The struggle against racism and ‘Fortress-Europe’ and the fight for popular sovereignty

The following text, by Popular Unity activist  Panagiotis Sotiris, is a transcript of his speech at the No Euro Forum held in mid-October in Chianciano Terme, Italy, 16-18 October 2016.

The refugee crisis has demonstrated the deep crisis of the European Union.  For the past years not only it has not been able to deal with the arrival of a large number of refugees and migrants, but has resorted to the deadly, murderous policies of “Fortress Europe”. The result has been thousands of dead refugees and migrants in the waters of the Mediterranean.

Some people say “there are too many refugees in the world”. Is this true? Well, numbers don’t add up. In 2015 the total number of migrants was 232 million, in a global population of 7.4 billion. Regarding refugees in particular, the numbers are indeed increasing. But are they “too many? We are talking about a total of 65.3 million displaced people in the world of which 21.3 million (2015 figures) fall within the definition of ‘refugees’ of which 5.2 are Palestinians. There are 10 million stateless people and 3.2 million asylum seekers. These are big numbers in terms of human tragedy, but definitely not huge in the sense “we cannot cope with them”.

Almost half of refugees come from 3 countries: Somalia (1.1 m.), Afghanistan (2.7m.), and Syria (4.9). And according to 2015 figures, they do not mainly come to Europe. In 2015, the countries that have received the largest numbers of refugees are: Turkey (2.5 m.), Pakistan (1.6 m.), Lebanon 1.1 (m.), Iran (974.000), Ethiopia (736.000), and Jordan (664.000).

Is this the biggest refugee crisis in Europe? No, after WWII the total number of refugees and displaced persons exceeded in Europe perhaps 10 or even twenty million. Is this the biggest refugee crisis for a single country or region? No that was after the partition of Pakistan from India when there was the most massive move of refugees and displaced persons.

But deaths are high, especially in the Mediterranean. In the passage from Africa to Italy the possibility to be killed is 1 in 23….

These big movements of refugees can be explained by the form contemporary imperialism has taken. On the one hand, we have the consequences of imperialist wars and interventions, either directly or indirectly. Imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq along with sanctions before them created situations of failed economies and state infrastructures that led many people to leave their countries in order to avoid war and misery. Western fuelling of ethnic divisions, religious conflicts and tribal hostilities only made things worse. On the other hand, many corporations in Europe favour the idea of a divided labour market, with a large segment of the work-force facing over-exploitation, extreme precariousness and poverty. In this sense, poverty and war have been forcing people to leave their countries only to find extreme poverty and violence in their destinations.

Racism and xenophobia are important elements of these processes because they guarantee the divisions inside the working class and make sure that a large segment of the working class remains trapped in a very precarious situation, unable to have full social rights and with the constant danger of being arrested and deported.

But people will continue to arrive, as long as imperialism, war and poverty continue to force them to come. What can we do? Far Right but also EU says “keep them out”. “Safeguard borders”. “Increase security”. “Send more navy vessels and increase patrols”. However, these do not stop refugees and migrants; they just make things more dangerous….

In the US-Mexico border there is the world’s most advanced and deadly wall and security system in place against migrants. So far it has not really reduced arrivals.

Now if they arrive how we treat them? The Far Right and the EU say “treat them as illegal aliens”, “restrain them”, and “put them in detention centres”. But they also mean “keep them illegal so that they can be cheap labour”. The cynical logic of the Far Right but also of European governments is that illegality is a way to make sure that they end up in conditions of overexploitation and precariousness.

So what can we do if we want to remain within a class and internationalist perspective?

First of all we fight against imperialism and war and poverty so that people do not have to leave their countries. Not because we “do not want them to come”, but because it is good that people get a better living in their countries. It is better to have prosperity, peace and employment in more countries of the world.

Secondly, guarantee safe passage for asylum seekers and refugees. The fact that to arrive in Europe you must first be in danger of drowning is extremely paranoid and murderous. The right of safe passage and arrival at destination are basic human rights. Refugees know where they are going, they do not just drift. Keeping them stranded or imprisoned in Greece or Italy because of closed passages and borders can only make things worse. And plans like deportation from Greece and then relocation from Turkey are simply not working. Since August 2015 a large number of refugees arrived in Europe. And as we all know, Europe has not been destroyed.

Thirdly, give refugees and migrants their full rights. Give refugees asylum, recognize migrants’ rights, and guarantee that they have access to social protection. Illegality creates precariousness and over-exploitation, by means of an institutional division of the working classes. Fight against inequality. For example, when corporations bring subcontractors with workers from other countries with lower wages using the ability to pay at the rates of the countries of origin, we must struggle against the racist / Far Rights cries to “keep foreign workers out” and answer that “everyone working here should take the wages being paid here and enjoy the same workplace and social protection and have the same rights” and organize them in unions.

Fourthly, fight racism and xenophobia and create new communities based upon common interests against islamophobia and all neo-colonialist and racist ideologies, including neo-imperialist theories of “clash of civilizations”.

Let’s see now some of the questions that have been raised in the discussion.

First, we must say no to all “conspiracy theories”. Migrants and refugees are not here because of a conspiracy from European bourgeoisies. They are here because they need a better future and because they want to escape war, persecution and poverty. European bourgeoisies can take advantage of their arrival but only if the vicious circle of illegality and institutional racism is in place. Migrants and refugees are our class allies; they are not the instrument of the enemy. It is capitalists that make labour market more flexible and precarious not migrants.

Secondly, we must deconstruct so-called “security questions”.  No, refugees are not “Islamic Terrorists”. An “Islamic terrorist organization” that would send operatives through Libya and expose them to the danger of death in the sea, would be a stupid terrorist organization, suitable only for a Monty Python’s film. In contrast, we know that such organizations have managed to recruit large numbers of alienated European citizens exactly because they have faced exclusion and racism.

Thirdly, we must refuse neo-Malthusianism. There is no sense in talking about there are “too many people” in our countries. With an alternative social paradigm we can have growth and redistribution and actually need more people to work.

Does this mean that we propose a “no borders” policy? No, in fact we need borders. We need borders in order to keep predatory finance out, to keep foreign capital wanting to dismantle the economy out, to keep imperialists out. And also to make sure that there is no capital flight, that there are not enterprises relocating to other countries, that there is no wealth been siphoned out of the country. But we also need borders to open them and welcome refugees and migrants!

Fourthly, we must fight against islamophobia. Today in Western Europe the attacks against refugees and migrants represent a neo-colonial attempt from the part of European bourgeoisies to wage class war against a great part of their working class in the name of the danger of extremism, “radicalization”, and terrorism. In fact, this is a form of internal colonization, France being the most tragic example. Today, a large percentage of working-class and popular strata in Europe are Muslim. They are treated as second class citizens, or, worse, like the enemy. We should not tolerate this. Laws about clothing in schools or beaches are not a defence of democracy or the secular state; they are class strategies against migrants and Muslim workers.

How does this relate to questions of popular sovereignty? I said before that solidarity and internationalism mean closed borders to capital open borders to solidarity. This is an act of sovereignty. Now in more general terms: we support the idea of popular sovereignty against European integration or “globalization”. We defend popular sovereignty because it transforms the nation-state into a terrain of democratic struggle. It helps the potential formation of a collective will of the subaltern classes in a revolutionary socialist perspective. It is at the level of that nation-state we can create a broad alliance around a program of social transformation, a new “historical bloc”.

However, this has to do with a political conception of the political body. It has to do with the people, not in the sense defined in the constitutions but as the alliance of the subaltern classes in their struggle for a better future. It has nothing to with historical identities or lineages. We must include migrants and refugees in the people, politically and institutionally in the sense of full social and political rights but also ideologically in the terms of how we define the “us vs. them” in our societies. We need to redefine the people –or even the “nation”– as the unity in struggle of all the subaltern classes. This is a much better answer to “identity politics” than either chauvinism and neo-colonialism in the name of “republicanism” and “secularism” but also neoliberal cosmopolitanism that denies the possibility of a radical and emancipatory popular “common sense”, favouring instead a world where there are only corporations and individuals, not forms of popular will.

Can we do it? Well, we can. In Greece, one of the most hopeful developments of last year has been the immense movement of solidarity to refugees and migrants. An important part has been the occupation by the movement of buildings like schools or hotels. I will refer to the example of the City Plaza Hotel in Athens. It is self-managed with refugees and people from the solidarity movement work together. Such occupations prove that you can have refugees in decent condition without great cost. Above all, such occupations prove that we can indeed create a different community of common struggles. They prove that we can live together. They prove that we can create together a people in struggle!

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