Refugees perish in Mediterranean “cemetery”

The Mediterranean Sea is becoming “a cemetery” said Malta’s Prime Minister after another boat packed with refugees capsized near the island, killing 30 people. This latest disaster follows the recent tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa where up to 400 migrants drowned, and a similar accident off Egypt’s coast last week when at least 12 refugees perished.

These desperate refugees were escaping wars and persecution from countries including Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, but have no legal route to seek asylum in ‘Fortress Europe’. Consequently, they are compelled to pay large sums of money to people smugglers who dispatch them from North African countries in rickety, unseaworthy vessels.

Capitalist politicians in European Union (EU) member states, playing on anti-immigrant prejudice, have effectively ‘pulled up the drawbridge’ on refugees with the number of asylum applications in Europe having fallen by half since 1992. Only 0.3% of global refugees get anywhere near the EU. The EU’s asylum policy criminalises refugees and militarises its borders.

These same establishment politicians are responsible, through military interventions and exploitative foreign policy, for making the refugees’ home countries violent, unstable and impoverished places.

Those refugees that do make it ashore alive often find Europe inhospitable, treated as criminals and would-be terrorists, subject to huge fines (€5,000 for ‘illegal immigration’ in Italy for example), and stuck in bleak ‘reception centre’ camps.

In August, refugees in a camp in Amygdaleza, near Athens, revolted over their living conditions. Even the country’s ombudsman for asylum policies described the camp as “prison-like”.

The notorious Saulam refugee centre in Austria, set up by the late far-right politician Jorg Haider, was closed last year following reports of rotten food and a lack of access to medical care.

At Campsfield refugee centre near Oxford a major protest in 1997 led to nine inmates being charged with riot: all were subsequently acquitted.

Many asylum seekers end up sleeping rough on the streets of Europe’s cities, some finding illegal work for a pittance of a wage.

But notwithstanding anti-asylum seeker prejudice whipped up by right-wing media and establishment politicians, the scale of the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean has led to demands for a humanitarian solution.

Fortress Europe

When Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta along with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso recently visited Lampedusa they were greeted by local residents who shouted “disgrace” and “shame” at them for doing nothing to deal with the thousands of migrants washed ashore each year.

Capitalist politicians and commentators suggest ‘increased cooperation and coordination’. But it is precisely the European coordinated refugee policy which is underpinning the humanitarian disasters at the borders of Europe.

The European Commission’s new Eurosur programme for border protection will increase surveillance of refugee boats but not necessarily lead to more rescues. And if bilateral agreements are signed with Algeria and Libya, increased surveillance could simply enable them to catch refugees before they reach Europe. This is despite both countries being criticised by human rights organisations for their treatment of refugees.

The EU’s refugee policy, by fuelling racism, also serves to sow divisions within Europe’s working class communities who are suffering capitalist austerity ie job cuts, low pay, cuts in services, etc.

This is especially the case where former social-democratic parties have embraced capitalist policies. It means that the exaggerated media claims of asylum seekers taking EU workers’ jobs and ‘milking’ countries’ welfare systems, are not countered but instead are reinforced.

Defending asylum rights therefore dovetails into the fight against capitalist austerity and for socialist policies.

Dave Carr and Stefan Berg (CWI Sweden)