreement. This ethnic cleansing was so inhumane that only 7.3 million arrived at their destination within the post-war borders of Germany; the rest 'disappeared' in the most gruesome circumstances.

-       Secondly amongst the German prisoners of war who died as a result of the starvation and diseased conditions of the allied camps - between 1.5 and 2 million.

-       Finally amongst the population in general who were put on rations of around 1000 calories per day, guaranteeing slow starvation and sickness - 5.7 million died as a result.[1]

A great number of Jewish survivors did not know where to go because of the resurgence of anti-Semitism, particularly in Poland (where new pogroms broke out such as at Kielce in 1946) and Central Europe. The frontiers of the Western democratic countries had been closed. Jews were often housed in camps. In 1947 some sought to reach Palestine to escape hostility in the East and rejection in the West. They did so illegally at the time and were stopped by the British to be immediately interned in Cyprus. The aim was to deter and control all these populations to maintain capitalist order. In the same period the number of prisoners in the camps of the Gulag in the USSR exploded. Between 1946 and 1950, the population doubled to more than two million prisoners. A large number of refugees and migrants, or "displaced" persons, ended up in the camps to die. This new world of the Cold War shaped by the "victors of freedom" had created new fractures, brutal divisions tragically cutting populations off from each other, causing their forced exile.

Germany was divided up by the imperialist victors. And to prevent migration and the flow of its population to the West, in 1961 the GDR had to build the "wall of shame". Other states such as Korea and Vietnam were also cut in two by the "Iron Curtain". The Korean War, between 1950 and 1953, divided a population imprisoned by the two new enemy camps. This war led to the disappearance of nearly 2 million civilians and caused a migration of 5 million refugees. Throughout this period until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many populations were forced to flee from the incessant local conflicts of the Cold War. Within each bloc, numerous displacements often directly resulted from the political games played by the American and Russian great powers. Thus, propaganda concerning the 200,000 refugees who fled to Austria and Germany after the suppression of the uprisings in East Berlin in 1953 and Budapest in 1956 by the Red Army fed the ideological discourse of the two rival camps. All the wars fuelled by these two great East-West military blocs continued to create large numbers of victims who were the systematically exploited by the propaganda of each opposing camp.

Tensions, "national liberation struggles" and migration

The brutal divisions of the Cold War continued in the 1950s with decolonisation movements that fuelled migration and further divided the proletariat. Since the beginning of the period of decolonisation, and especially in the 1980s when Cold War conflicts intensified and worsened, so-called "national liberation struggles" (in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East) were particularly murderous. Pushed to the geographical periphery of the major capitalist powers, these conflicts gave the illusion of an "era of peace" in Europe while the lasting wounds and forced displacement of large numbers of migrants appeared as so many "distant" tragedies (except of course for the old settlers coming from these regions and the nations directly affected). In Africa, since the end of the colonial era, there were many wars, some of them among the most murderous in the world. Throughout these conflicts, major powers like Great Britain or France (then acting as the Western bloc’s "gendarme of Africa" ​​ against the USSR) were widely involved militarily on the ground where the logic of the East/West blocs prevailed. For example, hardly had the Sudan gained its independence in 1956 than a terrible civil war would involve the colonial powers and thus be exploited by the blocs, leaving at least 2 million dead and more than 500,000 refugees,forced to seek asylum in neighbouring countries. Instability and war became a permanent feature. The terrible war in Biafra caused famines and epidemics, leaving ​at least 2 million dead and as many refugees. Between 1960 and 1965, the civil war in the former Belgian Congo and the presence of mercenaries led to many victims and many displaced. One could add to these examples, like that of Angola which had been ravaged by war since the first uprisings of its population in Luanda in 1961. After its independence in 1975, many years of wars followed between the forces of the ruling MPLA (Movement of Liberation of Angola, supported by Moscow) and the rebels of UNITA (supported by South Africa and the United States): not less than one million died and 4 million were displaced, including half a million refugees who ended up in camps. The many conflicts on this continent permanently destabilised entire regions such as West Africa or the strategic Great Lakes region. One could equally find examples in Central America, or in Asia, which saw many bloody guerrilla conflicts. The Russian intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 marked an acceleration of this infernal spiral, leading to the exodus of 6 million people, the largest refugee population in the world.

Nationalism and the mechanics of exclusion

The new states or nations that emerged following large displacements were the direct product of imperialist divisions and poverty. They were the fruit of nationalism, expulsions and exclusion: in short, a pure product of the climate of war and permanent crisis generated by decadent capitalism. The formation of these new states was a dead end that could only fuel destructive tensions. Thus the partition of India in 1947, then the creation of Bangladesh, forced more than 15 million people to be displaced on the Indian subcontinent. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948, a real besieged fortress, was also a significant example. This new state, growing from 750,000 to 1.9 million inhabitants in 1960, was from its birth the focus of an infernal spiral of wars that caused the growth of Palestinian refugee camps everywhere. In 1948, 800,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced and the Gaza strip gradually became a vast open-air camp. Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Damascus, Amman, were transformed gradually into suburbs of the capitals.

Similar problems of refugees and migrants were widely created across the planet. In China, millions of people were displaced, themselves victims of the ferocious Japanese oppression during the war. After the victory of the Maoist troops in 1949, some 2.2 million Chinese fled to Taiwan and 1 million to Hong Kong. China then isolated itself in relative autarky to try to make up for its economic backwardness. In the early 1960s, it then undertook a forced industrialisation and launched the policy of the "Great Leap Forward", imprisoning its population in kind of national labour camp, preventing any attempt at migration. This brutal policy of uprooting and repression practiced since the Mao era led to the growth of the concentration camps (laogai). Famine and repression caused not less than 30 million deaths in all. More recently, in the 1990s, the massive urbanisation of this country tore from the land not less than 90 million peasants. Other crises struck Asia, such as the civil war in Pakistan and the flight of Bengalis in 1971. Similarly, the taking of Saigon in 1975 (by a Stalinist-type regime) provoked the exodus of millions of refugees, the "boat people". More than 200,000 of them died.[2] There followed the terrible genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia causing 2 million deaths: refugees were the rare survivors.

Refugees have always been the exchange currency for the worst political blackmail, the justification for military interventions by intervening powers, sometimes for use as "human shields". It is difficult to calculate the number of victims who paid the price for the confrontations of the Cold War and give a precise figure, but "At a World Bank conference in 1991, Robert McNamara, former Secretary of State for Defence under Kennedy and Johnson, gave a table of losses in each theatre of operations whose total exceeds forty million.”[3] The new post-war period had therefore only opened up a new period of barbarism, increasing further the divisions among populations and the working class and sowing death and desolation. By further militarising borders, states exerted a globally greater and more violent control over the populations bled dry by the Second World War.

Migrants: a boon for exploiting labour power

In the early days of the Cold War, not all migrations were caused by military conflicts or political factors. The countries of Europe that had been largely devastated by the war needed to be rapidly reconstructed. But this reconstruction had to overcome a decline in population growth (10 to 30% of men had been killed or wounded during the war). Economic and demographic factors therefore played an important role in the phenomenon of migration. Everywhere, there was an available workforce, at low cost.

This is why East Germany was forced to build a wall to stop the leakage of its population (3.8 million had already crossed the border to the West). The former colonial powers favoured immigration, primarily from the countries of southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece ...). Initially, many of these migrants arrived legally, but also illegally with the help of organised smugglers. The need for labour meant the authorities at the time closed their eyes to these irregular migrations. In this way, between 1945 and 1974, many Portuguese and Spanish workers fled the regimes of Franco and Salazar. Until the early 1960s, Italians were recruited in France, first from northern Italy and then the south as far as Sicily. Then a little later it was the turn of the former colonies in Asia and Africa to provide their quotas for a docile and cheap workforce. In France, for example, between 1950 and 1960, the number of North African migrants rose from 50,000 to 500,000. The state then built hostels for migrant workers to keep them away from the population; this foreign labour was in effect deemed a "risk", justifying its marginalisation. But this did not stop it from hiring cheap labour for the heaviest work, knowing that it could get rid of them overnight. The high turnover of these newly arrived workers allowed a frenzied and unscrupulous exploitation, particularly in the chemical and metallurgical industries. Between 1950 and 1973, nearly 10 million people migrated to Western Europe to meet its industrial needs.[4]

This situation was inevitably exploited by the bourgeoisie to divide the workers and turn them against each other, to generate competition and distrust on both sides. With the recovery of workers' struggles in 1968 and the waves of struggles that followed, these factors would feed the many divisive manoeuvres by the unions and the ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie. On the one side, racial and xenophobic prejudices were encouraged; on the other, the class struggle was diverted by anti-racism, often used as a distraction to workers' demands. In this way, poison was spread and foreigners became "undesirable", or were portrayed as profiteers" or "privileged". All this would favor the growth of populist ideologies, facilitating the expulsions which have increased wholesale since the 1980s.

WH (April 2016)

In the next and final article in this series we will cover the issue of migrants from the 1980s to the current period which is marked the final stage of decomposition of the capitalist system.



[1] See ‘Berlin 1948: The Berlin Airlift hides the crimes of allied imperialism’,  http://en.internationalism.org/node/3865

[2] Source: UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees).

[3] According to André Fontaine, The Red Spot. The Romance of the Cold War, Editions La Martinière, 2004.

[4] Source: www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/historyteaching/Source/Projects/DocumentsTwentyCentury/Population_fr.pdf