From A World to Win News Service

Should immigrants be criminalized or supported?

March 17, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


March 10, 2014. A World to Win News Service. People who live in the West and other destinations for immigrants are constantly told things like, “Our country is being invaded by immigrants.” Hardly a day goes by that they don’t hear politicians and the media making racist attacks against immigrants, blaming them for unemployment, abusing the benefit and welfare system, being a burden on taxpayers or spawning crime.

The way in which the current anti-immigration hysteria is deliberately driven by the authorities and not a spontaneous reaction among ignorant people was underlined earlier in March in what should have been a major scandal in the UK. It was revealed that when an academic peer-reviewed study commissioned by the government concluded that there is little lasting connection between immigration and unemployment, the Conservative Party simply suppressed it and continued with its campaign to convince Britons that to maintain living standards they must choke off the inflow of foreigners.

The ruling classes of the Western imperialist and other developed countries that attract immigrants stick the term “illegal” on these human beings to criminalize them and legitimize a witch-hunt against people who have already gone through tremendous mental, physical and economic suffering. In different ways and to different degrees, even though the number of people entering these countries has remained roughly stable, vicious anti-immigrant propaganda has become a major factor shaping the political landscape in Western Europe and Australia, the focus of this article. (For historical, demographic and other reasons and the military importance of a border contiguous with a country the U.S. has crushed, the question of immigration presents itself differently there.)

What Refugees Risk and How Governments Use That Risk to Impose the Death Penalty

Right now tens of thousands of people from all over Africa are living in shacks in camps in the hills around Ceuta and Mellila, two enclaves that are remnants of Spanish colonialism and its domination of Morocco. Because these two stolen bits of land are legally part of Europe, gaining entry is a major goal of migrants and refugees.

In the past few years, Spanish governments have repeatedly had police gas, beat and even shoot people trying to climb over the double rows of high razor-wire fences that surround them. Over the last few months, as immigrants become increasingly desperate, there have been mass attempts to storm the barriers involving as many as 1,500 people at a time, and at least one has been successful. On February 6, as hundreds of Africans battled police in an attempt to get over the fences, an unknown number of people jumped into the ocean on the Moroccan side and tried to swim around the seawall to the Spanish side. Spanish police fired rubber bullets and smoke canisters at the men in the water as well as threatening them by shooting blanks, and fifteen are known to have drowned. Twenty-three immigrants made it. The Spanish government at first denied the shooting, then when caught out by YouTube videos praised the police and blocked an investigation.

This incident represents the immigration situation all too well: the great desperation of people who consider such deadly odds the best option they face, and, on the other side, the cruelty of the authorities in the imperialist countries that have played a major role in creating such desperation in the first place.

In one of the worst recent tragedies to strike refugees, on October 5 last year a boat carrying 500 African refugees from Africa to Europe sank near Lampedusa, an island off the coast of North Africa that belongs to Italy. More than 300 people lost their lives. It was Italian fisherman and not the authorities who took the initiative to rescue people drowning not far offshore. Lampedusa residents held a demonstration demanding that more be done to save immigrants at sea.

Only a few days later, on October 11, 2013, another boat carrying 200 immigrants sank near Lampedusa, and 27 refugees died. Around the same time a boat carrying around 130 refugees went down near Alexandria, Egypt, killing 12 Palestinian and Syrian immigrants. On October 31, the bodies of 87 people, mostly women and children, were found in a desert in Niger. They are believed to have been would-be immigrants and their families seeking work in Europe. It seems that they died of thirst after the vehicle carrying them broke down. There is hardly a week that a major accident involving immigrants losing their lives doesn’t occur. Most fatal incidents go unreported or unpublicized.

According to figures released by the European Union, during a year-long period in 2012-13 more than 30,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, most hoping to travel on to other parts of Europe. Many didn’t reach the other side. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, some 2,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2011. EU reports estimate that about 20,000 immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean have died since 1998.

Another dangerous route for immigrants is to cross the Indian Ocean to Australia. Every year hundreds of boats carrying thousands of refugees set out for Australia. Most are from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries. About 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia since late 2007. Last September 27 a boat carrying migrants to Australia sank off the Indonesian coast, killing at least 21 people.

Among those accidents at sea many lives are lost because of the indifference or perhaps deliberate negligence of the naval authorities reluctant to rescue refugees, even when they are in a dire emergency and communicate to ask for help. Concerns are rising that this could be a tactic designed by top-ranking Australian officials to deter the flow of immigrants.

A man eventually rescued off Australia gave this account: He and many other immigrants were in a boat that lost its engine at sea. Soon they ran out of food and water. A satellite phone was used to contact Australian authorities, giving their exact location. They were told, “We know where you are—we will be there in two hours’ time.” The man continued, “We waited for two hours, 24 hours but nobody came... we kept calling them and told them we don’t have food, we haven’t had any water for three days, we have children, but nobody came, I don’t know why. We were 60, now we are 24, we lost our family. Another man lost nine family members. Yet another lost all three of his daughters and his wife...” (Video-clip interview, The Sydney Morning Herald website, September 28, 2013)

Then there is this story told by Ramin, an 11-year-old boy from Iran. “We were five days and four nights on the boat. It was cold. I put my mother’s clothes on and lay down because the sea became stormy. When a wave hit our boat hard I was thrown into the sea. I sank a few meters under the water—a strip of my clothing caught on a bar connected to the boat. My father came to my rescue and freed the cloth. When I came to the surface another wave smashed my father’s head against the boat. Blood ran out from his nose and he went under water... Later I was transferred to a hospital... I had no news from my family. I was hoping they had been rescued. I was waiting for my father to come to me but there was no news. Five days ago the picture of bodies of my mother, father and sister were shown to me. At first I didn’t recognise them. When I saw the bodies of my father and mother I didn’t cry, but when I saw my sister’s, I cried.” (BBC-Persian website, November 15, 2013)

Ramin was the only Iranian among 28 people who survived when a boat with around a hundred passengers sank off the coast of Australia. During their five days at sea they asked the Australian Navy for help but nobody came to their rescue. The stretch of ocean between Java in Indonesia and Christmas Island in Australia is about 250 kilometers wide. It has become a killing field for refugees.

Hussein is a refugee from Afghanistan. In his attempts to reach Australia, he has boarded a boat four times so far. He says: “Over a year ago my brother and his wife took a boat with 26 people on board bound for Australia. The last time he contacted the family was when he was in the middle of the sea. After that we have no further news from him...” (BBC-Persian website, November 15, 2013)

As in Europe and the U.S., the Australian authorities have introduced draconian laws to restrict immigration. Those who are rescued or make it to shore are sent to Papua New Guinea to live in detention camps in harsh conditions while their application for asylum is being considered. It is reported that many such refugees have committed suicide in the camps.

Inmates staged a protest against their detention in Manus Island, one of several such camps run by the Australian government in Papua New Guinea on February 17. They were attacked by Australian police, who shot projectiles and live ammunition and had attack dogs brought in. A 24-year-old Iranian man, Reza Barati, died of multiple head wounds. Another 64 people were injured.

A young Australian woman who works at this camp blew the whistle on the reasons behind what the authorities called a “riot.” She said that employees were required to tell the asylum seekers that contrary to law, they would never be allowed to leave Papua New Guinea, either for Australia or a third country of refuge, so that they would drop their requests for asylum status—and most importantly, discourage others from trying to enter Australia. Further, she said, the camp “was designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure the deterrence.” The young man’s death, she explained was not a result of a “crisis” in the camp’s functioning but “an opportunity to extend that logic one step further.” (Guardian, February 25, 2014)

This incident, not the first of its kind, made many Australians horrified at their government. Some 15,000 people at 750 places across the country, from cattle stations to major cities, held simultaneous candlelight vigils to express solidarity with the young Iranian victim and other immigrants, and demand an end to what an organizer called “what’s being done in our name.”

Refugee Home Countries Ravaged by Reactionary Wars and the World Market

The horror stories about refugee journeys are endless. In many cases traffickers (who might be called “businessmen” or “entrepreneurs” under other circumstances) cheat the refugees who often pay them by sacrificing their life savings and selling all their household belongings. Frequently, halfway through a journey the traffickers extort more money, or just disappear. The biggest criminals, however, are the imperialists and other reactionary ruling classes that create conditions in which accepting these and other perils is the only rational choice.

According to the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHSCR), there are more than 45 million displaced people worldwide today. The vast majority of people who leave their countries do so because they believe there is no other option. The underlying factors are often complex and multiple, but two stand out: war and economic displacement, by which we mean not just poverty but sudden and disastrous loss of livelihood.

The country that has produced the world’s highest number of refugees is Afghanistan. The number of people leaving the country has gone up and down for decades, under Soviet occupation, civil war and U.S.-led occupation today. Some have left and gone back, while today many more people are leaving. About 90 percent are now located in Pakistan and Iran.

Syria is the latest major victim of a war spurred on by world and regional powers. As the conflict in Syria has escalated in the last few years, an estimated two million people have been displaced within the country. A half a million have fled to Jordan alone, where they live in unbearable conditions kept prisoner in refugee camps. Even more have gone to camps in Turkey or to Lebanon. Those who can—because they are young enough, or have a small amount of money—try to get into Europe.

Similarly, Iraq has seen 1.3 million flee a civil war that would have been inconceivable before the U.S. and UK occupation.

Renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also fuelled by reactionary neighbouring countries dominated by imperialist powers, has displaced 2.7 million people. The number of Somalian refugees is 1.4 million. The war in Mali now being ramped up by French troops has displaced more than 227,000 people within the country.

Figures given by the UNHRC reveal a great deal. First of all, 80 percent of all refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries and not the developed countries. Some of these refugees then seek asylum to live in another country, mainly developed countries, but this is a small percentage. If any countries have been “burdened” by massive inflows of refugees, most are poor. They are not the imperialist countries.

Yet it is the imperialist countries that bear the biggest (if not the sole) responsibility for forcing people to become refugees and immigrants, due to their intervention and meddling in the political affairs and economic domination of third world countries in the past or present.

More than 55 percent of all refugees worldwide come from five countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Let’s look at these countries one by one.

First, did Afghanistan and Iraq invade the U.S., UK, Germany and Russia, or was it the other way around?

As for Syria, it is being torn apart by a civil war for which the Western powers, Russia and the reactionary Gulf states all provide weapons and funding and are fanning the flames. The threat of stepping up Western military “aid” or direct intervention could only bring greater disaster for the people.

The West is behind the intervention of neighbouring states stoking the fighting in Somalia. The U.S. and its allies also played a major role in dividing off South Sudan from the rest of the country, and U.S./China rivalry is another factor there.

While an analysis of the major and extremely ugly role of the various reactionary Islamist forces in these countries is beyond the scope of this article, it has been rightly said that without the crimes committed by the Western powers (and the U.S.’s Israel), not to mention their economic domination, Islamism would be far less able to win supporters in the dominated countries.

The Question of “Economic Refugees”

There are millions of people in countries around the world who can no longer feed themselves and their families. What makes them leave their homes and gamble on extremely dangerous journeys? This requires some understanding of the functioning of the global imperialist economy.

The world economy dominated by capital in the imperialist countries, due to its functioning and necessities and in line with the interests of the big powers, has reorganised the economy of the oppressed countries over more than a century, but this trend has accelerated since World War 2 and even more in the last few decades.

The imperialist-sponsored land reforms starting in the 1960s, with names like the White Revolution in Iran, the Green Revolution in South Asia and the Philippines and the Alliance for Progress in Latin America speeded up the process of displacing peasants and small farmers and paved the way for these economies to be flooded with commodities and capital from the imperialist countries and further integrated into the network of world capital. This development triggered a huge population shift within those countries, mainly from the countryside to towns and cities.

The development of the world economy took another leap in the 1980s and ‘90s. The globalization of the world economy has significantly affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people all over the world, devastating traditional subsistence and local-market agriculture and producing “surplus populations” rather than new employment.

Imperialist financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have played a central role. IMF loans to third-world countries are usually conditioned on: 1) Eliminating subsidies to small farmers and on basic food items, fuel and other basic needs of the masses. 2) Removing all obstacles, such as import quotas and taxes, that prevent these countries from being flooded by Western agricultural commodities (often subsidized by the U.S. and European governments) and food products. 3) Facilitating investment by Western multinational companies and other imperialist investments, including in agricultural production.

The effects of these policies put massive pressure on the economies of the dominated countries, strips them of their self-sufficiency in food production, and most of all squeezes the poorest sections of the people in the countryside, often making it impossible for them to make a living. This development has upended the lives of hundreds of millions of people not only in the countryside but also other sections of society in most third world countries.

As a direct consequence of capitalist penetration of rural markets and the consequent need for the remaining farmers to go into debt to compete, in India an average of more than 17,500 farmers killed themselves every year between 2002 and 2006. These suicides are continuing. Although the number has fallen, this is not necessarily because the situation has gotten better, since the number of farmers has been reduced. Many have fled their land in search of a subsistence while their land is used by multinational companies.

When millions of people from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere in Africa are driven to France; millions from Turkey and Africa and other parts of the world to Germany; millions from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries to the UK; and millions from Mexico and other Latin American countries to the U.S.; this tells us something about the unequal relationships between the imperialists and the oppressed countries and the immigration those relationships produce.

For example, in 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. This agreement has been a cause of misery for the Mexican farmers who have not been able to compete with cheaper imported U.S. maize and other products. By 2002, one-third of all Mexican pig farmers had been driven out of business. Many had no choice but to abandon their farms and go to the cities of Mexico or to seek work in fields and factories in the U.S.

What Is the Solution?

In fact, what has caused these waves of migration from third-world countries to the developed (monopoly capitalist/imperialist) countries is the imperialist system and its functioning. Who is guilty? Certainly not the people whose land, food and income, and often the right to live in security, have been stolen. The criminals are not the immigrants but the gangsters who run the world as it exists and try to keep it that way.

Certainly it is necessary to fight against government restrictions on immigration, the cruel repression inflicted on immigrants who arrive in Europe and North America and the inhuman and even illegal measures meant to keep out new arrivals even if it means their death. We should expose and oppose the way the Western authorities slander, criminalize, demonize and attempt to dehumanize refugees who take desperate risks to find a way to feed their family. It is very important to support immigrants in their fights for their basic rights and for a life they deserve.

But it is essential to relate and link these just struggles to the fight to put an end to the imperialist system whose functioning requires and enforces the crushing of people all over the world. The fight for immigrant rights cannot be separated from the struggle against these gangsters, a global struggle in the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people. The struggles waged by immigrants are not a “problem” but a potentially very positive factor for revolution.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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