The quest for solidarity in a fractured Europe

This blog was first publishes as a Manchester Policy Blog, see

World Refugee Day 2015, on 20 June, coincided with a huge anti-austerity demonstration in London. This was narrowly concerned with the specific politics on the British Isles – politics that seems to become frightfully more insular by the day. And that links it back to World Refugee Day – even if solidarity with those persecuted in faraway lands was not on the placards. As Labour Party leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn, a speaker at the closing rally, says more generally: “Austerity serves as a ‘cover’ for deepening inequality which, I would add, makes it devoid of solidarity with those less fortunate, of any class, race or nationality.”

Hunger-strike by refugees in Berlin against dispersal orders June 2013, photo: Stefan Boness,

Hunger-strike by refugees in Berlin against dispersal orders June 2013, photo: Stefan Boness,

A recent headline in The Guardian summed up the combined insular and un-solidaristic contemporary mainstream politics in paradigmatic fashion. It read: “Since 2011, four million Syrians have fled their war-torn homeland. The UK has offered shelter to just 187.”  A headline that needs little elaboration.

Of course there are exceptions, but they remain on the margins, not least in relation to British geography. The first Prime Minister’s Questions after the general election on 3 June 2015 is a potent example. The only MP who focused on the then very pertinent issue of Mediterranean refugee deaths and the wider dynamics behind refugee movements, called them a “stain on the conscience of Europe.”

This was a Scottish MP, Angus Robertson, MP for Moray. He voiced the opinion that more needed to be done than sending the British military into the Mediterranean, including, in his words, “offering refuge and asylum to those who need it.” Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister refuted the latter claim.

Last week saw the events in Calais and strikes by French ferry workers that eventually led to the closure of the Channel Tunnel. Lorries lined up in long queues. Refugees and migrants from the nearby shanty-town – colloquially called the ‘jungle’, home to an estimated 3,000 people – attempted to board those lorries. They always do, but seldom has such a prime opportunity presented itself.

Their large numbers left French police as well as most lorry drivers largely powerless. Soon, video footage and commentary appeared across the British media enforcing the narrative of a country besieged by hostile foreigners. British freight officials speak of a ‘war zone’ in Calais. Truck drivers complained they were being left alone at the sharp end of things – and many called for tougher UK security policies, a call that is bound to please the Prime Minister.

One has sympathy for lorry drivers whose job becomes an ordeal and whose personal safety might be at risk. But from political leadership a more enlightened response would be expected. The majority of those who try to board vehicles in French ports are at the end point of often horrendous journeys and have nothing to lose. They will not be deterred by security measures that ultimately result in more misery. In any case the refugee and migration crisis is a political problem that needs a political solution.

But neither the UK government nor the Labour opposition are prepared to acknowledge this. In Prime Minister’s Questions on 24 June, the acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, demanded to know what more would be done to force ‘the French’ to take effective action against the illegals. The PM followed his usual script regarding the issue and promised more investment in security measures. In the same spirit, David Bolt, chief inspector for borders and immigration, a day later questioned whether the government was doing enough to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants.

That day also saw a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels aimed at addressing the refugee and migration crisis and show solidarity. The original proposal foresaw a burden sharing and the relocation of 40,000 people already on European soil across the whole EU. This would involve a mandatory quota system for each country, combined with the resettlement of 20,000 refugees currently outside EU borders. Britain, together with Denmark and Ireland, made clear from the start it would not participate. In the end, mandatory quotas had to be abolished and relocation will be based on voluntary mechanisms still to be worked out. Some countries, such as Hungary, went the opposite way to invest money in a border fence.

Human rights group referred to the outcomes of the EU meeting as a bare minimum. It seems largely forgotten that the bulk of global refugees live in neighbouring countries. More generally, haggling over relocation numbers distracts from the real issues behind the contemporary crisis: not only violence and war in far away places, but the dynamics of global capitalism. Those are based on an interconnected system of economic dispossession, labour exploitation and wider processes of under-development. The construction of illegality and regimes of border control and ‘securitisation’ have a vital function in upholding this system. Almost logically they make a better future seem possible only within the ‘promised land’ of the EU itself.

One of the buzzwords in the UK by all political parties is ‘aspiration’. Aspiration and hope lie at the heart of those journeys by refugees and migrants, be they by boat or lorry or any other means. They show us the core of human ingenuity. Instead of aspiring to make Britain a ‘more hostile’ environment, we should welcome those harbingers of hope for a better future.

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