Over the weekend 5-6 September 20,000 refugees arrived by train in Germany via Austria from Hungary; thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands are following them.
Merkel’s decision to allow Syrians who reach Germany to apply for asylum there is a good thing.
That so many people in Germany, elsewhere in Europe and around the world have welcomed people as they arrive in train stations, have been collecting and distributing food, clothing, toys and medicine shows that basic human solidarity is a powerful force in the world.
In the face of such an inspiring response to human suffering, David Cameron announced (7 September) that Britain's share of the refugee “burden” will be to take just 20,000 handpicked people over the next five years. As a concession — he had earlier vowed the UK would not take any more than the 216 Syrian refugees it had so far taken in — Cameron’s gesture was a pathetic disgrace. Pretending that 20,000 is anything other than a token is dishonest.
While people around Europe were moved to action by the image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi (following 2,500 other migrants and refugees drowning in the Meditterranean this year), Cameron and most other Conservatives remained hard-hearted.
It didn't stop Cameron seeking to take the moral high ground, saying he prefers to spend UK aid money in the Middle East close to where the refugees come from. His pompous and aloof approach is unlikely to impress other EU member-state governments, as he seeks to re-negotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership.
The UK labour movement should condemn the government’s failure to take action over this crisis and the deaths of so many others in the Mediterranean this year. We need to campaign for the right of any Syrian refugee, and others currently in Europe, who wants to come to the UK to be allowed do so.
Germany's stance implies it will take the lion’s share of the new refugees although it seeks to persuade other EU countries to take their “fair share”. It is right that support for migrants is not offloaded on the poorer countries within the EU. All the more reason for rich countries like the UK to open their borders.
Germany’s Christian-Democrat government, are opening their borders for a variety of reasons. No less neoliberal than the Tories, the German government knows that in the longer term German society can benefit from an inflow of new, mainly young, and often well educated people from Syria. The EU Commission’s 2015 “Ageing Report” projects that Germany's population will shrink from 81.3 million in 2013 to 70.8 million in 2060, while the UK’s will rise from 64.1 million to 80.1 million. Both will have an unfavourable disparity between fit, younger workers and pensioners, but, of the two, Germany will be the worst off.
The German unions have given a lot of rhetorical support to migrants and refugees; IG Metall encourages its members to offer German lessons, hold social events, help find suitable accommodation. But there may be a need to offer stronger defence. In the last year there have been hundreds of attacks on refugee housing including arson attacks and vandalism.
People from Syria, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan have come into Europe via the eastern Mediterranean route. The central Mediterranean route, in contrast brings proportionately more Eritreans, Nigerians and sub-Saharan Africans. The change in significance of these two streams of migrants has shifted the debate about migration toward talk of asylum and refuge (from war) and away from “economic migrants” people who are migrating predominantly because they are poor.
This change has helped arouse sympathy for those who are forced to leave their home countries, and perhaps migrants in general. If it has helped to undermine a sceptical, sometimes hostile political consensus around migration that too is a good thing. But we should not accept the stance of the Tory press that migrants can be divided between the “deserving” (those fleeing war) and the “undeserving” (those wanting to improve their life in Europe). Anyone who wants to move around the world — even if it is just in search of a better life — should be able to do so.
The increasing migrant flows are a political challenge for socialists; we need to find political answers that can take the solidarity campaigns beyond immediate sympathies. But in the first place we need to make our unions part of the national and local solidarity campaigns.
What should socialists say? We resist the demonisation of migrants, for whatever reason they travel. We demand emergency funds for shelter and food, but those funds should also be available to existing migrants who have been left destitute by this government. We demand the right of all migrants and refugees to have freedom of movement — especially as the current wave is likely to encourage more people around the world to seek sanctuary.
All migrants should have the right to work. Amnesty for all and an end to detentions and deportations. Fight for adequate resources for all, wherever we make our home. Workers of all lands, unite and fight!
The numbers behind the crisis
Behind the current Syrian refugee wave is a war which has annihilated a way of life for the Syrian people.
It is certainly not, as one vile former UKIP candidate described it, the pull of an easier life in the EU. Numbers have increased recently, as larger numbers of Syrians have become more desperate.
On 7 September Channel 4 News reported from Lebanon, where a quarter of the population are Syrian refugees. Many live in camps run by the UN, who say they do not now have enough money to adequately feed them. Increasingly, young children are working to help their families survive.
According to UNHCR, in September 2015 there were 4,088,099 Syrian refugees. Significant populations live in neighbouring countries: 1,938,999 in Turkey; 1,113,941 in Lebanon; 629,266 in Jordan; 249,463 in Iraq; 132,375 in Egypt; and 24,055 in Libya. As many as 7.6 million Syrians are displaced within the country itself.
Europe’s “migration crisis” is in fact a small, displaced echo of vast Middle East and African migration crises. Nevertheless, the flows are significant and likely to increase in the short to medium term.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 350,000 refugees have crossed EU borders so far this year; the figure for the whole of 2014 was 280,000.
The 350,000 includes almost 235,000 who arrived in Greece and nearly 115,000 in Italy. The eastern Mediterranean route – through Greece via Turkey – has now overtaken in significance the – more dangerous – central Mediterranean route across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. UNHCR estimated figures for 2015 are 300,000 attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far, 2,700 people – around 0.9% of the total – drowning in the attempt.
The Hungarian government is now notorious for ruthless hostility to the current migrant wave. The right-wing government of Viktor Orban wants to stop the flows through its country, is building fences to keep them out, and impedes the progress of those who have managed to get into the country to more welcoming EU states; but the country had up to now itself taken a fairly large number of refugees.
In 2014, it received 4.2 asylum applications per 1,000 population. (Another country on this migrant route, Serbia, not yet a member of the EU and not part of the Schengen Area, has also received fairly large numbers of asylum applications.) The figure for Germany in 2014 was 2.1 — though it is likely to soar in 2015, to as much as four times that. The figure for the UK was 0.5. Sweden had the most asylum applications in 2014: 7.8 per 1,000.
In 2014, the main nationalities granted asylum were, first, Syrian, then Eritrean, followed by Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian.
Applications are far higher than the numbers actually granted asylum, but the proportions between the EU countries are instructive.