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Editorial: Immigration, asylum and the fight for workers’ liberation

THE EU is continuing to fund the Libyan coastguard despite itself alleging that Libya’s government is profiting from the detention of refugees in appalling and unsafe conditions.

As Tories are seeking to divide workers with a new immigration regime, this glimpse at the brutal realities of “fortress Europe” allows us to take a wider perspective on issues of migration and asylum.

The fight against a racist immigration system is not a battle in defence of a humane and reasonable status quo. Not only was the British immigration system deeply racist when we were part of the EU: the EU itself has the deadliest border in the world.

There is a distinction between refugees fleeing danger and economic migrants, of course, though both number among those risking their lives by fleeing across the Mediterranean.

Even so, the role of compulsion in migration tends to be understated by beneficiaries of the current set-up. The week has seen several ill-judged responses to Home Secretary Priti Patel’s proposals subjected to widespread Twitter mockery. 

Foremost among them was former Lib Dem MEP Caroline Voaden’s lament: “Who’ll fill the coronation chicken sandwiches? Who’ll dig cauliflowers out of freezing muddy Cornish fields? Who’ll wash the hospital bedpans?”

If concern from employers that they may lose access to cheap labour is one pillar of support for the current immigration model, another is an altogether too rosy view of the causes of economic migration.

“Free movement” — within the confines of the EU — is presented as a matter of choice, adventure and career opportunity. Better-off citizens from the world’s wealthiest countries do migrate for these reasons, although — since the same principle applies to British citizens who move to work in, say, the United States — the end of free movement is unlikely to affect this.

But most economic migrants are driven to find work abroad because of a dire economic situation at home. As Ukrainian Communist leader Petro Symonenko remarked of the millions who have left his country since 2014, “they are not going for fantastic coffee in Bratislava or to take in an opera in Vienna.” They are fleeing a broken economy and will tend to be employed on worse conditions than the native workers in their destination countries.

The process isn’t benign for their home countries either. Many southern and eastern European countries face skills shortages as the educated young emigrate, and in the Baltic states this has reached the point of serious depopulation. 

The answer is not to oppose migration. It has produced many of the vibrant multicultural communities of the modern world, and in a political climate where immigrant-bashing is the norm, socialists are right to point to the benefits migration has brought to this country.

And the idea that closing borders would help other countries to keep their skills is no more convincing than the pernicious myth that search-and-rescue operations cost lives by encouraging more people to risk a sea crossing.

But a superficial approach which whitewashes vast inequalities between and within states risks endorsing a process which is inherently exploitative in its current form.

The global refugee crisis, the EU’s brutal response to which we are seeing in Libya, cannot be separated from war, structural poverty and climate change, features of an imperialist world order. While offering a safe haven to refugees, we must also fight the forces that made them refugees by campaigning for peace and socialism.

Nor can the fight for a just immigration system be separated from the battle to advance workers’ rights by stopping employers from paying poverty wages or using insecure contracts. Our enemy is not just a Conservative government trying to create new categories of super-exploited worker, but all bosses engaged in a race to the bottom on pay and conditions.

Only with such an approach can we unite workers and communities against our common enemy — the ruling class — in a struggle that advances all our interests.

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