Britain - Dover tragedy - a sick and murderous system

Jul-Aug 2000

The news that 58 Chinese immigrants had been found suffocated to death in the back of a truck carrying a consignment of tomatoes, in Dover, came as a shock for most people. It shed brutal light on the plight of these immigrants, who were desperate enough to risk their lives in such terrible conditions, for the sole purpose of bypassing immigration controls in the pursuit of what they hoped would be a better life in Britain.

In fact this was so shocking that for once even the gutter press dropped its scapegoating of "illegal" immigrants, whom it usually blames for all the ills of society. Instead the tabloids launched a scathing attack against "human traffickers", for bringing the 58 immigrants into Britain, and against Belgium officials, for allowing the truck and its human cargo out of Zeebrugge in the first place. However, behind this moralistic stance, the real target remained those "foreigners" who, according to these papers, come to Britain out of "greed", in order to "milk" its resources at the expense of British people. It was just the same old xenophobic theme, only dressed up in slightly more respectable clothes due to the appalling nature of the context.

The Labour government and its counterparts in the rest of Europe adopted a line similar to that of the media. From the rostrum of a European summit in Portugal, Blair and the other heads of states shed a few hypocritical tears on the fate of the Dover victims. But they immediately called for a tightening of immigration controls across Europe and increased repression against smugglers of human cargo - and since the latter are usually hard to catch in the act, this inevitably means increased repression against the "illegal" immigrants themselves. So, once again, the victims of the human traffickers will be made to foot the bill, if not to carry the blame.

Who should be blamed?

The European governments' declaration of war against human smugglers is a cynical farce. Of course, those directly responsible for the 58 deaths in Dover, are the traffickers who organised the journey into Britain. But would such gangs exist without the repressive immigration policies of the rich countries' governments? Would aspiring immigrants take the risk, like the Dover 58 did, of putting their lives in the hands of such crooks otherwise? The truth is that the human smuggling business has thrived on the rich countries' increasingly repressive laws, to the point where, according to the International Labour Organisation, its turnover is now reaching something like £3 -4bn a year, all paid for by people coming from the poorest regions of the world!

In that sense, the Western governments have as much blood on their hands as the human smugglers they blame today for the Dover tragedy. All the more so as their tightening of immigration controls is more often than not dictated by their demagogic attempts at wooing xenophobic undercurrents in the electorate.

What is more, these governments' claims that tighter immigration controls will prevent other tragedies like that in Dover and protect "illegal" immigrants (against themselves no doubt!), is hypocritical nonsense. The statistical data available shows the opposite. After two decades of increasingly tighter controls, not only has the number of immigrants trying to enter Europe illegally been rising (since more and more of them were left with no other option) but the number of those paying for these attempts with their lives has increased.

Indeed the Dover case is far from being an isolated event. The very next day after the Dover tragedy, 36 "illegal" immigrants were found travelling in the back of an overheated truck in southern Spain. Fortunately, unlike in Dover, they were all alive. But according to the press reports, they must have been in a poor state, having had nothing to eat for four days...

However, like in Dover, many immigrants have been less "lucky", if one can use such a word in this context, judging from the list of all known cases of immigrants' deaths across Europe over the past seven years drawn up by a Dutch-based organisation. An extract from this list, covering just the first three weeks of May this year, was published recently by a newspaper. It speaks for itself:

"On May 2nd , two Moroccans, including 13-year old Khouy Mbarek , were found dead on an Italian beach probably after having been thrown overboard from the boat on which they had been stowaways; on the same day, a 26-year old Nigerian, Richard Ibewke , died in a Viennese detention centre after having been beaten up by a policeman during his arrest, according to his friends; on the 3rd , 14 Africans drowned near El Ayoun (Morocco) when the boat that was taking them to the Canary Islands capsized; on the 4th , a Slovak citizen in his forties died in a Vienna police station where he had been detained as an illegal immigrant; on the 5th , fifteen Albanians disappeared when their boat sank, after it was hit by Italian border police near Otrante (Italy): seven bodies were found later; on the 6th , Naimah , an Algerian woman, committed suicide in the detention centre in Frankfurt's airport (Germany); on the 10th , nine people (Afghans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis) were shot dead by the Turkish police as they tried to cross illegally from Iran; on the 13th , another thirteen people drowned off the Spanish coast (near Cadiz ) after their boat sunk, together with two others in the Gibraltar strait; on the 19th , six North-Africans (including a 16-year old girl) drowned near Tarifa (Spain)."

All in all, in the seven years between 1993 and May this year, over 2000 aspiring immigrants drowned in the moat of "Fortress Europe" while attempting to enter illegally, not to mention those killed while in police custody or as a result of racist attacks. And these are only the known cases, where dead bodies have been recovered or witnesses have come forward. But how many more anonymous victims have never even been recorded?

Two-faced hypocrisy

The Western governments' moralistic stance against the modern slave trade of human smuggling is all the more hypocritical as they stop short of confronting the respectable capitalists who thrive on the exploitation of these modern slaves in their home markets.

In the case of Britain, the rag trade is notorious for its reliance on "illegal" immigrants from Asia and more recently, Turkey. Over the past decade the building industry has also made extensive use of "illegal" immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the catering industry has used Chinese immigrants. And yet how many of these sweatshop owners have been sentenced, or even prosecuted for that matter? This despite the fact that they do not only break immigration laws but also every regulation concerning health and safety and National Insurance.

But for British ministers, it is one thing to order the forced repatriation of an "illegal" immigrant and quite another to challenge the right of bosses to exploit their workforces, legally or otherwise, and make profits on their backs.

One only has to remember the treatment meted out in 1993 to Joy Gardner , a young Nigerian woman with a 5-year old boy, whose mother had lived in Britain for 33 years. Despite her situation, the then Tory government decided that she should be repatriated. When she resisted arrest after Immigration officers had broken into her flat, she was gagged with thirteen feet of sticky tape and within five minutes her pulse stopped - she had been suffocated to death. Two years later an Old Bailey court acquitted the two Immigration officers of manslaughter. The death of an "illegal" immigrant was obviously not considered worth the bother.

On the other hand, the authorities' leniency towards companies exploiting "illegal" immigrants was highlighted by a BBC Panorama programme in June. It showed how very respectable employment agencies are using Eastern European workers smuggled illegally into Britain in order to provide labour gangs to large food organisations at bargain-basement wages. Among the companies fingered by the programme were some major food processors for large supermarket chains such as ASDA , Sainsbury 's, Iceland, the Co-Op, etc.. Also included was Harrods ' own exclusive chicken supplier in Essex...

This programme also showed how these "illegal" workers were often expelled from the country, while the owner of their employment agency got away with just a £5,000 fine at most, without having to close down his business. As to the big food processing plants, it was business as usual for them, without the Immigration Service even bothering to question their "innocence" in the matter.

In fact, according to a Transport Union researcher interviewed in this Panorama programme, the proportion of "illegal" workers in the food processing industry is probably as high as 20%. Which speaks volumes on how government officials are willing to look the other way rather than prosecute employers.

But should this come as a surprise, when the government itself sponsors the recruitment of foreign casual workers, thereby providing bosses with a source of cheap labour? Thus, according to the business journal The Economist, "10,000 seasonal workers (are) recruited each year under an official British scheme to import farm hands. The British government lets these migrant workers stay only between April and November". Meanwhile, as this journal admitted in the same article, other farmers "use gangmasters ' to supply casual pickers at short notice. Some of those hired hands will be illegals ." Nor is Britain the only European country to resort systematically to foreign cheap labour, despite tight immigration controls. As The Economist pointed out, "whether legally or illegally (..) Moroccans pick tomatoes and peppers in hothouses in Southern Spain, Poles harvest vegetables in Germany, Sikhs from India's Punjab pick fruits in Belgium, Russians harvest crops in Ireland."

This, in and of itself, is nothing new, of course. Up until the return of the world capitalist crisis in the early 1970s , the rich European countries used to send recruiting agents to Southern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean or Southern Asia, to find non-skilled workers for their industries and public services. And because the status of these recruits was always more precarious than that of local workers, they had the additional advantage of providing a source of cheap and pliable labour, at least for one generation or so.

Today, circumstances have changed and the rise of unemployment combined with systematic pressures on the jobless have allowed the bosses to cut the standard of living and conditions of the European working class. They no longer need to resort to massive imports of foreign workers in order to push wages down. Nevertheless, the policy of the rich European governments remains fundamentally what it was thirty years ago. The trickle of foreign workers they allow in, legally or not, meets the needs of certain industries, by providing them with a workforce which is all the more pliable as it is subjected to the rigour of repressive immigration controls.

In other words, although Blair will never admit it - but a journal like The Economist does, without any qualms - the combination of this trickle of "illegal" immigrants and drastic immigration controls fits perfectly into the "flexible labour market" scheme that this Labour government boasts so much about.

A world of migrants

Jack Straw and the other Western governments often boast about their "successes" in containing immigration flows. But in reality, they are powerless against a phenomenon which has been gathering momentum for decades on a worldwide scale. Their repressive measures can only drive the immigrant flow deeper underground, out of sight to some extent maybe, but not out of existence.

And how can it be otherwise? For these immigrants, going to live in Britain or any other European country is not a soft option. For most of them it is a matter of survival, for themselves and sometimes for the relatives they leave behind. They are pushed towards the rich countries by a whole range of interrelated factors - the slide into aggravated poverty experienced by most Third World countries over the past decades, the on-going wars which plague so many regions in the world, the murderous rule of dictators and warlords, etc..

These factors are all direct or indirect consequences of the capitalist world order which the rich countries' governments enforce by economic, political and often military means. It is the plundering of the planet by capitalism that causes increasing deprivation in so many regions; and it is this deprivation which, in turn, feeds most regional conflicts in the poor countries and provides troops for local warlords while the rich countries provide them with weapons. Finally, more often than not, it is the rivalries between imperialist powers which fan the flames of these conflicts, when they do not initiate them in the first place.

The consequences of this situation are difficult to measure in statistical terms, if only because statistics are unreliable in entire regions of Africa, for instance, because everything has virtually collapsed there. But the estimates provided by international agencies - which, more likely than not, understate the seriousness of the situation in many respects - provide at least some sort of indication.

In itself, the story of the United Nations body dealing with refugees, the UNHCR , gives an idea of the scale of the disaster. When it was set up, back in 1951, the job of the UNHCR was to oversee the resettlement of the 1.2 million refugees left by World War II within three years. Half-a-century later, the UNHCR is still there, except that it considers that 27 million are "genuine" refugees across the world. To this figure another 30 million or so "internally displaced" people must be added - that is people who fled war-torn or disaster areas and are still living in their countries without being classified as refugees. In addition, 35 million people have emigrated abroad for economic reasons. In total, therefore, around 1.5% of the world's population consists of refugees and immigrant workers.

However, contrary to the hysterical utterances of the gutter press (or the more measured but no less ludicrous claims made by Jack Straw) to the effect that Britain is threatened with having to carry the weight of the entire planet's misery, over 80% of these refugees of all kinds live outside the rich countries. In fact over half of them live in Africa and the Middle-East alone. Leaving aside the particular case of the Gulf states, where the tiny local populations live a parasitic existence on the labour of a much larger foreign workforce thanks to oil proceeds, the countries with the largest proportion of immigrants are in fact among the poorest in the world - such as Malawi , for instance, where 10% of the population is made of refugees from Mozambique, in a country whose income per head is around 1% of that in Britain!

Africa - the war plague

Of all continents, Africa has by far the largest uprooted population. Economic migration is a matter of survival for entire populations. It is also made easier by the artificial nature of the national borders drawn by the former colonial powers. When the former colonies became independent, many ethnic groups found themselves split between two or more independent countries. But as a result, the idea of nationality carried much less weight and the populations moved more or less freely across national borders.

Economic migration tends to concentrate towards the "least poor" among African countries - South Africa, of course, but also Ivory Coast, Kenya, Gabon or Nigeria. However "least poor" does not mean rich. The resources of these countries are in no way comparable to those of Europe. The income per head in Ivory Coast, for instance, is about 1 /30th of that in Britain. And while South Africa may seem better off, at 1 /6th of Britain's income per head, the huge social inequalities inherited from the apartheid era - which were largely unaffected by the setting up of the present ANC -led regime - mean that the real income of the overwhelming majority of the population is much closer to that in the rest of Africa.

Against the backdrop of such poverty, the large numbers of immigrants who flow mostly into the shanty towns surrounding the main cities are unlikely to be able to make a living. For them it may mean survival instead of starvation, but little more than that.

On the other hand, just as in the rich countries, immigrants are often used as convenient scapegoats by politicians. Blaming immigrants for the increasing deprivation or the poor while fanning the flames of inter-ethnic tensions is a common demagogic exercise in Africa, which often goes together with massive expulsions by a ruling clique - the most extreme case being the expulsion of two million immigrants by Nigeria's president Shagari , in 1983. There is no safe haven, therefore, for the poorest Africans - in any case certainly not in Africa itself.

In addition to this economic migration every local war has left its toll, not just in terms of casualties but also in the shape of refugees and displaced populations. And the number of these local wars keeps increasing - from 15 in 1994 to 55 last year.

So, for instance, the resurgence of the civil war in Sudan over the past decade and the various conflicts involving Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia have turned the desert-like North-Western region of Kenya into a huge refugee camp, home to 2 to 300,000 refugees.

In Angola, an on-going civil war has produced half-a-million refugees living in camps within Angola itself and 220,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries - mainly Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, this latter country is itself embroiled in a regional war involving several African countries - including Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda on one side, Chad, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola on the other. And in this regional war, hundreds of thousands of refugees from yet another civil war going back to the mid -1990s - that of Rwanda - are trapped and used as cannon-fodder by both sides.

Further North, in Liberia, a peace deal brokered by the US concluded a protracted civil war in 1997. This war left 200,000 dead, 700,000 refugees abroad and 1.4 million internally-displaced people in a country which was virtually destroyed. Three years on, the UNHCR estimates that 250,000 Liberian refugees are still living outside the country, mainly in Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Indeed the civil war may be over, but not the terror spread by armed thugs. Only today they wear the uniform of the state now led by the former warlord, Charles Taylor.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Sierra-Leone, a 9-year old civil war which began as an overspill of the Liberian civil war, has taken the same direction. Out of a total population of 4.5 million, 250,000 have crossed over to the neighbouring countries, while around two million people have fled their home villages to escape from the warring gangs. And in spite (or because) of the massive intervention of UN troops under British supervision, there is no sign of a likely improvement in the near future.

Many more examples could be added to this list. But such as it is, it gives a graphic illustration of the degree of suffering and deprivation experienced by tens of millions of people in Africa. This is a social and human catastrophe on the scale of a whole continent. And in this catastrophe the capitalist classes of the rich industrialised countries bear a heavy responsibility.

Indeed, in every one of these regional conflicts and civil wars, and regardless of the ethnic tensions used by rival warlords to strengthen their positions, there are material stakes and potential profits that Western multinationals strive to secure for themselves against their competitors by supporting, and often arming one side against the other. The diamond fields of Liberia and Sierra Leone have been central in these countries' civil wars. Diamonds again, and the huge oil reserves around the Cabinda peninsula are at the heart of Angola's civil war, just as oil is at the centre of the civil war in Sudan. The regional war which has developed in the Democratic Republic of Congo is really about who will control the mineral wealth of the Katanga region.

And everywhere, the main two imperialist rival powers in the region - the Anglo-American alliance and the French state - push their pawns on the African chessboard, in order to reduce the influence of the opposite side, regardless of the exorbitant cost for the African population. And yet, it is the political representatives of the same imperialist powers who, here, warn us against the "threat" that African "illegal" immigrants represent for our way of life and standard of living! How far can the cynicism of these politicians go?

Europe and its own refugees

However, the flow of immigrants seeking a passage into the rich countries does not come only from distant Third World countries. Since the beginning of the last decade, Europe has also generated its own contingent of refugees.

It began with the collapse of Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The region's economy, which had been based on an international division of labour spanning the whole of the Eastern Bloc, slid into chaos. Within seven years, between 1988 and 1995, the proportion of the population living on less than $4 a day (or about £2.30) soared from 4% to 32%. Then began the flow of "illegal" immigrants from Poland, Rumania, Russia and other Eastern European countries, seeking work on western European building sites, while engineers and other professionals turned to the USA, Canada and Australia for better career prospects.

But this was just the beginning. In Yugoslavia, rival politicians fighting over Tito's succession were resurrecting and whipping up old nationalist tensions. They won the encouragement of certain Western powers, who saw the breakup of the Yugoslav federation as an opportunity to wipe off the map a country which was strong enough to put up some resistance to imperialist plundering, and a chance to enlarge their own spheres of influence. In the end Yugoslavia imploded, but not without two bloody wars spanning an entire decade.

The consequences are well-known and, in most respects they are comparable to the worst conflicts in Africa, only on an even larger scale. Whole populations were forced out of their towns and villages at gun point, by means of terrorist methods or simply by burning down their houses. During the first stage of the civil war, which spread from Croatia to Bosnia, over 3.5 million people became refugees, whether within the former Yugoslavia or abroad. During the second stage of the war, in Kosova , another 1.5 million people were made homeless, either by the terrorist activities of Serb paramilitaries or by the NATO bombings. Meanwhile another 100,000 left Serbia to take shelter in the neighbouring countries or in the West.

The material destruction caused by the war has pushed a large part of the former Yugoslavia back to the point where it was many decades ago, while leaving most of the population destitute. What was, only a decade ago, a semi-industrialised country, is now worse off that many Third World countries, thereby leaving to a large layer of its population no option other than to seek a better life elsewhere. Thus, in the former Yugoslavia as in Africa, the great power policies of the rich countries has produced yet another generation forced to resort to immigration for its survival.

Fortress Europe

Since 1985, the European Union countries have set up a common shield around their borders, known as the " Schengen zone". At face value the new system sounded quite liberal since non-European citizens "only" had to obtain a visa for one of the Schengen countries in order to be able to travel in all of them. However the implementation of this system went together with a drastic tightening of the unwritten rules followed by immigration officers to grant entry and residence visas. So that, while this system ended all border checks within the Schengen zone, it created around it a much tighter barrier, backed up by a sophisticated computerised database used by all the police forces involved.

Even then, Thatcher chose to remain out of the Schengen zone - and Blair subsequently followed suit - partly to please the anti- European prejudices of the Tory electorate and also partly to retain the possibility for the British state to award favours to certain people from its Third World backyard and to exclude others. That being said, there was really nothing to choose between Britain and the rest of the European Union in terms of the treatment meted out to non-EU citizens.

Subsequently, in response to the rising numbers of requests for political asylum, the Schengen zone was reinforced. In 1991, the European governments agreed to define a list of so-called "safe" countries: asylum-seekers arriving from these countries would be systematically sent back without their requests even being considered. Thus a buffer zone was built around Europe which included Eastern and Southern European countries.

A few years later, in late 1998, the landing on the Italian coastline of 2,000 Kurdish refugees travelling in small boats, led to another tightening of the screw. This time, the EU authorities offered funds and technical assistance to help Turkey - a traditional transit route for immigrants coming from the Middle-East and Asia - to improve immigration controls on its own borders and set up detention centres for "illegal" immigrants. Other countries were offered the same kind of assistance - Poland and the Czech Republic, among others.

At the same time, surveillance on the outer borders of the Schengen zone was stepped up. Particularly alongside Germany's border with Poland - as if the Iron Curtain was resuscitated, but turned the other way this time - and off the southern coast of Spain, in the Gibraltar Strait, where a sophisticated system normally designed to detect submarines has been put into operation to spot boats carrying immigrants coming from Morocco.

Since then, other schemes have been put into operation. One, in particular, involves getting Third World governments to take the necessary steps to prevent the departure of potential "illegal" immigrants, under threat of withdrawal of European aid. This, by the way, is a trick borrowed from the bag of British imperialism - such schemes have been in operation for a long time in many Commonwealth countries, to stop would-be immigrants from travelling to Britain.

Thus Fortress Europe is being built brick by brick, with Fortress Britain separate, but totally in tune, to insulate the rich European countries from the poverty and despair that their capitalist classes spread across the poorest regions of the planet.

Capital is the only alien

However, no amount of repression and surveillance will insulate the European countries. All this means is more risks for immigrants and higher fees and a more profitable business for the smugglers.

The root of the problem lies in the deep and growing inequalities created by the capitalist system on a world scale. The rich countries are only piling up wealth because the rest of the world is sliding increasingly into poverty. And as long as this is the case, those who want to have a better life, or simply to avoid dying of starvation or from the bullets of armed gangs, will be willing to risk their lives in order to reach the safe haven of the rich countries. For them, even the most precarious situation and low- paid job in Europe will be better than the almost certain premature death awaiting them at home.

And yet, the scientific and technical knowledge accumulated by society today would make it possible to end once and for all the poverty in which the majority of the world's population is forced to live. Poverty and social deprivation are not inevitable. They are the result of an economic organisation which is entirely bent on producing profits for a tiny minority of wealthy capitalists through the exploitation of the majority. This economic organisation has been unable to cope with the needs of humanity for a long time already. It offers no future to mankind, other than the ugly face of Fortress Europe, an artificial "paradise" - and even then only for a tiny wealthy minority - protected by barbed wire and machine guns.

The survival of national borders and the enforcement of ever tighter immigration controls, in an age when the development of the means of transport should make it possible for anyone to travel across the world without restriction, is just one of the means used to maintain an outdated social order which is not only unjust and repulsive, but also absurd and irrational from the point of view of mankind as a whole.

Asylum seekers and "illegal" immigrants are not a "threat" for the British working class. The real threat comes from the politicians and governments who are resorting to increasingly repressive means in order to protect this social order that will have to be destroyed before society can resume its march forward again.

3rd July 2000