At an EU summit in Malta on February 3, Theresa May announced Britain would help support the resettlement of refugees who arrive in Europe to Latin America and Asia. Yet while it has been presented as a humanitarian endeavour, the plan preserves relationships of exploitation and inequality between countries.
A frequent justification for restrictions on migration to the EU is that many of those moving are economic migrants. They are counterpoised to genuine refugees as a form of undeserving poor. But in reality there is a highly mixed flow of migration into Europe, with many people moving for a combination of reasons.
The common denominator is a level of desperation that means that even as EU states have increased restrictions and forced people to use more dangerous routes, people have continued to risk their lives. More than 5,000 people died in 2016, making Europe’s borders the deadliest in the world and producing a flourishing business in people smuggling.
My research suggests that the fundamental reason – both behind migrants’ desperation to move and the British government’s determination to stop them – is the imperialist character of capitalism today. The world is currently divided into imperialist countries, where ownership and control of capital are concentrated, and oppressed countries, who lack sufficient control of capital and therefore have their development shaped by the needs of the imperialist countries.
Britain is a particularly pronounced example of an imperialist country. Its overseas assets amount to more than 5.5 times the country’s GDP and produce rates of return far greater than investments within the UK. Recent research estimates that a total of $16.3 trillion has been transferred from oppressed to imperialist countries since 1980, and today, on balance, $53 billion is being extracted from Africa each year, with British companies playing a leading role.
These high rates of return often mean poor living standards for workers in oppressed countries. Safeguarding foreign investments therefore requires restrictions to stop people moving to where prospects are better – and it can also lead to military action. This is a major cause of forced migration.
In Britain, physical border controls are backed up by divisive ideas put forward by both the government and parts of the media suggesting that migrants and British workers have contradictory interests.
Immigration controls: outsourced and offshored
May’s resettlement plans are part of a programme of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration. This includes funding to build factories where refugees will be employed and other infrastructure to support their arrival. The host countries have not yet been announced.
The plan continues a trend of European governments outsourcing their immigration controls to others. In Britain, this has happened through charities and private companies playing a role in immigration detention, housing and deportations.
Within the EU, control of security has been outsourced to some of the countries on the bloc’s periphery. Debt ridden Greece has been left to help with those migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean. Formerly socialist Balkan states such as Bulgaria which are now incorporated into the EU have also been expected to process and accommodate each foreign national who enters their territory. Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, migrants who move on to another EU state can be deported back to the state in which they first arrived. This has led to struggles and repeated changes to how the regulation is implemented.
Aspiring EU member states trying to prove their worth, such as Serbia and Turkey, have been expected to prevent migrants entering the EU. An EU-Turkey deal signed in March 2016 provides for the deportation of migrants en masse from Greece to Turkey in return for funding to Turkey to prevent migrants reaching Europe. Further afield, EU member states have called for detention camps in African “transit countries”, and done deals with Libya, Eritrea and Sudan to help police migration.
EU leaders may rebuke these border guard states from time to time for their harsh treatment of refugees, but they rely on them to play this role and benefit from their violence.
Resettlement in other countries goes hand in hand with limiting settlement in Britain. The programme to resettle children from Calais who have relatives in the UK was halted almost as soon as it began, leaving hundreds reportedly stranded. And the UK Syrian Resettlement Programme is making slow progress.
Will resettlement be ‘voluntary’?
Reporting on the resettlement plan, The Independent cited assurances by a government source that refugees’ participation in the programme would be voluntary.
But limit somebody’s options enough, threaten their very survival, and they may “voluntarily” agree to anything that offers a way out. Given the appalling conditions facing refugees currently stranded at the EU’s borders in Serbia, Turkey, Greece and elsewhere, there will be enormous pressure to accept resettlement.
The £30m wider package of “aid” that accompanied the British government’s support for the resettlement plan is a flimsy cover for the responsibility that I believe Britain and other imperialist states carry for creating the humanitarian crisis in the first place.
Even the estimated 1.2m people who arrived at the borders of the EU in 2015 only amounted to 0.24% of the EU’s population. EU leaders could allow refugees and migrants to enter legally and safely – but they are unlikely to do so because of the threat this would pose to the current division of the world.