Hybrid borders

Hugh Barnes casts an eye over the diversionary tactics of right-wingers trying to weaponise immigration

ON 24th November, a rubber dinghy capsized off Calais and at least 27 people drowned. It was a human tragedy but also a political wake-up call. Crossing the English Channel in a small boat is the most dangerous way to get to Britain. Yet, over the past three years, the number of migrants prepared to take the risk has gone up a hundred fold, according to Home Office data. Almost 30,000 people have arrived in Britain this year by sea. In 2018, that figure was as low as 300, meaning the number has jumped by almost ten thousand per cent since then.

The deaths in the Channel briefly silenced racists in the media. The tabloid press had been filled with cries of indignation over the ‘new migrant crisis’ on Britain’s southeast border. Extremists such as Nigel Farage had declared that the country was under siege from an invasion of illegal immigrants – and Boris Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit on a pledge to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders, seemed to have no choice but to join the xenophobic chorus. Presumably he fears being outflanked on his right by a resurgent anti-immigration movement.

Whipping up hysteria

It was only a temporary reprieve. Soon others were competing with Farage and Johnson to whip up hysteria. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described the latest crossings as a threat to British sovereignty, and said the only way to repel these border incursions was to bring in the armed forces. Invoking a kind of twisted Dunkirk spirit, she wondered aloud if the coastguard might be deployed to push the small boats back into French waters. (In fact that would be illegal under maritime law.) Another brainwave that Whitehall mandarins are apparently considering is a plan to hold asylum-seekers offshore until their claims are processed. The Home Office says it’s in talks with the government of Albania but nobody can quite believe it, either here or in Tirana. In fact, the Balkan country’s prime minister, Edi Rama, called the plan ‘fake news’, and said Albania would never be a place where rich countries could set up camps for their refugees

The cornerstone of Patel’s hostile environment policy is the new nationality and borders bill that will create a two-tier refugee system. Those arriving via ‘illegal’ routes will be given less time to stay and won’t be reunited with their families. It’s supposed to be a deterrent but would-be asylum-seekers only take to boats because legal routes are blocked – at the moment Britain has no humanitarian visa scheme for refugees – and in any case, there is little evidence that harsh asylum policies influence migrants’ choices.

Propaganda tool

Tory xenophobes like to foment a state of panic, blaming ‘illegals’ for a variety of social ills from the crumbling NHS to a lack of decent housing. In reality it is government policies that are to blame. Migrants have not run down our public services nor failed to build the houses our economy needs – and migrants bring enormous benefits to our society.

The truth is that capitalists do not want to see an end to illegal immigration. While the gutter press howls at ‘swarms of immigrants’ arriving on our shores, it’s an inescapable fact that Britain’s bosses rely on unorganised migrant labour because it can be exploited.

The prime minister vows to target the criminal gangs who prey on displaced people. But the relationship between the Tories and the traffickers is actually one of mutual benefit.

The government’s actions, which are meant to undermine the smugglers, create the perfect conditions for them to thrive. Heightened security at Calais has made it harder to smuggle migrants onto lorries, prompting the traffickers to seek more dangerous and lucrative routes.

Meanwhile the Tories seize on this border spectacle as a propaganda tool, a political weapon targeted at the French to deflect attention from the chaotic aftermath of Brexit. It is a cynical manoeuvre that is now being copied by other populist leaders on the borders of the European Union as a way of exploiting political divisions and public fears over uncontrolled immigration.

Weapons of mass immigration

In Belarus, as in northern France, thousands of migrants appear to be stuck in what is literally no man’s land – on the border, between two countries, unable to move forward or back. 

In early November, when border guards led hundreds of Iraqi Kurds to the Polish frontier at Kuznica-Bruzgi and directed them to cross, it became clear that Belarus’s autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko – often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – had just added a new type of weapon to the history of warfare. The European Commission accuses Lukashenko of provoking an influx of migrants from the Middle East in retaliation against EU sanctions that were imposed after his discredited re-election in 2020.

The West is struggling to respond to weaponised migration alongside other coercive tools aimed at social and political destabilisation, such as cyber attacks and disinformation, which have been refined into a sophisticated doctrine of ‘hybrid war’ by Lukashenko’s sponsor, Vladimir Putin.

Unfortunately the root of the problem doesn’t lie in Minsk or Moscow – or in London or Paris, in the case of the English Channel crossings. It lies thousands of miles away in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Until conditions there improve, displaced young men and women will always be prepared to risk hardship, arrest or even death to make it to Europe.

Tough on the causes of migration 

In order to solve the migrant crisis it will be necessary to solve the problems that force people to seek refuge in the first place: poverty, persecution, war, economic instability and climate change – which is to say, the problems of capitalism itself. That is where the origins of this ‘migrant crisis’ lie. So we need to get tough on the causes of migration instead of just scapegoating migrants individually and collectively.

The ravages of global warming and of extreme weather will increase the flow of climate refugees in the years ahead. And, as long as capitalism exists, the border disorder will inevitably get worse. The task facing green socialists is not just to point out the hypocrisy of those who defend the capitalist system but also, having won that particular argument, to get out and fight for a sustainable alternative to inequality and the exploitation of displaced people.

Photograph by Hugh Barnes

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