ever let it be said that Britain’s leaders miss an opportunity to inflame fear and loathing towards migrants and refugees. First David Cameron warned of the threat posed by “a swarm of people” who were “coming across the Mediterranean … wanting to come to Britain”. Then his foreign secretary Philip Hammond upped the ante.The truth about the people and numbers in loud and furious migration debateThe chaos at the Channel tunnel in Calais, he declared, was caused by “marauding” migrants who posed an existential threat. Cheer-led by the conservative press, he warned that Europe would not be able to “protect itself and preserve its standard of living” if it had to “absorb millions of migrants from Africa”.
With nightly television coverage of refugees from the world’s worst conflicts risking their lives to break into lorries and trains heading for Britain, this was rhetoric designed to stoke visceral fears of the wretched of the Earth emerging from its depths.
Barely a hint of humanity towards those who have died in Calais this summer has escaped ministers’ lips. But in reality the French port is a sideshow, home to a few thousand migrants unable to pay traffickers for more promising routes around Britain’s border controls.
Europe’s real refugee crisis is in the Mediterranean. More than 180,000 have reached Italy and Greece by sea alone this year, and more than 2,000 have died making the crossing, mostly from war-ravaged Libya. The impact on Greece, already wracked with crisis, is at tipping point.
On the Greek island of Kos, 2,000 mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees were rounded up on Tuesday and locked in a sports stadium after clashes with riot police, who used stun grenades to maintain order. Numbers reaching the Greek islands have quadrupled since last year.
But nothing in Europe matches the millions who have been driven to seek refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan or Jordan. Set against such a global drama, Calais is little more than deathly theatre. Britain is not one of the main destinations for either refugees or illegal migrants – the vast majority of whom overstay their visas, rather than stow away in the Channel tunnel.
Last year 25,870 sought asylum in the UK and only 10,050 were accepted. By contrast, Sweden accepted three times as many and Germany had more than 200,000 asylum and new asylum applicants. Nor is Britain’s asylum seeker’s benefit rate, at £36.95 a week, remotely the magnet it is portrayed. France pays £41.42; in Norway it’s £88.65.
What does suck overwhelmingly legal migrant workers into Britain is a highly deregulated labour market, where workplace protection is often not enforced and which both gangmasters and large private companies are able ruthlessly to exploit.
The case, reported in the Guardian, of the entirely legal Lithuanian farm workers – who are suing a Kent-based gangmaster supplying high street supermarkets over inhuman working conditions, debt bondage and violent intimidation – is only the extreme end of a growing underbelly of harsh and insecure employment.
If ministers were remotely concerned about “rogue employers driving down wages” by using illegal migrants, as they claim, they would be strengthening trade unions and rights at work. But they’re doing the opposite. And they’re using the language of dehumanisation to justify slashing support for asylum seekers’ children, locking up refused applicants indefinitely and targeting illegal workers far more enthusiastically than the employers who exploit them.
But what risks dividing communities can also turn them against such anti-migrant crackdowns. In recent months, flash protests have erupted in London and other cities against UK Border Agency attempts to arrest failed asylum seekers or undocumented migrant workers. In areas such as Elephant and Castle, riot police have been called in after UKBA vans were surrounded and pelted with eggs by angry locals and activists trying to prevent the detention of people seen as part of the community.
The chaos at Calais and the far larger-scale upheaval and suffering across Europe could be brought under control by the kind of managed processing that northern European governments, such as Britain’s, are so keen to avoid.
But that would only be a temporary fix for a refugee crisis driven by war and state disintegration – and Britain, France and their allies have played a central role in most of the wars that are fuelling it. The refugees arriving in Europe come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia and Eritrea.
With the recent exception of the dictatorial Eritrean regime, those are a roll-call of more than a decade of disastrous western-led wars and interventions. In the case of Libya, the British and French-led bombing campaign in 2011 led directly to the civil war and social breakdown that has made the country the main conduit for refugee trafficking from Africa. And in Syria, the western funding, arming and training of opposition groups – while fuelling the rise of Isis – has played a crucial role in the country’s destruction.
If the current American and British-backed Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen continues, expect Yemeni refugees to join the region’s exodus in the months to come. So the first longer term contribution Britain and its allies could make to staunching the flow of refugees would be to stop waging open and covert wars in the Middle East and north Africa. That is actual marauding.
The second would be a major shift in policy towards African development. Africa may not be leading the current refugee crisis, and African migrants certainly don’t threaten European living standards. But as a group of global poverty NGOs argued this week, Africa is being drained of resources through western corporate profit extraction, extortionate debt repayments and one-sided trade “partnership” deals. If that plunder continues and absolute numbers in poverty go on rising as climate change bites deeper, migration pressures to the wealthy north can only grow.
There is a genuine migration crisis driven by war and neoliberal globalisation. Despite the scaremongering, it hasn’t yet reached Britain. But it’s a fantasy to imagine that fences, deportations and better security can protect fortress Europe. An end to the real plunder and marauding would be more effectiv