Saturday 25 June 2016

Refugees, Racism and the EU Referendum

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new is yet to be born. So, in between both, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, c.1930. 

My contribution to the Savaş ve Mülteciler (War & Refugees) panel debate being held today as part of the Day-Mer Festival of Peace and Hope 2016.

There is huge turmoil in Britain following the 'Leave' victory in Thursday’s EU referendum – but it’s just part of the global turmoil of a capitalist world in crisis, a system that offers the majority of the world’s population only inequality, poverty, war and insecurity, a system that destroys people’s lives and then tries to scapegoat its victims – not least the millions forced to flee their homes as refugees.

The UNHCR have just released their latest Global Trends report. They estimate 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015. That’s 1 in every 113 of us.

Yet it is the major powers within the UN that bear the main responsibility. Of those who fled to Greece, 85% have come from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Historically, it was Britain and France that drew up most of the boundaries of many of today's Middle East states. Then, along with US imperialism, they worked to make sure their local allies and agents kept control. Oil and weapon companies have especially profited from this region. That includes trading with their supposed ISIS ‘enemy’. As usual for big business, profit comes before human or democratic rights.

The global financiers have created a world of chaos and misery to which they have no solutions. However, as Gramsci described above from a previous time of crisis, we also live in a world where the forces of solidarity do not yet have the strength to provide an alternative, socialist, solution. In the interim, we face a time of uncertainty but a time when a new world can, and must, be born.

In the aftermath of the EU vote, and the publicity being given to right-wing Brexiteers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, then there is undoubtedly fear amongst migrant communities and many trade unionists, certainly many NUT members, that the future will be fuelled by increasing reaction and racism.

This is not just a danger in Britain. For example, there has been a growth of the far right throughout the Nordic countries including a wave of arson attacks on refugee centres in Sweden. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party candidate came within a whisker of being elected President this April. In Germany, the right-wing nationalist AfD made major gains in the state elections in March.

However, that is only one side of the equation. Yesterday, there was a general strike in Belgium against draconian austerity measures inspired by EU directives ordering increased ‘flexibility’ in the job market – in other words, cutting benefits and imposing longer hours to boost bosses’ profits. This is alongside the similar heroic struggle of the French workers against the El Khomri law where last week the police appealed to the CGT union to stop their months of ongoing protests because they were too exhausted to keep up!

Over this weekend elections are taking place in Spain where the Left is predicted to make big gains – a Left which, by the way, learning from the experience of Greece, is moving to a position of socialist opposition to the EU.

In Britain - as in Austria and Germany - there is conflict and debate over how much the election and referendum results point to an increase in reactionary ideas, ideas which threaten refugees and migrant communities. It would certainly be naive not to accept that some of those voting 'Leave' or voting for far-right parties were not expressing racist views. Yes, particularly in the absence of a clear alternative view being heard, some workers will be taken in by the scapegoating of refugees and migrants.
The risk is magnified when traditional workers’ parties fail to offer an alternative vision or to lead a fight against the neo-liberal attacks – in fact, they are too often leading those attacks.

However, again that only looks at one side of the equation. All of those votes represented, above all, a burning anger at  years of enforced austerity and growing inequality between rich and poor. Workers have taken the chance to put two-fingers up to the establishment politicians. As one woman explained to a Guardian journalist, "If you've got money, you vote in ... if you haven't got money, you vote out" 

In such a time of turmoil then community organisations, like Day-Mer, and trade unions, like the NUT, have a heavy responsibility to make sure that anger is directed into united opposition to the attacks on living standards and public services. The NUT’s national strike on July 5 is now even more important. It can become a day to focus attention on the real attacks we face – particularly on the threatened cuts to school and Local Authority budgets. The cuts will, of course, threaten what little support exists for refugee children in particular. 

We have to point out that, when the Tories say they have no money for schools, homes and the NHS, the Governor of the Bank of England was able to rush out an emergency announcement yesterday telling the City that he had made available £250 billion of liquidity to support the markets – not millions but billions! Let’s be in no doubt, the money is there but, as always, it’s a question of who really produces that wealth and who has control of it.

Regrettably, there have been some who have been quick to condemn workers who voted ‘Leave’ as somehow being stupid or inherently reactionary. No, working peoples’ traditions have always been to unite in common struggle. It was the public outcry at the pictures of the drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi that helped to force EU politicians to change tack and relax border controls.

Of course, that did not last long and the EU leaders soon switched to the shabby deal with Turkey to try and stop the flow of refugees, cruelly dismantling the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece. Thousands more are still drowning in the Mediterranean while wars and poverty continue to force families to flee their homes. As just the latest example, the EU has just imposed a new round of ‘structural reforms' on Tunisia in return for a 500 million euro loan. More refugees will be created from the poverty and conflict that will result.

The EU and big business will only ever look on the rights of refugees and the movement of labour as a financial calculation. Back in August, the president of the German Federation of Industry (BDI) called for more asylum seekers to be accepted into Germany. For humanitarian reasons? No, because the German population is falling and is getting, on average, older. So German employers want more migrants, certainly skilled and professional workers. The German labour minister was absolutely clear: “we will profit from this too because we need immigration”. In turn, the BBC economics editor reported British businesspeople complaining “that Merkel is creaming off the most economically useful of the asylum seekers”.

Refugees can, of course, also become a new source of cheap labour, undercutting the already low levels of wages. Historically, the labour movement has always responded by fighting for workers’ unity, for every worker to be paid the rate for the job, for all workers to be fighting alongside each other in trade unions – and we must do so again. Just in the last few weeks there has been the example of Polish drivers being turned back by striking Polish members of the BFAWU at Pennine Foods. Migrant bus cleaners fighting for months of unpaid wages in Athens also won a victory after getting solid support from Greek trade union activists.

The far-right also play on the fears of workers who see their schools, health and other public services being cut and see their families suffering from the acute housing crisis. They want to use the old trick of ‘divide-and-rule’ to stop the anger of the 99% uniting against the 1%. That's why, to counter that threat, alongside demands in defence of refugees and the right of asylum, the trade union movement must also raise clear demands for jobs, schools and homes for all.

We have to explain that when the wealthy EU, with a population of 500 million, says it cannot cope with supporting a million or so refugees then it is, in reality, condemning its own neo-liberal policies as being incapable of providing decent living standards. There are an estimated eleven million empty homes in the EU, enough to solve the housing crisis of existing citizens as well as to house those fleeing war and poverty from outside the EU. Similarly, here in London there are an estimated 75,000 empty residential properties mostly owned by speculators who buy them solely to make a profit. Requisitioning them alone could house both London’s homeless and provide homes for thousands of refugee families as well.

Instead of leaving decisions about asylum in the hands of the Tories or other right-wing EU politicians, working people should be able to review and grant asylum. I would be confident that, once the truth of the plight of families are heard, then the traditions of working class solidarity would welcome those refugees and demand they are housed and supported in our communities. Teachers and schools would be to the fore in providing that support too.

Above all, we have to show that refugees and migrants are not responsible for endless austerity. Those that continue to profit out of war and misery should pay for the problems they have created, here and internationally.

We live in testing times, in times when sometimes the problems and threats loom large and the solutions seem out of our reach. However, let’s take confidence from the fact that this turmoil exists because of the failings of the 1%, and that they, above all, are divided and uncertain. Cameron gambled on the referendum and lost both the vote and his job. The Financial Times are describing the referendum as a ‘pitchfork moment’’ as they correctly glimpse the seething anger against the establishment that lay behind the 'Leave' result.

To condemn the mass of those workers who voted 'Leave' as fundamentally reactionary would be a huge mistake and one that would help the racists and far-right succeed in dividing workers against each other. It would also show a lack of appreciation of the EU's own role in imposing austerity and keeping workers divided. Let’s organise so the justified anger against the political elites, inside and outside the EU, can be directed into a united movement against war and poverty and to defend the rights of refugees and all workers struggling for a better future.

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