Migrants and refugees: victims of capitalist decline, Part 4: from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the new walls around Europe and the US

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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. Part three discussed the plight of migrants during the terror of the Cold War.

Towards the end of the 80s, the world entered a new period: one of generalised, social decomposition. This phenomenon was the result of the failure of the working class to politicise and push forward the struggles it had begun in the 70s. But although the ruling class was able to beat back the proletariat's resurgence it was unable to inflict a decisive defeat, one that would have enabled it to impose an outright march towards war.

The result was a descent into a protracted struggle of attrition which, while inflicting grevious wounds on the proletariat, also began to destabilise the bourgeoisie's economic and political apparatus. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc heralded a new stage in this process, a "New World Disorder" with weaker states disintegrating entirely. As soon as one devastated region seemed to recover, another began to fall apart. Faced with what seemed like a new wave of post-Apocalyptic nightmares, with entire societies seemingly dissolving into anarchy, more people than ever before began the desperate search for safety in a collapsing world.

It is this period we will now examine.

With the return of the economic crisis in the middle of the 1970's, the policy of immigration was greatly reduced. Migratory policies became much more restrictive concerning entry over borders. Capital did continue to hire cheap immigrant workers despite the massive increase in unemployment, but it could no longer absorb a whole mass of foreigners heading for the major industrial centres.

Crisis, state "bunkerism" and the explosion of migrants and refugees

From the end of the 80's and beginning of the 90's packed charter flights took immigrants back to their countries of origin. And this happened despite the context of the exacerbation of conflicts and the deepening of the economic crisis which multiplied the number of potential candidates for migration.  A new phenomenon thus came to the fore throughout the world: that of the "illegals".  With the closure of frontiers, an illegal immigration which was already difficult to quantify, exploded in a spectacular fashion. A real mafia economy, made up of transnational networks, could then be deployed with impunity, made up of unscrupulous crooks and all forms of modern slavery like prostitution, but also feeding the labour black market of low pay, particularly in building and agriculture. The United States itself profited from this situation in order to super-exploit the sweat of illegal immigrants coming mainly from Latin America. So, for example "the number of Mexicans registered outside of Latin America (the majority in the United States) tripled between 1970 and 1980, reaching more than two million. If one took into account the enormous number of clandestine immigrants, the exact figure must be very much higher: between 1965-1975, the number of illegals fluctuated around 400,000 a year reaching between 1975 and 1990 about 900,000 migrants"[i].

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the quasi-autarkic Stalinist regimes, accelerated this process and opened up a new spiral of war, chaos and unprecedented disorder. While after 1945 displacements were essentially those of victims of war, mainly of expelled Germans, followed by those fleeing the German Democratic Republic before the construction of the wall in 1961, migrations after 1989 were rather the product of a new international wave. Up to 1989, migrants from Eastern Europe were blocked by the Iron Curtain. Migratory waves thus went from the South towards the North, notably from northern Africa and the countries of the Mediterranean towards the large urban centres of the European countries. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the integration of the countries of central Europe into the European Union (EU), a worker from the East could again move to the countries of the West. At the same time, the massive and rapid growth of China led to the beginning of a vast internal migration, stirring hundreds of millions to leave the countryside for the towns. Because of the growth of the Chinese economy these masses could be absorbed. A contrario , with the advance of the crisis in Europe and the United States, the flow coming from other countries was restricted by the numbers already there.

The horrors generated by militarism

The dynamic of militarism and of the world chaos which followed the dislocation of the Eastern Bloc and the disintegration of the alliances around the United State aggravated the tendency of "each for themselves" and the tensions between different nations, pushing populations to flee the fighting and/or growing misery. The real barrier which separated East from West, whose objective was not only the demarcation of borders on the imperialist level but also the prevention of emigration, disappeared, provoking an anguished response from the governments of Western Europe faced with the presumed threat of a "massive immigration" from the countries of the East. After 1989, a wave of migrants did come towards the West, notably from Romania, Poland and central Europe, looking for work, even if badly paid. Despite the tragic episode of the Balkans War between 1990 and 1993 and the recent conflict in Ukraine, the migratory flow within Europe was relatively "under control". And this while at the same time the pressure from migration at its periphery became stronger and stronger on the EU[ii].

At the beginning of the 1990s, new wars were sowing chaos in the Middle-East, the Balkans, in the Caucuses and Africa, provoking ethnic cleansing and all sorts of pogroms (Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Thailand, etc.). Millions were looking for refuge but the majority of refugees still remained in their regions. Only a limited number of them turned towards Western Europe. During the first Gulf War (1991) the US-led "coalition" used the local Kurd and Shi'ite populations for its intervention, which resulted in at least 500,000 deaths and a new wave of refugees[iii]. The "humanitarian" and "peace-making" alibis of the West allowed the covering-up of the worst imperialist exactions in the name of the "protection of refugees" and populations, in particular the Kurdish minorities. The bourgeoisie then promised us an era of "peace" and "prosperity" along with the triumph of democracy. In reality, as we can see today, the major powers and all the states involved were to be dragged along by the logic of militarism into a downward spiral that becomes ever more murderous and destructive. Moreover, war rapidly returned to Europe, in ex-Yugoslavia, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths. In 1990, 35,000 Albanians from Kosovo began to flee towards Western Europe. A year later, following Croatia's declaration of independence, 200,000 people fled the horror of the conflict and 350,000 others were displaced within the old, now carved-up territory. In 1995, the war spread to Bosnia and 700,000 supplementary people were driven out, notably following the daily bombardments on Sarajevo[iv]. A year earlier, the genocide in Rwanda, equally with the complicity of the French and, to a lesser extent, the British and USA, saw close to a million victims (mainly from the Tutsi population, but also some Hutus) provoked the massive and tragic stampede of Rwandan refugees escaping towards the province of Kivu in the Congo (1.2 million displaced and thousands more deaths due to cholera, revenge attacks, etc.). Every time the refugees become the hostages and victims of the worst atrocities. At best they were considered "collateral damage" or as a simple nuisance from the point of view of military logistics.

There were many who were ready to think that the spectre of war was a distant prospect but in the reality and logic of capitalism, the war-like spiral can only continue. Entire zones of the planet found themselves polluted by warlords and the appetites of the major powers, hunting down and terrorising the populations, obliging still more to flee the barbarity of the combat zones. Millions fled the atrocities of gangs and mafias, as in Latin America with the narco-wars, or those left adrift by states collapsing in tatters, such as Iraq, where we saw the rise of the obscurantism of al-Qaida and then "Islamic State”. The same thing was happening in Africa where inter-ethnic tensions and armed bands of murderous terrorists multiplied their attacks.. The interventions of the main powers, notably the United States in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, awakened the ambitions of the regional  powers, further destabilising these extremely fragile countries, devastating wider zones and delivering them up to war. All this aggravated the problems of refugees, multiplying the camps and the tragedies. The refugees were prey to the mafias, submitting to brutality, theft, violations, with women often enrolled or kidnapped by prostitution networks[v].

Throughout the globe these same phenomena are coming together, fed by the hot-points of war as in the Middle-East, condemning hundreds of thousands of  families to wander in exile or stagnate in the camps.

Up to this time the majority of the refugee victims of war around Europe, remained in their regions. But, for some years now, faced with ever-wider spreading war-zones, notably the Middle-East and Africa, a much higher number of refugees head for Western Europe and that at the same time as more "economic" migrants from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean or others hit by the economic crisis.

The same thing goes for the U.S. continent: more emigrating from Mexico, a growing number of refugees fleeing the violence of Central America, trying to escape towards Mexico in order to get to the United States.

Obama’s Wall

“President Barack Obama has already earned the damning nickname “Deporter in Chief” for kicking out of the country more than 2.5 million undocumented people during his two terms in office. Fear of deportation has sharply escalated since Trump’s election”.


The war in Syria and the massive flow of refugees

Over the past five years and more, Iraq, Libya and Syria have fallen prey to an uncontrollable chaos which is pushing still more of the population to flee in large numbers. At the same time thousands of people are taken hostage by the rival imperialisms involved, as in Aleppo for example, where they are condemned to die under massive bombardments and bullets as well as dying of hunger and thirst. About 15 million people are displaced today from the Middle-East alone. In 2015, more than a million people were sent into exile, counting only the flow towards Germany. For the first time since 1945, waves of refugees, victims of wars and bombardments, are heading towards a Europe perceived as an "Eldorado", but are brutally pushed back or languish in camps. In Ukraine the war has flared up again and thousands of Ukrainians have fled the fighting, asking for asylum in neighbouring countries, notably in Poland which is growing more and more hostile to refugees.

Between 2000 and 2014, 22,400 people were drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean trying to reach this idealised European Union, despite police numbers making access to the borders difficult. This exodus has provided a major opportunity to unscrupulous “people smugglers” whose organisations have prospered on what's become an industrial scale. As a result the richest states have become real bunkers multiplying their walls, barbed wire, patrols and police numbers. It's an irony of sorts that the champions of "democratic freedom", the United States, which didn’t have enough harsh words to stigmatise the Berlin "wall of shame" have already constructed a giant wall along its southern border in order to keep out the "Chicanos"[vi].

In many countries refugees have not only become undesirable but are also presented as criminals or potential terrorists, justifying a paranoia which deliberately aims to divide and control populations and prepare the repression of future social struggles. And to the police repression, can be added, outside of hunger and cold, deliberate administrative and bureaucratic harassment. The major powers have thus deployed a whole juridical arsenal whose job is to filter out the "good migrants" (those who can be useful for the valorisation of capital) notably the best educated, the products of the "Brain Drain". "Asylum-seekers" and the "bad migrants", the hungry majority without qualifications, must... go home, or go somewhere else. According to demographic and economic needs, different states and national capitals thus "regulate" the number of refugees available to be integrated into the labour market.

A good number are brutally sent back. Men, women and children, notably in camps in Turkey, are victims of the police who, if tasers, baton blows, etc., are not enough, don't hesitate to shoot them in cold blood. The EU is perfectly aware of these terrifying practices and the bodies which continue to wash up on Mediterranean beaches. Not only does this carnage leave them cold, but they are busy but organising a whole military and man-hunting apparatus to push back the refugees.

An immense and moral combat for the proletariat

With this very general tableau of the history of refugees and the migratory flux, we've tried to show that capitalism has always used force and violence, either directly or indirectly, initially with the aim of forcing peasants to abandon their land and sell their labour power wherever they can. We have seen that these migrations, their numbers, their status (clandestine or legal), their direction, depend on the fluctuations of the world market and change according to the economic situation. War, which became more intense, more frequent and more widespread during the 20th century, means that the number of refugees and victims of war has constantly increased. With recent conflicts this flow has made its way to Europe and the other major industrial centres. Added to this is the fact that for some time now more and more movements of refugees are linked to the destruction of the environment. Today, climatic ecological changes and disasters can be added to all the other ills. By 2013, there were already 22 million climatic refugees. According to some sources there will be three times as many refugees from climate change than those fleeing war. For 2050, the UNO forecasts the number of 250,000 climatic refugees, a greatly underestimated figure when we are already seeing the air in some zones and cities becoming unbreathable (e.g. Beijing and New Delhi). The convergence of all these factors combines to increase the scale of the tragedy. There is now a growing number of refugees that capital, as a result of its historic crisis, can no longer integrate into production.

Thus the tragic fate of the refugees poses a real moral problem for the working class. The capitalist system is carrying out the hunt for illegals, repression, deportation, imprisonment in camps, while multiplying xenophobic campaigns which end up feeding the preparation for all sorts of violence against migrants. Further, in trying to distinguish "real asylum-seekers" from the rapidly-growing numbers of undesirable "economic refugees", the bourgeoisie accentuates these divisions. Faced with the reality of the economic crisis throughout Europe, and by exploiting the fear of terrorism, the bourgeoisie is stoking up xenophobia while at the same time presenting the state as the sole guarantor of stability. The propaganda of the ruling class cranks up concerns about competition for work, for housing and health benefits, favouring a reactionary, pogromist mentality. All this constitutes fertile soil for the spread of populism[vii].

This is confirmed by the growth of anti-immigrant and ultra-conservative parties in Europe and the United States,  parties which have gained an influence in the more marginalised parts of the proletariat in the old industrial regions. The result of the referendum in Great Britain, like the election of Trump in America, is the most evident expression of this.

Faced with the thorny question of migration and refugees, the working class will have to take on a growing moral responsibility. It will be necessary to banish both the expressions of open hatred, such as "Throw out the immigrants", and the more “democratic” version which says "we can't take on the entire world's misery". It has to avoid the traps of official propaganda which are an obstacle to a basic necessity of the class struggle: solidarity, which will have to be affirmed in an increasingly conscious manner. The bourgeoisie, which does fear for a future loss of control faced with a more and more chaotic situation, willingly fosters a climate of terror, pushing isolated individuals to put themselves under the “protection” of the state. Faced with the anxiety-ridden official speeches and the security measures of the state apparatus, proletarians must act in an absolutely conscious manner and reject the reflexes of fear conditioned by the media, recognising that before everything refugees are the victims of capitalism and the barbaric policies of these same states. This is what we have tried to show in this series of articles. In time, the working class will have to be able to see that behind the question of migrants and refugees is the question of the international unity of the working class and its revolutionary fight against the capitalist system.

"If our class aims to recover its class identity, solidarity can be an important means of unification in its struggle. If, on the contrary, it only sees in the refugees competition and a threat, if it doesn’t form an alternative to capitalist misery,  to a system which forces millions to flee under the threat of war or of hunger, then we will be under threat of a massive extension of the pogromist mentality and the proletariat at the heart of it will not be spared."[viii]

WH, November 2016




[i]  Veronique Petit, International migrations, published in La population des pays en developpement (Populations of the developing countries).

[ii]  For this reason, the EU created a unique space (the Schengen space) allowing for drastic control and a tighter policing (while allowing the "free movement" of labour inside this space).

[iii]  See the ICC's Gulf War 1991: the terror of the new world order. https://en.internationalism.org/wr/307/iraq-1991

[iv]  At the time of the Serbian offensive in the enclave of Srebrenica, the French and British military of FORPRONU, under the orders of their high commands, kept their "neutrality" allowing the massacre of more than 8000 Bosnians.

[v]  The phenomenon of prostitution, straightaway threatening minors, is in full expansion throughout the world. There are about 40 million prostitutes around the entire world with many taken by force.

[vii]  See our article in International Review  no. 157 on populism: https://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201608/14086/questi...