Fleeing refugees drown in ‘Mediterranean cemetery’

Simon Carter

Hundreds of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last week when their flimsy people-smuggling boats capsized off the Libyan coast. In the same week the Italian coastguard reported that 10,000 refugees on boats had been rescued.

Last year an estimated 3,500 asylum seekers fleeing war torn countries, persecution and poverty drowned attempting to get to Europe.

That figure is likely to be exceeded in 2015 as a cheaper European Union (EU) ‘search and rescue’ operation – Triton – comes into effect. The British government decided not to contribute, arguing that the operation would only encourage refugees to make the crossing. But these fleeing refugees are so desperate they are prepared to risk their lives.

There is no legal route into Europe for these desperate people, no processing of asylum seekers in North Africa before many attempt the perilous sea crossing. Less than 1% of global refugees get anywhere near the EU. Yet the EU’s asylum policy criminalises refugees and militarises its borders.

The number of boat refugees has increased as a consequence of brutal sectarian civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq Somalia and Afghanistan. Many young Eritrean men have fled military conscription, which the BBC describes as effective “slavery”.

Embarrassed by the death toll, EU political leaders, like the UK’s foreign secretary Philip Hammond, have pledged to take action against people traffickers but continue to keep the drawbridge into ‘Fortress Europe’ firmly pulled up.

But capitalist ministers like Hammond cannot so readily wash their hands of responsibility for this crisis. On the contrary, western powers’ military interventions in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have created political instability, fuelled sectarian violence and dislocated the affected countries’ economies.

However, in 2011 millions of poor people, workers and youth rose up in many Middle Eastern countries against impoverishment and lack of democratic rights.

In some instances this ‘Arab Spring’ succeeded in overthrowing rotten, imperialist-backed dictatorships, such as in Tunisia and Egypt. Similar movements developed against the Gaddafi regime in Libya and that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and elsewhere in the region.

But in the absence of a mass socialist alternative developing from independent working class forces, these revolutions stalled and counter-revolution, assisted by imperialism, has temporarily succeeded.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting nightmare living conditions have forced millions of people into becoming internally and externally displaced refugees – at the mercy of rich, powerful and ruthless human traffickers.

And for those asylum seekers that do succeed in stepping ashore in Europe they often face a precarious and uncertain future. Many end up in overcrowded and often violent refugees centres and camps in Greece, Italy and elsewhere.

These refugees are often targeted by far-right groups and by right-wing politicians who scapegoat them for the economic failings of capitalism.

Because former social-democratic parties, like Labour, have embraced capitalist policies, there are no major parties that will uphold and defend the rights of asylum seekers and counter the many lies put out in the media about them. Defending asylum rights therefore dovetails into the fight against capitalist austerity and for socialist policies.