In recent months we have seen the so-called refugee crisis re-emerge as an issue being discussed in the British press. Last summer, the Tory government attempted to whip up xenophobia by highlighting the hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the channel. Of course, this ignored the millions of people flying into the country legally, with only those most desperate attempting to cross from Calais. Asylum seekers and refugees were once again being scapegoated – used as a political tool by the ruling class in attempts to divert attention away from the failings of their capitalist system and divide the working class.
There is a fraught relationship between refugees and migrants and the capitalist system. On the one hand, capitalists love access to migratory labour to super-exploit. On the other, they love weaponising the issue of immigration to divide workers and distract from their own responsibility for a lack of decent jobs, homes and services.
Now Priti Patel has launched (potentially wildly illegal) new plans for the handling of asylum seekers coming to the UK. These have rightly been greeted with outrage and condemnation, with even some right-wing politicians opposing the plans, along with the United Nations. Patel is proposing a system that for the first time categorises asylum seekers as either legal or illegal. This is before their claims have been heard and resolved. Services offering support to refugees will only have the ‘right’ to deal with those claimants arbitrarily deemed to be legal asylum seekers. What is more, Patel argues that any asylum seeker deemed to have passed through a ‘safe’ country on their way to the UK should be immediately deported back to said country, despite there being no clear legal basis for this.
Asylum seekers in the UK are increasingly forced to live in prison-like conditions while they face an extraordinarily long wait to get their decision from the UK. Old army barracks which have been described by former soldiers as not fit for human habitation seem to be the new norm. Napier camp recently faced a mass outbreak of Covid, almost certainly made worse by the fact that people were being forced to live in spaces not fit for purpose, living and sleeping right next to one another.
Often quoted to justify this inhumane policy is the EU’s Dublin Protocol. When this came into effect in the late 1990s, its basic principle was that those fleeing persecution should claim asylum in the first country they arrive in.
And often, this is the case. Over 80% of the world’s refugees live in the world’s most economically deprived nations, often their neighbouring country. Nearly half of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees and not one European nation comes in the top ten global homes for asylum seekers. As imperialist wars and their ongoing consequences have devastated the Middle East, an increasing number of refugees have been forced to flee, with many attempting to reach safety in Europe. Responding to this, the Dublin Protocol has been through many agreed changes. This culminated in 2013, with the statement that the country in which an asylum seeker is processed is where they shall claim asylum. This made more sense than the original basis of the protocol but is a widely abused idea: asylum seekers are regularly processed in various European countries then packed onto trains to their neighbours.
2015 saw the complete and total breakdown of any idea of international capitalist collaboration during a period of crisis. Whilst Germany accepted over one million asylum seekers that year, other EU countries took dramatically different approaches. Eastern Europe attempted to shut its doors, whilst even the governments of countries like Denmark and Sweden began adopting the language and policies of the far right with regards to refugees and asylum seekers.
The ‘mainstreaming’ of far right rhetoric by traditional pro-capitalist (and even some former Social Democratic) parties, has had repercussions in the UK and Europe. Such politicians have used anti-migrant propaganda in their attempts to shore up a social base in the context of mass disillusionment with neoliberal austerity politics. This gives confidence to the actual far right, who have frequently targeted hostels and hotels where asylum seekers are being lodged, threatening those who have already fled persecution along with honest workers who are doing their jobs at these facilities. As Hope Not Hate noted:
“Britain First […]activists stormed into a hotel in Birmingham, currently being used to house refugees and migrants. Cameras in hand they walked down the corridors, banged on room doors and confronted residents when they opened. Similarly, BF leader Paul Golding went to Epping and harassed migrants at a hotel there which has already been the target of For Britain activists in recent months”
Patel’s new proposed policy can be seen as a kind of political extension of this far right violence. It is clearly vital that a movement is built that can defend refugees and asylum seekers against these attacks. But what can we do to better understand and try to tackle this issue now?
We have to recognise that asylum seekers and refugees are members of the working class. The ruling class has always relied upon migrants to further its economic interests and boost profits. Whether it be Latin Americans travelling to the United States to provide labour on farms or in restaurants, or women from the Philippines migrating to Britain to work in care or for the NHS, international capital loves to exploit migrant labour.
Even Germany’s apparent openness in accepting one million refugees in 2015 must be seen through the prism of an ageing population and German capitalism’s need to expand and protect its reserve labour army. Employers often seek to use migrant workers in order to undercut wages or undermine existing trade union agreements, creating division between workers of different backgrounds. The fact that asylum seekers are denied the legal right to work in the UK only increases the chance that they will be forced to work in highly exploitative situations – often receiving less than the minimum wage, for example.
Instead of treating this highly exploited group as ‘outsiders’ or seeing them as competition, the workers’ movement and trade unions must instead fight to expand and broaden job security and trade union representation to all workers – demanding the trade union agreed rate for the job is paid to all and fighting to secure decent wages and conditions for every worker. If all members of the working class have access to well-paid, secure employment, including for those fleeing persecution, then the sense of resentment and mistrust the capitalists aim to foster can be undermined. After all, a worker who happens to have been born in England has far more in common with a member of the Syrian working class than with a British Billionaire. This can allow a shift in focus to the unjust and corrupt nature of the capitalist state.
The outpouring of sympathy and mass protests that followed the incredibly tragic death of the toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on the beach in 2015, showed that there is huge potential to build movements in solidarity with refugees. Such a struggle must demand that refugees are really made ‘welcome’, including by being given the right to work, access to decent housing, help and support to learn English if this is required, and so on. With fresh attacks being planned by the Tories as outlined above, we need to once again take to the streets in defence of refugee rights.
Fighting capitalism, war, and environmental destruction
As socialists, we recognise that there is an intrinsic link between the destruction of the planet and human lives through the greed of capitalism.
The misery that imperialist wars and their consequences bring for the world’s poorest across the globe is horrifying. War is currently the main driver of people having to flee their homes and seek sanctuary elsewhere. And this is likely to be vastly dwarfed by a looming human catastrophe of capitalism’s making: environmental degradation.
The destruction of the environment in the pursuit of never-ending profits will cause a catastrophe that has the potential to spare no one, and yet the ruling class internationally can still not see beyond a short-sighted pursuit of profit that ruins the natural environment. We are starting to witness the effects of this as sea levels rise and volatile weather becomes increasingly normal across the globe.
In the coming years, this is likely to only get worse. More and more land will become inhospitable. If there is a presumption that we have a refugee crisis now, one can only begin to imagine what we are likely to face in the future.
Capitalism means war. Only by ending capitalism can we end class exploitation. And by ending the profit system, we end the economic conflicts of interests which drive conflicts over access to markets, land and natural resources which force so many refugees to seek safety and shelter elsewhere in the world.
As well as exploiting working-class people the world over, capitalism creates insoluble social problems. And because capitalism is a system of class exploitation, it is in the interest of all workers – whether they were born in Britain, are refugees, or are workers living elsewhere in the world – to fight to abolish it.
Only by ending the private ownership of the world’s key resources, as well as the central means of producing wealth, will we be able to establish a global social system where production takes place directly and solely to meet human need. Socialism will be based on co-operation, not on competition and conflicting interests. This is because it will necessarily be based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution, on production to meet human need not private greed. A democratic plan for production combined with solidarity across borders, would pave the way for a society without war, to end environmental destruction, and to prevent people being forced to leave their homes agains