The shipwreck of government policy

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There has been uproar in the UK about how the government has handled the refugee issue. More and more refugees are entering the country, daring to cross the Channel in rickety boats, over 40,000 people so far this year. While waiting for a decision on their asylum applications, these refugees are locked up in overcrowded detention centres under the most appalling conditions. And the recent agreement between the UK and France, aimed at preventing further illegal crossings by increasing surveillance at French ports and beaches, will not solve the problem. Even if other and safer routes are opened up, it will not prevent dangerous crossings from continuing and more lives being lost.

A world-wide phenomenon, running out of control

This terrible development does not limit itself to the UK, it’s a problem all over the world. According to UNHCR reports, there are nearly 30 million refugees adrift each year, the vast majority of whom flee to Western Europe or North America. The main reason is that capitalism is making large parts of the planet uninhabitable through countless imperialist wars, escalating gang violence, and life-threatening conditions for entire populations because of droughts, floods and cyclones resulting from accelerating climate change.

The flood of refugees is one of the effects of capitalism’s decomposition, which rebounds like a boomerang on the "western world" and which the bourgeois state tries to control mainly through institutionalised violence. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, more walls, more barbed wire fences and other barriers have been erected in the world than ever before[1], but even these have not been able to stem the tide of victims of the effects of capitalism’s inexorable decay.

The situation in refugee camps and detention centres is poignant around the world. A number of these barracks can well stand comparison with concentration camps (an invention of the European nations used mainly in imperialist wars). The violence of the state repression to keep the refugees in line has an impact on the mutual relations within the camps and makes the situation downright unsafe there, above all for women and children.

Because of those miserable circumstances, people who have been housed in these centres have staged many protests, not least in “democratic” countries that pride themselves on defending “human rights”. One of the more recent protests took place on Saturday 6 August 2022 in France, when a real revolt broke out in the largest administrative detention centre, Mesnil-Amelot, near Charles de Gaulle airport. “The prisoners of the two detention centres (CRA 2 and CRA 3) mobilised for several hours by setting fire to the buildings that lock them up, by climbing on the roofs, by trying to escape and by resisting the police.” The response to the revolt was, as usual, violent state repression. “It was the umpteenth rebellion that shakes this prison for undocumented migrants, after the fire of January 2021, the hunger strike of March 2021, the collective escape of July 2021, the protests of December 2021, the hunger strike of April 2022.”[2]

Another British crisis

The detention centres in the UK cannot handle the growing influx of refugees. In 2021, the UK received 48,540 asylum applications from main applicants only (i.e. children and other dependents not included). This was 63% more than the previous year and the highest number for almost two decades[3]. The Covid-19 pandemic reduced the number of asylum seekers arriving by air routes in 2020 and 2021. However, during this time the number of people arriving in small boats across the Channel rose substantially. The total number of migrants who have crossed the English Channel this year has at the time of writing well surpassed 40,000.

The centres in GB, as in most of the other western countries, are overcrowded. An example of this is the Manston processing centre in Kent, which was designed to hold 1,600 people for around 24 hours for processing, but was revealed to be housing 4,000 people, sometimes for more than a month. As a result there was an outbreak of diphtheria this month, leading to the closure of the centre. But the ruling class does not hesitate to use the distress of the refugees for its own ideological ends. One of the slogans of the supporters of Brexit was “taking back control of our borders”, but recently Home Secretary Suella Braverman characterised the UK's migration system as “broken”, claiming that “illegal immigration is out of control”.

Present-day capitalism is a highly destructive system and hostile to human life. Refugees are seen as collateral damages to be handled efficiently, with the least effort and cost, without the least concern for their personal needs. To that end, the states have set up a whole bureaucratic machine aimed at returning arriving refugees as soon as possible to some desolate place. In the case of the UK the plan is now to send them to Rwanda, allegedly to process their asylum applications, in reality to abandon them to their fate in a country which has a notoriously poor “human rights” record.

A campaign to divert the attention from the class struggle

The bourgeoisie’s migrant policies are always accompanied by sordid campaigns that demonise refugees by portraying them as people who profit from “our” wealth, take “our” jobs, live off “our” social benefits, in one word: parasites. Braverman herself has talked about “an invasion on our southern coast”. As a side effect of such campaigns the refugees in the UK, locked in several state-provided and private-run accommodations, have been victims of at least 70 violent attacks since 2020. 

In response to this relentless policy of the state the left always cries blue murder about the rights of the refugees to apply for asylum, even about the rights to be treated as human beings. But this a deception, a trap, since it starts from the idea that the non-exploiting layers have rights within capitalism. Revolutionary workers know better: as an exploited class we have no rights in this system and neither do the vast majority of the oppressed layers of society.

The refugee crisis is also used against the revival of the working class struggle in the UK[4].On the one hand, as workers in struggle begin to recover their class identity, it appeals to a sense of national identity under threat from foreign invaders. On the other hand, it enables the liberal and left factions of the bourgeoisie to shift the focus from the struggle for higher wages and the most basic living conditions to the protest against the inhumane treatment of refugees. The left thus tries to lure the workers from their own terrain into a "democratic" defence of the civil rights of refugees.

But in essence, the left is appealing to the state just as much as the right. While the right appeals to the state to protect the British people from the wave of refugees threatening to flood the country, the left appeals to that same state to act less arbitrarily against the refugees, by offering safe routes and acting against the illegal routes used by people traffickers and smugglers.

The state is there to protect the interests of the ruling class in the global framework of the defence of the national economy. The working class and other exploited layers in capitalist society cannot expect any favour from it. In the same sense the state does not defend the interests, or even the lives, of refugees. The working class must indeed express its solidarity with all the oppressed, all the wretched of the earth, but not by getting sucked up into bourgeois campaigns for "democratic rights". But by taking forward the struggle to defend its own interests as a class it can begin to include proletarian refugees in its struggles against this miserable society. 

Dennis, 2022-11-24


[2] "Revolt in Mesnil Amelot detention centre: ‘Everyone just wanted to be free’”,

[3] The annual number of asylum applications to the UK peaked in 2002 at 84,132. After that the number fell sharply to reach a twenty-year low point of 17,916 in 2010. It rose steadily again throughout the 2010s and then sharply in 2021, to 48,540, which was the highest annual number since 2003.

[4] See our international leaflet, "A summer of anger in Britain: The ruling class demands further sacrifices, the response of the working class is to fight!".


Refugee crisis