The refugee question is now gathering widespread attention, symbolized but yet reduced to the mute snapshots of tragedy which sit on the front of dailies worldwide.
Seventy-one people, likely Syrian refugees, suffocated in a white refrigerator truck in late August as smugglers attempted to bring them through Hungary to the rich European Union core. Several days before, a wooden boat burdened with between 400 and 700 people capsized off the coast of Malta. Bodies butted up against the shoreline. Some 250 of the refugees, who set off from a patch of Libyan coast near Tunisia, are reported dead.
The dominant politic accompanying such visuals is of crisis disordering a well-ordered Europe. One New York Times commentator writes, “The French police push migrants back to Italy; dozens of families sleep on the floor in the Ventimiglia rail station. In Nice, undocumented migrants are prevented from boarding trains to Paris. In the City of Light, police evacuate makeshift camps of African migrants, only to find them back, with newcomers, the next day.”
The swell of refugees, the writer continues, is massive, with European statesmen confronting “the challenges it poses to Europe’s identity as well as to its ideals of solidarity and shared human values.”
The crisis is real.
Over 2,500 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean, many from the Libyan and – especially – the Syrian conflict-zones. Syria has about 4 million external refugees, with at least that many internally displaced. Of those 4 million, perhaps 2 million are in Turkey, another 1 million in Lebanon.
Some 3,000 refugees come to Hungary every day. The land bridges to Europe are less chancy than sea lanes that rely on ships with a tendency to sink. According to official E.U. counts, over 230,000 have arrived in Greece alone so far this year.
The problem of the waves of immigration cannot be solved without dealing with the causes that create them.
But it is not quite true, as the New York Times editorialized, that, “The roots of this catastrophe lie in crises the European Union cannot solve alone: war in Syria and Iraq, chaos in Libya, destitution and brutal regimes in Africa.”
Ignore for a moment that Afghanistan is the second-largest source of refugees in the world, with at least 2.6 million people in flight. Europe and the United States ravaged Afghanistan in the 2000s, causing directly and indirectly perhaps some 400,000 deaths.
But still, putting that to the side, is it really accurate to build analytical walls to accompany the physical ones – Europe over here, over there, Africa, with its odd tendency to home-grow destitution and brutality? We should look instead, in the words of Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, to “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” There is no Europe without Africa, or Africa as it is without Europe as it has done to Africa.
One example is the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, under the aegis of Belgian and U.S. Special Forces. Lumumba had thought the unthinkable: to assert Congolose control over Congolese natural resources. For this, Europe and its U.S. offshoot murdered him.
Joseph Mobutu, one of his captors and a U.S. client, succeeded Lumumba four years after the 1961 events. His 32-year rule was backed by the United States. In the word of historian Adam Hochschild, “By 1997, when he was overthrown and died, his country was in a state of wreckage from which it has not yet recovered.” Although EU problem-solving might not have prevented U.S. sponsorship of Mobutu, ceasing European problem-making might have avoided producing him in the first place.
As the historian Horace Campbell goes on to observe, “From the time of the assassination of Lumumba, almost every African leader who sought to chart a course for genuine independence was assassinated, whether it was Eduardo Mondlane, Amilcar Cabral, Herbert Chitepo, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, Felix Moumie, Chris Hani or Steve Biko.”
In more recent years, Libyan ex-President Moammar Gadhafi went onto that list. Europe may not be able to solve what the New York Times calls “chaos in Libya.” But the European role in causing that chaos is a matter of public record. French President Nicholas Sarkozy in November 2011 called for a no-fly-zone in order to “prevent the use of that country's warplanes against [its] population,” a mission NATO warplanes would carry out by using warplanes against the Libyan population.
The catalyst was a coup by dispossessed Libyans and right-wing members of the Gadhafi government. They did a careful job of “expropriating and exploiting the legitimate aspirations of freedom-seeking Arab youth.” Yet with all the help in the world, they were unable to gather sufficient social support from the Libyan people. The opposition spurned offers from Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to broker peace talks, and instead connived with the European Union, the United States, and some ne’er-do-well courtiers of what passes for the Western Left to pass United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, calling for a no-fly-zone over the country.
The result was NATO destruction of much of the Libyan army, with the U.S. “leading from behind.” British commandos helped guide incoming munitions. As the BBC reported, “When, on 20 October, Gadhafi was finally captured and then killed by NTC men, it followed NATO airstrikes on a convoy of vehicles carrying leading members of the former regime as they tried to escape from Sirte early in the morning.” It then asked, “Had British soldiers on the ground had a hand in this?” This “this” being the peccadillo of an illegal assassination of a foreign head-of-state. The correspondent answers, “Nobody will say yet.”
Other facts about European international politics are less murky. It is true that the European Union cannot alone fix the problem of a United States-sponsored US$1 billion-a-year-training program for Syrian rebels routed through the CIA, or Turkish arming of the Islamic State, with Gulf Cooperation Council funds. Nor, given such facts, can Europe alone take responsibility for the 20-year-decline in life expectancy in Syria – the epidemiological trace of what leading Syrian left-wing dissident Haytham Manna calls the “dirty war” destroying Syria. Nor, finally, is it Europe’s job to “remedy” the situation in Syria through a no-fly-zone.
However, some remedies might be called for. It is Europe which freely exports reactionaries to Syria, something it could consider ceasing.
According to the most conservative numbers from the Brookings Institute, at the very least over 900 French foreign fighters have invaded Syria. Over 650 Belgians, 500 from the United Kingdom, and at least 300 from Germany as well. Europol estimates an overall sum of perhaps 5,000. They are likely not joining the leftist Kurdish militia. That has mostly been the province of Turkish citizens, many who do not have “European ideals,” and for the better. Instead, they join the right-wing mercenary groups speckling Syria’s soil, despoiling and dedeveloping the country.
One consequence of U.S.-EU policy is the massive numbers of refugees fleeing Syria to southern Europe – itself choking amidst the asphyxiating debts imposed by the European Union core. One primary point-of-landing has been the archipelago surrounding southern Greece. There, the Communist Party (KKE) and its affiliated unions, perhaps also lacking European values, have made it a point to assist refugees.
As the KKE has insisted along with the other Communist parties of Southern Europe, in relation to “the unspeakable tragedy unfolding in our countries’ seas in relation to the refugees and immigrants,” the issue is not ultimately a crisis of governance demanding a narrow technical fix, nor a policy question merely demanding that the European countries up their contributions to refugee resettlement funds. In this, they point out one thing that consistently evades mainstream opinionating on the refugee crisis: “The problem of the waves of immigration cannot be solved without dealing with the causes that create them.”
Max Ajl is an editor at Jacobin and Jadaliyya.