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With a refugee crisis of epic proportions, we must be part of the solution, argues Sean Ledwith

There are encouraging signs that Corbyn’s Labour is continuing one of the most refreshing initiatives it displayed in last year’s election. The best way to undercut the anti-immigration populism of the right is to focus on an anti-austerity and pro-refugees’ rights agenda that unites as many  workers as possible. Labour, in the past, has been guilty of trying to ape the dog-whistle politics of the right. Think of  David Blunkett’s chest-beating  in 2004 about shutting down the Sangatte refugee camp or the ‘Controls on immigration’ mugs used in the 2015 election. 

Thankfully, Corbyn set a different tone within hours of becoming party leader in 2015 when he addressed a Solidarity with Refugees rally in Parliament Square:

“Open your hearts and open your minds, and open your attitude towards supporting people who are desperate, who need somewhere safe to live, want to contribute to our society,and are human beings just like all of us”.

The contrast with the infamous ‘Go home or face arrest’ vans dispatched from Theresa May’s Home Office two years earlier could not have been starker.

Now Diane Abbott - hopefully a successor to May at the Home Office in the near future - has committed Labour to ending one of the most inhumane aspects of the Tories’ immigration policy. A Corbyn government would end the current practice of deporting children who arrive in the UK without permission once they turn 18. This has resulted in the shameful process of these people receiving a text from the Home Office on their birthday informing them they are now due for deportation! A recent investigation revealed that three years ago this practice led to 600 former child refugees being sent back to war-torn Afghanistan. Diane Abbott has also spoken out in favour of ending the Tory government’s cap on skilled workers which has had a  baleful effect on the NHS and other parts of the public sector which crucially rely on immigrant workers. The cap has now been reached for three consecutive months and proved to be particularly harmful as hospitals struggled to cope with the ‘Beast from the East’ at the end of February.  

As Prime Minister, Theresa May has proved to be as deaf to the plight of some of the most vulnerable human beings on the planet as she was while at the Home Office. Last year, she authorised - with Emmanuel Macron, her French counterpart - the scattering of the Jungle refugee camp at Calais. This was a classic ‘out of sight,out of mind’ manoeuvre that establishment politicians specialise in. These people may have been brushed under the carpet as far as the mainstream media is concerned but the desperation of their circumstances has, if anything, only got worse since the operation. There are still an estimated 2000 refugees congregated in northern France and Belgium, still desperate for the chance to start a new life. May’s only response to the crisis since moving against the Jungle has been to authorise an extra £45 million in security measures that amounts to giving the French police greater freedom to use force against the refugees. Macron has signed up to this crackdown because he feels under electoral pressure from the fascist National Front,led by Marine Le Pen.

Apart from those marooned in northern Europe, there are an even vaster number of the most vulnerable trapped on the other side of the Mediterranean in the hell-hole that Libya has become since Western bombing in 2011. That country is estimated to have almost 300 000 refugees who had made already horrific journeys from other conflict-ridden parts of the African continent. In Libya, these masses  are at the mercy of vulture-like traffickers and prostitution rings. Many have also assembled there from strife-torn parts of the Middle East, including Yemen, in which the UK continues to supply bombs for ruthless Saudi bombing of the civilian population. 

Last year, Amnesty published a report accusing EU governments of  being knowingly complicit in the torture and abuse of tens of thousands of refugees in ‘Libya’s dark web of collusion’. The report detailed nightmarish stories of how the Libyan Coast Guard, funded by European states, actually collaborated with the people-smugglers to extort money from asylum seekers. One of these reported his experience in a Tripoli detention centre: ‘They beat me with a rubber hose because they want money to release me. They call the family while beating you so the family send money’. Of course, the numbers in North Africa have exploded because in 2016 the EU cobbled together a shameful deal with Turkey (bought off with €6 billion euros) to deport refugees attempting the marginally safer escape route across the Aegean. 

The even more calamitous backdrop to the appalling scenes in northern Europe and North Africa is the death-toll of those who have previously tried to cross the Mediterranean and perished in the attempt. The numbers involved are a  black scar on the conscience of European politicians that can never be eradicated. 30 000 have drowned in the last 15 years, 1200 children since 2014, and 400 people already this year.  These are the wretched of the earth, Theresa May and her like have turned their backs on. 


Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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