Refugees and other migrants wanting to come to Britain congregate in the ‘Jungle’, a shanty town near Calais. For over a decade several thousand people have been living there, or prior to that in the official Sangatte camp that was destroyed in 2002 at the request of the UK. They are there in the hope of being able to get into the UK through the Channel Tunnel. This is where Britain, like so many other countries, has built a barbed wire fence to protect its borders and keep out refugees, except that it only needs to defend the entrance to the Eurotunnel and not a land border. The refugees around Calais returned to the news over the summer when striking French ferry workers blocked the entrance to the Eurotunnel, causing queues of cars and lorries that people desperate to get to the Britain tried to climb onto. Others risked their lives trying to walk through the tunnel. Some nights up to 2,000 people were trying to get through the police lines and fencing. Although the strike and blockade has long finished the media continue to report delays on Eurotunnel and Eurostar due to migrants breaking into their terminal. The UK media in general give greater prominence to the delays than to the deaths of migrants – 13 since late June – taking such a dangerous route, and there is very much less coverage of the utter misery suffered by thousands in the camp.
The British state keeps out the “swarms”
PM David Cameron responded to the situation created by the ferry strike by talking of “swarms” of people trying to “break into Britain”, the answer being to “show that Britain is not a soft touch on asylum”. Landlords will have to check tenants’ documents proving their right to stay, and evict those living illegally - a policy already piloted in the Black Country. The withdrawal of all financial support from failed asylum seekers will be extended from adults to families with children, except for an appeal to the Home Office with evidence they are unable to leave the country. Now families with children will be forced into the kind of destitution already suffered by single adults denied asylum. Plus the government is tendering an estimated £500 million contract to return failed asylum seekers, which could include some from Calais. 12,460 were forcibly removed last year.
On 20 August home secretary Teresa May visited Calais to organise the increased security with French minister of the interior, Bernard Cazeneuve: Britain is investing in fencing, CCTV, floodlighting, and infrared detection; France is putting in extra police search teams with dogs; Eurotunnel is increasing its guards; and a new integrated control room will coordinate all this security.
According to one view common in the media, it is those who really don’t get democracy yet, having grown up under Eastern European Stalinist regimes, who do not understand their responsibilities to the refugees: “The very worst of Europe has been seen in Viktor Orban, the pocket-Putin who serves as Hungary’s prime minister. Ignorant of history, Mr Orban sees the refugees as a threat to European civilisation. His answer is to build a 175km razor wire fence. Sadly, he is not alone in such bigotry. The Slovakian government says it will accept only non-Muslim refugees. There is something truly dispiriting about former communist states recently welcomed into the EU slamming the door against refugees from other forms of tyranny.” Britain’s own razor-wire response, coming from the country that boasts the “Mother of Parliaments”, and from the mouths of politicians who would never fall into any such “politically incorrect” bigotry about non-Christians or non-Europeans, makes it harder to maintain this argument, except by saying Cameron is letting down the British tradition of generosity.
Cameron has a change of rhetoric
On 3 September, when the photograph of a dead toddler appeared on the front pages, one of 12 Syrians drowned trying to reach Kos, Cameron was still saying that Britain cannot take more people fleeing from war: “we think the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world. I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees” (Guardian 3.9.15).
Shortly afterwards he announced that Britain would take a paltry 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees directly from the Middle Eastern countries over the next 5 years, and make use of the UK opt out of the EU system of quotas for those arriving in Greece and Italy. Last year Britain had only 31,260 asylum applications, only half the number received by France or Italy, a sixth as many as Germany, and less than Hungary!
The patriotic opposition
In fact the first Westminster politician to suggest that the UK could take some more Syrian refugees was Yvette Cooper, at the time one of the Labour leadership candidates. Pointing to the scale of the humanitarian crisis she said “we seem paralysed to respond. We cannot carry on like this. It is immoral, it is cowardly and it is not the British way. It is a test of British values, too — of whether we will again be able to reach out to the rest of the world and help as we have done in previous generations, or whether we will turn inwards and turn our backs instead.” Her proposal for help was similar to the prime minister’s – 10,000 distributed throughout the country.
The winner of the leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn, sounds even more positive: “There’s a very large number of people going over to Calais to take aid and support to them … Our health service, our education service, much of our industrial development in Britain, has been greatly enhanced by the work done by people who have made their homes here, paid their taxes here, worked very hard here…”
In fact, Britain has been welcoming or resistant to immigration according to the needs not of the migrants or refugees, but of the national capital. After World War 2 immigration was greatly encouraged to make up for a shortage of labour. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, on the other hand, when a huge mass of Asians were expelled from East Africa, it was Labour home secretary Callaghan who rushed through the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1968 so that people with British passports no longer had the right to settle in the UK unless they could show a personal connection with the country. Nor should we forget how the last Labour government campaigned about “bogus” asylum seekers. Right now Britain’s population is expected to rise by more than 10% in the next 20 years, and less than 15% of firms have difficulty filling vacancies, so it has less need of immigration. Germany, by contrast, which has been much more welcoming to refugees, has a falling population and more than 45% of firms report having difficulty filling their vacancies (The Economist 19.9.15).
Capitalism is the problem
When we look at the number of refugees fleeing war, or even the economic migrants who are seeking somewhere to earn a living, we are presented with a barrage of propaganda and opinions that can be roughly divided between those that say we have to defend what we have, and those who say since we are better off we should be generous with our resources when others are in such a desperate situation. The former is represented by the present conservative government as well as UKIP and similar right wing populist organisations in Europe eg Pegida in Germany, although as the Labour government showed in 1968 they can carry out the same policies. The latter more welcoming attitude is today, more or less weakly, expressed by the Labour Party. However the 1951 Conservative government carried on the same policy of encouraging immigration as the previous Atlee government, because it was required. Both these views take it for granted that we are fortunate to live in stable, free, democratic European countries, surrounded by these dangerous unstable regions that threaten us, and then put forward a policy to cope within the system as it is.
As we show in the series of articles on the problem of refugees starting in this issue (page 4 and 5) capitalism is continually causing both economic migration and waves of refugees from imperialist war. It is the same capitalist system that has created both the better conditions in Europe and the wars elsewhere, just as it was responsible for WW2 and the waves of refugees that followed, and profoundly affected Europe. There is no way out within capitalism so we cannot afford to get drawn into either side in this campaign. It is perfectly true that some of the more xenophobic comments are completely revolting, such as Sun journalist Katie Hopkins likening refugees to cockroaches. Much more dangerous is the hypocrisy of the politicians who pretend compassion for refugees when it suits them while equally prepared to put up fences or change the law to keep them out when they are not needed. No less dangerous is the attempt to turn individual acts of kindness and solidarity shown to refugees, whether in Calais or arriving at German railway stations, into a symbol of patriotism: “we British” are kind hearted, “we Germans” understand the problems faced by refugees. General feelings of solidarity with migrants and refugees can only have a future if they become part of a growing class solidarity among all those that capitalism exploits and oppresses.