“The only cost-effective way to stop illegal immigrants trying to storm through the Channel Tunnel is to set up a machine gun and take out a few people,” Steve Uncles, the extreme right-wing English Democrats' candidate for the post Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, wrote in an August 4 Facebook rant.
“[T]hat would stop it very quickly and immediately cut dead this tactic … who has got the guts to do this in our politically correct society?”
Uncles is an outlier on the racist far-right of English politics, but his rhetoric differed only in degree from that of Tory government ministers and could be matched by commentators in the tabloid press. The English Democrats' immigration policy explicitly cites Australia's immigration policy as a model. In this respect Uncles and the English Democrats are trendsetters more than outliers.
On July 30, Tory PM David Cameron referred to a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs … it's an incredible place to live”.
On August 9, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC: “So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area, there always will be a threat to the tunnel security … Europe can’t protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.”
The “marauding migrants” Hammond was referring to were the 2000-3000 refugees camped in a shanty town in Calais, near the French entrance to the Channel Tunnel, who have become the subject of hysteria in the British press. “We kept out Hitler. Why can’t our feeble leaders stop a few thousand exhausted migrants?” screamed the July 29 Daily Mail.
As in Australia, the “debate” about refugees in Britain, and Europe more generally, is based on both abusive language and factual distortions trotted out by politicians and the corporate media. Cameron's assertion that Britain is the favoured destination of migrants entering Europe through Greece and Italy is the received orthodoxy in the British media, but is not true.
The August 11 Guardian reported that the number of refugees camped in Calais is 1% of the refugees who entered Europe this year. Most of those at Calais will not make it across the channel.
Indeed, what has put them into the headlines is spectacular but unsuccessful attempts. These include Syrians whose bodies were found washed up on beaches as far apart as Norway and the Netherlands after they tried to swim across.
More successful was Sudanese national Abdul Rahman Haroun who walked the more than 50km long Channel Tunnel but was arrested when he reached the British end on August 7.
The claim that 2000 people tried to storm onto trucks and trains entering the tunnel on July 28 has been repeatedly used as evidence that Britain is under siege. However, the July 30 Guardian pointed out that the Eurotunnel company claim of 2000 attempts was “misleading”, made “without making it clear they meant many repeated attempts by the same group of a few hundred migrants”.
Most refugees entering the European Union arrive in Greece and Italy. It is true that many attempt to travel to other EU countries before making asylum claims, but Britain is not the most popular destination.
According to Eurostat figures, six EU countries had more asylum claims than Britain so far this year. Germany received 10 times the number. Sixteen EU countries had a higher number of asylum claims than Britain relative to their population.
Britain is not the only EU country where politicians and the corporate media are creating an Australian-style racist hysteria about the threat posed by refugees. The approximately 200,000 refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year is an increase on previous years, and dwarfs the number attempting to reach Australia, it is still only 0.027% of Europe’s total population, the August 11 Guardian said.
By comparison, Lebanon “houses 1.2 million Syrian refugees within a total population of roughly 4.5 million,” the Guardian said. “To put that in context, a country that is more than 100 times smaller than the EU has already taken in more than 50 times as many refugees as the EU will even consider resettling in the future. Lebanon has a refugee crisis. Europe – and, in particular, Britain – does not.”
Lebanon also houses large numbers of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
Within Europe, however, refugees are concentrated in the countries of first arrival, particularly Greece and Italy. A July 9 EU foreign ministers' summit failed to reach an agreement to resettle refugees in Italy and Greece in the wealthier EU countries.
In Greece, refugees were released from detention following the election of the left-wing SYRIZA government in January. However, the central EU institutions, wealthier EU countries and international financial institutions have punished Greece for electing that government by starving the country of credit and imposing stringent austerity that has left the Greek government unable to look after the welfare of its own citizens.
The continued arrival of refugees in Greece and the refusal of the wealthier EU countries to accept them or give Greece the financial means to look after them has led to a genuine refugee crisis.
On the island of Kos, close to the Turkish coast, more than 7000 destitute refugees protested at the slow pace of their registration, and their lack of food on August 10. The next day, riot police rounded them up and herded them into a football stadium, where many collapsed from heat exhaustion.
The July 14 Irish Times reported that the pace of registration had increased and a cruise ship had been chartered by the government to ease the shortage of accommodation.
“More than 125,000 people have entered crisis-wracked Greece by sea from Turkey since January, a staggering 750% increase over the same period last year and more than in the whole of 2014 and 2013 together,” the Irish Times said.
An August 8 statement by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the opening of a new centre in Athens to house refugees with dignity. Tsipras called for greater European cooperation, noting the role of Europe in creating the conditions that forced people to become refugees. “It is clear that the influx of refugees and migrants is a result of the military interventions carried out by the West, particularly in Syria and Libya, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the recent past,” he said.
He pledged that despite its economic difficulties, Greece would attempt to meet its humanitarian obligations to refugees and condemned “those who are cavalier regarding the spread of racist ideas and intolerance”.
The Australian-style border security rhetoric increasingly used in Europe is showing in policies that are creating a real crisis.
In Eastern Europe walls are being built: by Hungary on its border with Serbia and Bulgaria on its border with Greece. In the Mediterranean, the Australian argument about “pull factors" was used to justify replacing maritime operations based on search and rescue with operations based on interdiction, at the end of last year. As a result, 2000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean.
The increase in refugees trying to enter the EU is a direct result of EU policies. Seumas Milne wrote in the August 13 Guardian: “The refugees arriving in Europe come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia and Eritrea.
“With the recent exception of the dictatorial Eritrean regime, those are a roll-call of more than a decade of disastrous western-led wars and interventions.”
The largest increase has come from Syria, where Milne said “the Western funding, arming and training of opposition groups … has played a crucial role in the country’s destruction”.
The increase in sub-Saharan Africans making the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy is a direct result of the 2011, EU-spearheaded military intervention to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi that combined airstrikes with military support to anti-government militias.
Libya was already a transit country for refugees and undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Under the Gaddafi regime, its oil-rich economy absorbed many sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees.
The 2011 intervention replaced Gaddafi's dictatorship with a breakdown in the economy and permanent conflict between rival militias, who are violently racist against sub-Saharan Africans. TeleSUR English reported on August 12: “Torture, beatings, and sexual abuse [are] particular specialties at Libyan immigration detention centres.”
Having adopted Australia's racist rhetoric casting refugees as a security problem, the EU is following Australia in adopting policies that are cruel and irrational. In response to the increase in departures from Libya, EU forces have mooted a new round of military strikes against Libya, this time to be justified as strikes against people smugglers.
A different approach was mooted by the Latin American and Caribbean nations grouped in the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of our America (ALBA) at an August 10 meeting in Caracas. It “released a joint declaration expressing grave concern over the humanitarian crisis in Europe around the growing migrant crisis,” TeleSUR English reported the next day.
ALBA called on Europe to end deportations and allow refugees to settle: “The principal cause of the humanitarian tragedies that have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a huge, deep, grave, is the colonial and neocolonial capitalist model that has subjected the people of Africa and Asia to underdevelopment and destroyed productivity models, and put them in the service of the western metropolises.”
It is proposed that all countries of the world spend the equivalent of 20% of their military budgets on promoting “health, education … housing and fundamental human rights of millions of citizens battered by terrorism promoted and supported by the West”.
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