The below text is a speech delivered by Chloë Jane at a discussion meeting in Newcastle. Jane is a comrade, a supporter of the newspaper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! What follows is a brief, but concise, analysis of the drowning of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. Given the EU plan to attack Libyan “smuggling” as early as the 25 June (a plan spearheaded by Britain), Jane’s speech is timely & necessary. I reproduce it here for precisely these reasons.
James R. Bell
By 27 May this year 2000 people had died in the Mediterranean attempting to leave Libya. The majority of these people died by drowning; largely, transportation consists of open-topped boats, cramped full of human beings. This is an example.
The emphasis on certain words in the media has created a hierarchy of desperation. The connotations of ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ are that one is essentially a criminal, and the latter is a victim and is deserving of our compassion. The people who are seen as being in authentic need are those from countries at war currently. ‘Illegal migrants’, as the Imperialists put it, are largely from countries not presently at war.
This obfuscating language draws our attention away from the reasons they are fleeing in desperate conditions. Primarily, it is intended to hide the role of the British state.
It is framed as an immigration problem: “people are coming over in large numbers in boats; the country is full” and so on. EU leaders have called for the “smashing of trafficking networks” and ignore the reality that this is a symptom of neo-colonialist and Imperialist intervention. The plan is to bomb the boats to prevent them from being used. Firstly, these boats are fishermen’s boats being rented and so this would mean bombing peoples’ livelihoods – it is much an economic assault as a physical one. Secondly, the boats are moored in civilian quarters and the attacks would result in even more civilian deaths, or ”collateral damage”. Lastly, these boats are a last resort. People do not want to have to make this dangerous journey, it is done out of desperation. Making it impossible for them to do so will result in even more dangerous paths being sought.
People are desperate to leave Libya. NATO invaded Libya on the pretence of liberating its population from Colonel Gaddafi and then massacred up to 70,000 people in the process. Currently the civil war is making people continue to fear for their and their families’ lives.
The deaths in the Mediterranean are not a new phenomenon. Last year 3200 died making the same journey (just a reminder: the total is already at 2000 this year; it is getting more media coverage because the figure is higher) and the people in the boats are not only of Libyan heritage.
The majority of people are from Eritrea and Somalia. In Eritrea, people are conscripted for an unlimited amount of time. Their journey to Europe not only means the dangerous boats of the Mediterranean, but also a route across the Sahara desert. Those from Somalia flee from perpetual warfare.
These people have seen the atrocities that Imperialism causes – the human devastation and misery. They, therefore, pose an ideological threat as migrants. When they arrive in Britain, further exploitation and oppression is all that awaits them. This is an ideological attack, orchestrated by the Imperialist state. State racism feeds every day racism, as an active tactic of division; fascist organisations, like the English Defence League, serve as boot boys for the state. If extremely low paid, insecure work is all migrants are able to do, then there is little room for solidarity amongst workers.
Conditions asylum seekers have faced over the last decade have become increasingly exploitative. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002), brought in by the Labour Party, extended the power to detain individuals at any time during their asylum process, not just before they were deported. It also meant that support would be denied to those who did not seek it “as soon as practically possible” after arrival in Britain. These asylum seekers would also have to face the additional measure of having to explain how they arrived.
This meant that hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in the UK were forced into destitution, and that homelessness amongst these groups began to rise rapidly.
In 2012 the ‘Immigration Crime Hotline’, was created by the coalition to incite further criminalisation of migrants. This ensured target communities would be paranoid about surveillance not only from the state, but from their neighbours also. It did result in 100 phone calls a day with few results of “illegal migrants”, but mostly vengeful and false accusations by people who would not be punished for doing so.
This tactic is not too dissimilar from the ‘Benefit Fraud Hotline’ formed in 1996 but pushed in 2011, the year before they extended this to migrants. This hotline recorded 600 phone calls a day to the same outcomes – next to nothing but malicious neighbours.
These enforce compliance through the use of poverty as a deterrent to others; poverty is a weapon.
As we have seen, private companies are able to make large amounts of profit from poverty. For example, Serco could potentially profit £1.8billion in the next 7 years in an asylum housing contract and the company taking over from ATOS, Maximus, have finalised a £500million contract. Although not the same trades, what unites them is that “the costs are public, the profits are private” (Institute of Race Relations – direct quote).
Refused asylum seekers who cannot support themselves by other means are given pre-paid cards which can only be used in certain shops and specific items; Items not necessarily inclusive of their culture and places, in many cases, miles away from where they live. With no cash and therefore no means to catch a bus, people living in the West End of Newcastle are forced to walk to Morrisson’s in Byker (6.6 mile round trip/roughly 2.5 hours – according to Google Maps). A single parent is therefore forced to make the decision between bringing the children with her on the trip AND around a supermarket or leaving them at home for an extended period of time. Shoes, school uniforms, or other “luxury” items cannot be bought or saved up for. Yet at the same time, UK Border Agency staff are encouraged to refuse the claims of these people and given cash vouchers in return.
A new immigration bill will make these conditions even worse. If an asylum seeker is caught working, the British state will be able to seize their earnings. In reality, this would amount to emptying someone’s purse or wallet in front of them. This, essentially, amounts to a form of modern slavery.
Forcing migrants and asylum seekers into low paid work was a calculated plan. Because of the laws around minimum wage, it meant British workers could not be as exploited and profitable. These furthering attacks pave the way for a new form of accepted exploitation of British workers – apprenticeships. If the government can now force migrant wages onto the British, foreign workers are no longer needed and as discussed, are dangerous to the continuation of Imperialism.
The barbarity and racist character of the British state is inseparably linked to its role as an imperialist power. Our comrades wrote, in 1979, that ‘British imperialism, still one of the strongest and most brutal imperialist powers, has oppressed and continues to oppress nations and peoples throughout the world. Their countries impoverished by years of imperialist exploitation, workers have been forced to seek work in the imperialist centres, including Britain. In Britain the capitalist class and their state has ensured that these workers from the oppressed nations suffer continuing racial oppression, forcing them into the worst jobs, with the lowest pay and the worst conditions.’
The events in the Mediterranean and the escalation of racist policy in Britain confirm that this is still the case today.