A “Sea of Death” for migrants

November 6, 2013

Shaun Harkin analyzes the hypocrisy of European border policies that fuel the far right's anti-immigrant scapegoating--while capital faces fewer restrictions than ever.

ON OCTOBER 3, a trawler with 500 migrants escaping poverty and war in North Africa caught fire and capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea. Only 155 people were rescued. Days later, 36 Syrian refugees drowned off the Malta cost when their boat overturned.

For migrants fleeing North Africa and the Middle East for Southern Europe, the Mediterranean has become a "Sea of Death."

The scale of the double tragedies forced the issue of migration onto the front pages of newspapers in Europe and brought focus and scrutiny to the border policies of the European Union (EU)--the economic and political union of member countries.

However, migrant deaths en route to "borderless Europe" are more often the rule rather than the exception. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that 2,000 people have perished in Mediterranean waters since the beginning of 2011. Since 1993, at least 20,000 lives have been lost there, according to the International Organization for Migration. Frontex, the EU border security agency, reports:

Immigrant rights activists march against Frontex
Immigrant rights activists march against Frontex

During the first nine months of the year, more than 31,000 migrants arrived in the European Union using the central Mediterranean route, most of them Eritreans, Somalis and other sub-Saharan Africans, as well as Syrians. Migratory pressure this summer was comparable to that in the summer of 2011, when civil unrest in Tunisia and Libya led over the course of that year to about 60,000 arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

The number of migrants fleeing crisis, poverty, war and instability in Syria, Eritrea and sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow in the coming months and years, despite the dangers.

In response, though, José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive body, could only cynically offer that "there are no magic or immediate solutions, and we need to be realistic." Meanwhile, Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Home Affairs Commissioner, bluntly called for increased funding for Frontex to increase border enforcement and surveillance. Indeed, the migrants who survived the Lampedusa capsizing were arrested for "illegal immigration"--Italy has deployed additional drones and naval vessels in the Mediterranean to intercept more migrants.

THE EU'S total population is around 500 million, of which 50 million people are immigrants. Of this immigrant total, some 33 million are foreign-born--the rest were born in other EU member states. Only 4 million immigrants are believed to be undocumented. The Schengen Agreement created a "borderless" area among its signatories, which now includes 22 of the EU's 28 member states, along with four non-EU countries.

Within the EU, neoliberal economic reforms have removed barriers to exports, imports, capital flows and investment. Within the Schengen area, there is also "freedom of movement" for EU citizens, minimal border checks and passport-free travel. But as internal borders have been relaxed, the EU has created ever more restrictive barriers to keep non-EU migrants out. To extend the reach of the EU's enforcement policies, officials have proposed the creation of migrant "holding centers" and job centers in Africa and the Middle East.

In Border Vigils: Keeping Migrants Out of the Rich World, Jeremy Harding says that border enforcement was often aimed at Muslims before the current economic crisis:

But as Europe tumbled into recession and insolvency, its concerns with Islam were subsumed within a general anxiety about all new arrivals, whatever their origin or faith. In 2008, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain registered a 20 percent increase in hate crimes over the previous year...The same year Italy declared a state of emergency after a round of confrontations between Roma and mobs of Italians; the army was deployed to keep order and filter out Roma (and Romanians) at the borders. After a decade of openness, Spain was involved in a crackdown on irregular migrants while offering a lump sum to legal migrants, mostly Latin Americans, to go away if they weren't in jobs.

Within Fortress Europe, 100,000 migrants are held in detention centers across the continent, and hundreds of thousands are deported yearly. However, the geographic realities mean that it will be impossible to stop undocumented migration to Europe, no matter how high the barriers of the fortress. Instead, more enforcement will lead directly to more tragedies in the Mediterranean and other points of entry--and compound the danger by forcing migrants to take ever more hazardous routes.

Like immigration restrictions in the U.S., however, EU border enforcement isn't designed to completely stop migration, but to manage it--and determine the rights of those who are deemed "illegal." As Liz Fekete writes in A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe:

Over the last two decades, the EU, while encouraging member states to harmonize asylum policies, has slowly been introducing measures to control "migratory movements." But more recently, the EU's approach coalesced into an overall philosophy of "global migration management," Since the UN warned of the growing demographic crisis in Europe, brought on by an ageing workforce and declining birth rates, there has been a growing recognition within western Europe that immigration is necessary and that refugees might even provide an important source of skilled labor.

THE FREE movement of workers within the European Union has been used by employers to lower wages, weaken unions and dismantle the welfare state--by pitting more workers against each other. Employers have moved production to poorer regions, such as Eastern Europe, where unemployment is higher. Here, they can pay less, and pit EU workers against each other across the region.

Meanwhile, undocumented workers from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and European countries not yet included in the EU face a precarious existence, with lower wages, little access to benefits and few rights. The stratification of workers within European countries and across the EU is geared towards disorganizing the labor movement and weakening the working class' capacity to resist government-imposed austerity and employers demands.

Teresa Hayter, in Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls argues:

Most people now appear to take immigration controls for granted, at least in the rich industrialized countries of the West. But comprehensive controls to stop immigration are a recent phenomenon. A hundred years ago they did not exist; it was the people who advocated them who were condemned as extremist.

Immigration controls are a function of nation states, which have existed for much longer, and which now are said to be in decline. Unlike nations, border controls are flourishing, and they are becoming ever more extensive and oppressive. The state powers to which the governments of the industrialized countries most tenaciously cling are their powers to keep people out of their territories. Their object, though not always achieved, is to exclude poor people, and especially Black people.

Globalization and the neoliberal agenda have made it increasingly difficult for national governments to defend the state's citizens from the ravages of the global market. But these same governments can pass ever-more drastic neoliberal reforms, push through unprecedented bank bailouts and wage cuts, and militarize the border.

In other words, the nation-state remains necessary for global capitalism to function--and the EU has expanded Benedict Anderson's description of the nation-state as an "imagined community." Now the EU determines identity and who has rights. Those who are outside the borders of the EU don't belong, and need to be excluded, using drones, border police and warships.

Meanwhile, financial assets and the products of the capitalist "free market" move more freely. And of course, wealth can buy entry and citizenship in the EU, as elsewhere. Writing in Spiegel Online International in October, Claus Hecking documents how the rich are able to bypass the guard posts of Fortress Europe:

-- In Spain, a new law came into force...that provides a residence permit to foreign investors who invest at least €500,000 in property. Real estate industry experts hope to see up to 300,000 new buyers.

Since the summer, Greece has been giving five-year permits to anyone investing €250,000 in property. Technically, the permits only allow non-EU citizens to spend 90 out of every 180 days in other Schengen states, but virtually no one checks this in practice.

Since October 2012, Portugal has been offering what the locals call a "golden visa": At least two years residency in exchange for a real estate investment of at least €500,000.

Hungary's right-wing nationalist government, which usually tries to keep foreigners away from precious Hungarian soil, created the "Residence Permit Bond" in July. This involves buying Hungarian government bonds in exchange for the permit. Foreigners need to pump at least €250,000 into the country; on top of which there are further charges of around €40,000 payable to dubious partner companies of the Hungarian government based in offshore tax havens like the Cayman Islands or Cyprus.

SUCH POLICIES showcase the hypocrisy of European border policies, but they also contribute to the growing hostility towards immigrants in the EU. As the New York Times reported:

Migration is rapidly becoming the most pressing, and politically divisive, problem for the union as it starts to emerge from the debt crisis among euro-area countries that threatened to sink the single currency. The tensions broke into the open on Wednesday, when it emerged that Southern European nations--including Croatia, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain--had demanded concrete pledges from the rest of the bloc to help manage the influx of migrants, which continues to cost lives, overwhelm Southern countries' resources and clash with the bloc's humanitarian ideals.

Such pleas are resented by other nations that say they have taken in the largest number of asylum seekers, and may meet resistance from countries like Britain, France and the Netherlands, whose welfare systems are strained and whose leaders are facing pressure to look tough on border control to counter the rise of anti-immigrant parties.

The danger of the European far right is most starkly demonstrated by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, but it runs throughout Europe. In a recent election in Brignoles, a town in southeast France, the far-right National Front received 53.9 percent of the vote. The town's aluminum mines were closed in the 1990s, unemployment is high, and there is a large North African immigrant community. Marine Le Pen, the Front's leader, has pledged to end net immigration and change French laws to bar family unification.

Author Liz Fekete described how, starting in the 1990s, far-right parties across Europe made a pitch, sometimes successfully, for the votes of impoverished and insecure working-class constituencies who traditionally supported the left--the message was to depicting "themselves as the natural defenders of the welfare state as well as the (white) working class."

As the neoliberal assault advanced across Europe, often facilitated by the spread of the EU and its "borderless area," the arguments of the far right moved from the margins to the mainstream of political discourse. This process has become more charged since Europe was battered by the economic crisis and left with massive unemployment.

Racist notions of Europe being "flooded" or "swamped" by masses of people of color coming to access the welfare state are regularly projected by news media and the politicians. Meanwhile, the opposite is true: "strains" on public services such as health care and housing exist not because of immigration, but because of privatization and austerity. Commenting on a recent Financial Times poll, Alex Barker wrote:

In one of the most striking conclusions, national restrictions on EU migrants' rights to benefits were backed by 83 percent of Britons, 73 percent of Germans and 72 percent of French respondents. Around three out of five also disapproved of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens securing, from January, one of the main freedoms of the union: the right to work in any EU member state.

Based on this, the Euro-right is confident it can make impressive political gains in the 2014 European elections. Le Pen and Geert Wilders, leader of the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant Dutch Freedom Party, are planning to forge a far-right bloc in the European Parliament.

Demonization immigrants isn't limited to Europe's far and center right. Protests took place in France recently after the Socialist Party-led government deported a 15-year-old Roma girl and her family to Kosovo. The girl was picked up during a school field trip by police, and the entire family was sent out of France on the same day.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who oversees immigration policy for President François Hollande's Socialist Party government, defended the deportations, arguing, "We should be proud of what we are doing, rather than feeling sorry for ourselves."

Recently, Valls argued that France's 20,000 Roma migrants were "different" and incapable of integrating into French society. Amnesty International reports that 10,000 Roma--mostly from Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia--have been evicted from France in 2013.

INCREASED MIGRATION in Europe and elsewhere as result of capitalist globalization, economic restructuring and the recruitment of low-wage labor by employers has been utilized to expand capital accumulation and increase competitiveness. This process is a factor in weakening the political organization of the working class. However, it has also changed the composition of the European working class, making it more international than ever before.

Taken as a whole, the European working class more than ever represents "the workers of the world," and its connections are ever more global. Solidarity and unity is never automatic, but in these circumstances, it is necessary and more possible.

Embracing the right of people to move in order to improve their lives by escaping poverty; and supporting their struggles for full and equal rights against laws that discriminate against them, against employers that abuse them, and against political parties that demonize them--all this is elementary in laying the basis for unity, but it also revitalizes struggle in the streets and workplace.

Tackling the rise of the right and austerity across Europe is a tremendous challenge for the left, trade unions and social movements. They need to develop a Europe-wide strategy that rejects racism and nationalism by fighting to unite native-born and immigrant workers in common struggles.

Resistance in Greece to Golden Dawn, protests in Britain against the English Defense League and the migrant "San-Papiers" (Paperless) movement in France demonstrate the great potential to advance the struggle and point the way forward.

Further Reading

From the archives