Millions upon millions displaced, forced to flee, living in appalling conditions, facing brutality from state forces and sectarian militias while putting their lives at risk as they seek safety; this is the reality of the wars that have followed years of foreign, imperialist intervention in the Middle East and defeats suffered by the revolutions that began in 2011.
The result is waves of refugees abandoning their homes and former lives. Most of the figures for the number of refugees underestimate the humanitarian crisis. Around six and a half million Syrians are refugees within Syria and a further four million are officially registered as refugees outside. Syria. In addition are the refugees from Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and other war zones.
Hundreds of thousands have come to Europe for refuge and a future, often facing perilous journeys, state brutality and exploitation from racketeers. As the situation worsened, more and more died this year trying to overcome the obstacles governments, particularly those in the European Union, put in their way.
This provoked a reaction. Growing numbers of Europeans were outraged by the unfolding human disaster in the Middle East, Mediterranean and southern Europe. This anger, especially at the growing number of deaths, forced a few governments to take more steps to help some of the millions of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.
But this limited concession has not been the result of a change of heart at the top. If it had not been for the growing popular anger at the treatment of refugees then nothing would have changed.
For months European governments have been firmly resisting such steps. Earlier this year the European Union’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission in the Mediterranean was replaced with the much more limited Triton operation. The aim was to make the sea crossing more dangerous for refugees and would-be migrants.
The British government said that Mare Nostrum was a “pull factor” encouraging people to try to reach Europe, and therefore told the British parliament last October that these “emergency measures should be stopped at the earliest opportunity”. In other words, their idea was to increase the risk of drowning and lessen the chance of rescue in order to keep the refugees out. Sure enough, this is what happened. In April 2014 42 migrants are thought to have drowned when Mare Nostrum was operating, in April this year 1,308 are believed to have died in the waters of the Mediterranean.
But it was not just the British government who openly expressed what they wanted to do. The German government, which received some praise for its changed approach, fully supported ending Mare Nostrum because, as the German interior minister explained, “Mare Nostrum was intended as emergency aid and has proved to be a bridge to Europe”. Berlin wanted to destroy that “bridge” for refugees.
Now, for a moment, the German government appears to be the most generous in taking Syrian refugees, but it is just as hypocritical as the other capitalist governments. While allowing in refugees arriving via Hungary, Berlin almost simultaneously asked the Rome government to impose border checks at Brennero on the Italian-Austrian border to try to limit the numbers coming from there. It is clear that both Germany and Austria will move to do something similar on their eastern borders.
Just days before the refugees in Hungary were allowed into Germany the Bavarian regional government opened its first so-called “one-stop” “reception and deportation centre” aimed at rapidly deporting those asylum seekers from countries Berlin deems as “safe”. The Bavarian government wants Kosovo to be added to the German “safe country” list, a country which Transparency International lists as the most corrupt in Europe where “cronyism is ubiquitous. It is impossible to find a job without connections”.
Change in public mood
While the change in public opinion had a big impact on what Merkel did, the German government saw this as a chance to repair its international image after its brutal treatment of Greece while also moving to help deal with Germany’s looming population crunch.
Already in early August the president of the German Federation of Industry (BDI) called for more asylum seekers to be accepted into Germany. This is because the German population is falling and is getting, on average, older. In 2003 the population of Germany peaked at 82.5m before falling to 80.3m in 2011. Since then it has risen to 81.1m last year, but this has been on the basis of migration into Germany; the number of German nationals living in Germany is still falling, down to 73.6m last year from a peak of 75.2m in 2004.
It is against this background that many German employers want more migrants, particularly skilled and professional workers. The German labour minister was absolutely clear: “we will profit from this too because we need immigration”. This is why, when announcing tougher measures to speedily deport asylum seekers from the Balkans, Merkel has also explained that “people from these (Balkan) states who can provide evidence of employment or a training position will be able to work here”. There are reports that significant numbers of those able to get to Germany are professionally trained. The BBC economics editor reported British businesspeople complaining “that Merkel is creaming off the most economically useful of the asylum seekers”.
Despite these economic calculations, obviously for most refugees the German government appears much more welcoming than those governments that refuse to take any, or only very few, refugees from the Middle East.
However, capitalist countries treatment of refugees has always been based on ruling class self-interest or in response to the pressures of public opinion or mass movements. The western powers agreed to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention in order to try to overcome the negative political legacy of their strict limits on pre-Second World War refugees from Nazism and to score propaganda points against the former Stalinist states’ travel restrictions.
But today the ruling classes cannot simply go back to the pre-1939 situation when, for example, nearly all countries at the 1938 Evian conference, called by US President Roosevelt, failed to provide any significant increase in offers of asylum for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This past experience is the reason why demands to defend, and expand, the rights of asylum to help the victims of war and persecution are so widespread. Additionally in Germany and Austria, there is the memory of the huge numbers of refugees who came after the Second World War, 8 million to the then West Germany plus 4 million to East Germany. All these are reasons why the terrible plight of some of the refugees has so moved millions of people to demand they are helped at once, thus leading to more being given refuge in Western Europe.
It is noteworthy that the oil rich autocracies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, countries from where some of the jihadist groups are funded and armed, have taken in few Syrians as official refugees, just 33 Syrians in the Gulf States. So far this year Saudi Arabia, has given just $18.4 million to the UN Syria appeal, much smaller Kuwait has given far more, $304 million. While some mild criticism of this has been made in the western media, it is not being made a big issue. This is because the western imperialists understand that an influx of refugees could help undermine the local ruling elites, clearly something the western powers want to avoid.
But in Syria, faced with a catastrophic situation, particularly the growth of ISIS and increased fighting, the number fleeing the country rose from 11,000 a day in 2010 to 42,000 a day last year. Many feel trapped in the surrounding countries, particularly as they are being held in camps and not legally allowed to work.
Against this background the immediate question is how to provide quick relief for people fleeing the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is a big groundswell of sympathy in many countries and many are asking what can they do to help? Large amounts of money, food and other items for the refugees have been collected.
The workers’ movement has to take a lead in demanding that the refugees are granted asylum, in helping organise the relief and encouraging the refugees themselves to get organised. But at the same time there needs to be a concrete programme of what can be done to help settle the refugees and, most importantly, where will the resources come from. Unless this is done there is a danger that this mass exodus will provoke a counter-reaction as right–wing and far right forces try to exploit the situation, particularly by claiming that the refugees are taking resources away from the host population. While the refugees have received a warm welcome from many in Germany, the far right arson attacks on asylum hostels there continue almost daily and it seems only a matter of time before someone is killed.
Campaign for better conditions for all
In the situation where there are already pre-existing shortages of good jobs, housing, pressures on schools and health services the sudden influx of tens of thousands will inevitably cause tensions with the existing population unless the labour movement campaigns for better conditions for all.
There are already signs of resentment in the poorer EU countries of central and Eastern Europe of aid being given to refugees and possibility also fears that the refugees will become a new source of cheap labour, undercutting the already low wages received by central and east Europeans working in Western Europe.
The right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, himself under pressure from the growing far right party Jobbik, mixes anti-migrant rhetoric with exploitation of the historic memory of the invasions centuries ago by the Ottoman Empire. Thus Orban argues that borders must be strengthened because “we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country” and “is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is barely able to keep Europe Christian”. The anti-migrant demagogy is repeated in some other countries with, for example, the Czech president Zeman recently telling migrants “nobody invited you – if you don’t like it here, leave”. But in Hungary it is not just words against the refugees, force has been used against them as well, something which has only increased the calls in other countries for the refugees to be admitted.
But in many countries, the discovery of 71 bodies in a truck in Austria and then the picture of a drowned child, brought to a head the feeling that something must be done. In Vienna over 20,000 marched on August 31 demanding that the refugees be given asylum. Like in Germany, a huge wave of sympathy and often practical support greeted the refugees arriving in Austria.
This is very significant in a country where the far right, anti-migrant FPÖ has sometimes been the largest party in recent opinion polls. Such is the mood in Austria that currently the FPÖ is keeping its head down. But it is waiting for the opportunity to raise anti-migrant issues again when issues of housing, jobs, schooling etc. arise due to the sudden influx. Already the FPÖ is raising the slogan of helping “our poor”, i.e. Austrians, in the run-up to the important Vienna regional election next month.
Sympathy is not enough and can run out, especially when there is a renewed economic crisis. It is urgent that the labour movement starts to campaign on a concrete programme that can answer the inevitable anti-immigrant propaganda from the right. Such a programme must provide clear answers to the practicalities of housing, food, language, work etc. in a way that answers the fears of local people that it will be at their expense. As a start, a stop should be put to private companies profiting from refugees; in Germany the largest provider of refugee hostels is a private company - European Homecare - which has been described by the German financial daily Handelsblatt as a very profitable concern.
Socialist policies are needed to prevent “divide and rule” on an international scale. Already we saw during the Greek crisis how capitalist politicians in central and eastern Europe exploited the low living standards in their countries in order to mobilise local opinion against any concessions being given to the Greek people’s struggle against austerity. This could now be repeated with right-wing politicians attempting to mobilise against refugees and divert anger away from capitalism at this time of economic stagnation and a threat of a new recession. Such developments will add to the tensions within the European Union.
Action now can win immediate improvements. Reforms can be won through mass struggle, or the threat of struggle. After 1945 capitalism in Europe was forced to grant significant reforms because it was under huge pressure from the massively increased support for socialist ideas in in reaction to war, fascism and the dire 1930s. Fearing revolution the ruling classes gave many concessions.
Needs of local population and refugees
The workers’ movement should put forward concrete demands that link together the needs of the local population and the refugees, for instance on both housing the refugees and ending the homes crisis that exists in some countries. Last year the British Guardian newspaper reported that there were 11 million empty homes in Europe. In Vienna there are currently 80,000 empty homes, plus in many cities there are empty office spaces which could, at least, quickly provide emergency accommodation. While they might not all be in the right places, they could immediately provide some of the homes needed for the refugees. In Britain during the Second World War the state used empty properties to immediately rehouse “bombed-out” families. Similar action must be taken now to house both the current homeless and the refugees. In Greece, Italy and other countries, emergency re-settlement centres need to set up. These should not be financed by people already suffering through austerity but, along with the other needs of the refugees, by the companies that have profited from the Middle East and the Middle Eastern elite themselves. Nationalising the assets of these companies and the Arab elites would provide plenty of resources that could be immediately used.
But the housing crisis is not simply a result of growing populations. Currently in Britain there is an acute housing shortage, partly the result of a big increase in population and internal migration, but mainly because home building, especially public housing, has collapsed. In 1953, under a Conservative government, a record 245,000 publically owned homes for rent were completed in Britain. But later, under both Conservative and Labour governments this was massively cut back as part of neo-liberal austerity measures, reaching a low point of 130 new publically owned homes in 2004. While there has been a tiny increase since then, the 2013 figure was just 2,080, less than 1% of the 1953 total. So when in Britain questions are raised that the refugees’ situation is tragic but Britain itself is too crowded to accept many, the labour movement should answer that yes, there is a housing crisis, but this is largely the result of government policy and what is needed is an emergency, publically funded, house building programme. Along with the nationalisation of the property companies and large landlords this would allow a planned approach to decently housing people.
It is the ruling classes of both the imperialist countries and the Middle East that should pay for looking after and resettling the refugees, as well as the later rebuilding of the region. They should pay as it is their system and policies which are largely responsible for this crisis, whether it is the results of the imperialist interventions in Iraq and Libya or the financing of jihadist groups by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The refugee crisis is not a simple tragedy; it is not an unavoidable disaster. The millions of refugees are not fleeing an unavoidable natural disaster but wars and counter-revolution.
Imperialist countries bear major responsibility
It is the ruling classes of the imperialist countries which bear the major responsibility for the current situation. Historically British and French imperialism largely drew the boundaries and initially created most modern Middle East states. Then, along with US imperialism, they worked to maintain their local allies and agents in control. Oil and weapon companies have especially profited from this region. In 2014 Saudi Arabia was the world’s biggest arms importer, spending $6.4bn on weapons, 10% of the total $64.4bn world arms trade. UAE imported a further $2.2bn’s worth.
But it is not just “ordinary” capitalist trading that the big companies profit from. A year ago the EU’s ambassador in Iraq, Jana Hybášková, told the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs that some unnamed European countries were buying oil from, and effectively helping fund, ISIS. Significantly she refused to name who was involved. As usual for capitalism, profit comes before human or democratic rights.
However when imperialism’s interests are threatened they intervene, usually suddenly highlighting democratic issues as a smokescreen. But local despots could, and still do, rule unchallenged if they do not act against the interests of imperialism. Thus Saddam Hussain was unopposed by the West, in fact supported in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, until he invaded Kuwait in 1990.
It is US and British imperialism which, above all, have the immediate responsibility for what is happening now in the Middle East. It was their 2003 invasion of Iraq that set off a chain of events which, in the absence of a successful movement by the Iraqi working people themselves, has resulted in sectarian division, violence and civil war. While fighting to defend the right to asylum, the demand for emergency programmes, funded by the rich and those which have profited from exploiting the Middle East, is essential.
Now we have elements amongst the imperialist nations trying to exploit the growing refugee crisis as an excuse to justify renewed military intervention in the region. Under the banner of trying to help solve the crisis, France has announced that it will begin air strikes in Syria, while the British government has begun drone attacks and is considering asking for parliamentary agreement for wider air strikes. But this will not help stop the flow of Syrian refugees. The addition of a few French and British planes to the US planes already bombing Syria, while adding to death toll, will not make much strategic difference to a situation that has spiralled out of western imperialism’s direct control. The aim of Paris and London is to try to prepare the way for possible wider intervention and for the British and French governments to have more of a “say” in what happens.
Socialists are clear that it is only the united action of the working people and poor in the Middle East that can end the civil war, defeat the sectarian forces, overthrow the tyrants, win democratic rights and break the chains of imperialism and capitalism. We saw in the revolutions that began in 2011 in North Africa and the Middle East a glimpse of how action by working people can bring change. Tragically many of 2011’s opportunities were lost because the mass movement did not have a clear programme on how to achieve its goals. To prevent that happening again the building of independent movements, with socialist policies and tactics, of working people is necessary. Such movements can put an end to the sectarian divisions, wars, repression, poverty and fight for a world free from capitalist exploitation where the use of the globe’s resources is democratically planned in the interests of the mass of humanity and not the ruling classes.