The West's wars have played a central part in the refugee crisis, says Lindsey German
It seems barely credible that the summer of 2015 in Europe has been marked by the biggest refugee crisis that most of us can remember.
It seems even less credible that the daily horror stories about refugees across Europe have not been met with a humanitarian response from European governments but rather with high levels of brutality and disregard for human life.
According to the UNHCR more than 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, compared with 219,000 for the whole of 2014. Of those arriving this year, 200,000 have travelled to Greece, with another 110,000 landing in Italy. It is estimated that 2,500 people have died this year in the course of their attempts to reach safety.
Every week, we hear of people drowning, suffocating in the overcrowded holds of ships or in container lorries as they are smuggled into Austria or Germany. Young children have been baton charged and tear gassed as they try to cross borders. Wire fences are out in place to secure borders in the same country, Hungary, where 25 years ago people were applauded for leaving.
Thousands are in terrible conditions in a camp in Calais wanting to cross into Britain. I personally witnessed, recently in southern Germany and northern Italy, police harassment of young black men, probably refugees, at railway stations as they tried to travel north.
This is the biggest European refugee crisis since the Second World War, when millions of Europeans were displaced as a result of six years of conflict. Then it was recognised that these people needed help for resettlement. Today the attitudes of governments across Europe are reminiscent not of 1945 but of the 1930s. Then, Jews and other refugees from fascism were treated appallingly by governments such as Britain’s, often refused entry and some perishing in the course of their desperate attempts to find safety. When war broke out many of those who had opposed Hitler were interned as enemy aliens.
Today we are witnessing an onslaught against the new generation of refugees. They are denounced as economic migrants, even though they are clearly escaping from deadly situations. Indeed the repeated use of the word migrant to describe them is itself designed to treat them as people who somehow don’t have the right to be in countries such as Britain.
On the contrary, they have every right under international law to be allowed to seek asylum. Britain also has a much greater responsibility since in fact large numbers of the people now seeking this status are refugees from war.
The most pressing plight of refugees is that of those from Syria. After nearly 5 years of civil war the country is in ruins, and there is little prospect of safety, let alone a decent future, for the vast majority of its citizens. Millions of people are externally or internally displaced.
Yet this is the same country being bombed by the U.S. supposedly to destroy ISIS. Britain joins in this bombing in Iraq, as do its pilots on US sorties in Syria. David Cameron wants another vote in parliament to extend this bombing.
It has been a failure in containing ISIS precisely because the wars have not weakened terrorism but have increased it. Some western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also funded and aided ISIS. The bombing in addition has an impact not just on those who it is supposedly aimed at but on the whole civilian population.
More generally, war creates refugees. People flee from the threat of destruction: they fear death and injury, but also lose their homes in fighting and bombing, can no longer grow and harvest crops, have shortages of food and water can no longer work or go to college. His is the reality for millions of Syrians today, and supporting those who can get to Europe should be an absolute priority for western governments.
Destruction of infrastructure leads people to desperate measures, as we see from the people climbing into dangerous boats or lorries from which they might not emerge alive, or clinging to trains to get them through the Channel.
But the wars and the refugees are not just about Syria. In recent years the highest number of refugees have been from Afghanistan and Iraq – the two centres of the global war on terror launched by George Bush and Tony Blair. At one point there were 4 million refugees from the Iraq war alone. Even today, the largest numbers of refugees are in Pakistan, many from Afghanistan. Most refugees never get close to the rich countries, but are in neighbouring often very poor ones.
David Cameron was a leading instigator of the bombing of Libya in 2011. More than 30,000 were killed in that conflict, and many more became refugees, mostly within Africa. Today Libya has two rival governments and is locked in a bloody civil war. It is one of the centres of people trafficking, denounced by western governments but a consequence both of their foreign policy and of their Fortress Europe approach to some of the most suffering people in the world. Conflicts and repression in countries such as Sudan and Eritrea also swell the numbers who make their way to the Mediterranean Coast.
Those of us who campaign against these wars makes these links, and recognise that one major outcomes of war is the suffering of those displaced and damaged by it. It is one major reason to oppose war. The demands of the media that the people traffickers should be dealt with misses the point. Of course these are despicable people who profit from misery, but they are acting according to a grotesque market in human lives. It would not exist without the policies which restrict migration and at the same time scapegoat migrants.
Europe is the richest corner of the world. It can easily afford to let refugees in to the 28 countries within the EU. Free movement should mean just that, not free movement for those with white skins, or those with money. All the evidence suggests that Europe has always benefited from migration and that today, with an ageing population, it needs young people to work.
It is often said by governments and politicians that they are acting according to the wishes of their citizens, and that there is strong anti immigrant feeling, as witnessed by the attacks on refugee hostels in Germany or the demonstrations against them in Italy.
But governments and media should confront this prejudice not exacerbate it as they have been doing.
It is obvious that there are many people who do not demonise those fleeing from war; indeed many are involved in practical help and support, and some have helped the lives of those in danger.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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