10 March 2014.
People who live in the West and other destinations for immigrants are constantly told things like, "Our country is being invaded by immigrants." Hardly a day goes by that they don't hear politicians and the media making racist attacks against immigrants, blaming them for unemployment, abusing the benefit and welfare system, being a burden on taxpayers or spawning crime.
The way in which the current anti-immigration hysteria is deliberately driven by the authorities and not a spontaneous reaction among ignorant people was underlined earlier in March in what should have been a major scandal in the UK. It was revealed that when an academic peer-reviewed study commissioned by the government concluded that there is little lasting connection between immigration and unemployment, the Conservative Party simply suppressed it and continued with its campaign to convince Britons that to maintain living standards they must choke off the inflow of foreigners.
The ruling classes of the Western imperialist and other developed countries that attract immigrants stick the term "illegal" on these human beings to criminalise them and legitimize a witch-hunt against people who have already gone through tremendous mental, physical and economic suffering. In different ways and to different degrees, even though the number of people entering these countries has remained roughly stable, vicious anti-immigrant propaganda has become a major factor shaping the political landscape in Western Europe and Australia, the focus of this article. (For historical, demographic and other reasons and the military importance of a border contiguous with a country the U.S. has crushed, the question of immigration presents itself differently there.)
What refugees risk and how governments use that risk to impose the death penalty
Right now tens of thousands of people from all over Africa are living in shacks in camps in the hills around Ceuta and Mellila, two enclaves that are remnants of Spanish colonialism and its domination of Morocco. Because these two stolen bits of land are legally part of Europe, gaining entry is a major goal of migrants and refugees.
In the past few years, Spanish governments have repeatedly had police gas, beat and even shoot people trying to climb over the double rows of high razor-wire fences that surround them. Over the last few months, as immigrants become increasingly desperate, there have been mass attempts to storm the barriers involving as many as 1,500 people at a time, and at least one has been successful. On 6 February, as hundreds of Africans battled police in an attempt to get over the fences, an unknown number of people jumped into the ocean on the Moroccan side and tried to swim around the seawall to the Spanish side. Spanish police fired rubber bullets and smoke canisters at the men in the water as well as threatening them by shooting blanks, and fifteen are known to have drowned. Twenty-three immigrants made it. The Spanish government at first denied the shooting, then when caught out by YouTube videos praised the police and blocked an investigation.
This incident represents the immigration situation all too well: the great desperation of people who consider such deadly odds the best option they face, and, on the other side, the cruelty of the authorities in the imperialist countries that have played a major role in creating such desperation in the first place.
In one of the worst recent tragedies to strike refugees, on 5 October last year a boat carrying 500 African refugees from Africa to Europe sank near Lampedusa, an island off the coast of North Africa that belongs to Italy. More than 300 people lost their lives. It was Italian fisherman and not the authorities who took the initiative to rescue people drowning not far offshore. Lampedusa residents held a demonstration demanding that more be done to save immigrants at sea.
Only a few days later, on 11 October 2013, another boat carrying 200 immigrants sank near Lampedusa, and 27 refugees died. Around the same time a boat carrying around 130 refugees went down near Alexandria, Egypt, killing 12 Palestinian and Syrian immigrants. On 31 October, the bodies of 87 people, mostly women and children, were found in a desert in Niger. They are believed to have been would-be immigrants and their families seeking work in Europe. It seems that they died of thirst after the vehicle carrying them broke down. There is hardly a week that a major accident involving immigrants losing their lives doesn’t occur. Most fatal incidents go unreported or unpublicized.
According to figures released by the European Union, during a year-long period in 2012-13 more than 30,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, most hoping to travel on to other parts of Europe. Many didn't reach the other side. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, some 2,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2011. EU reports estimate that about 20,000 immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean have died since 1998.
Another dangerous route for immigrants is to cross the Indian Ocean to Australia. Every year hundreds of boats carrying thousands of refugees set out for Australia. Most are from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries. About 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia since late 2007. Last 27 September a boat carrying migrants to Australia sank off the Indonesian coast, killing at least 21 people.
Among those accidents at sea many lives are lost because of the indifference or perhaps deliberate negligence of the naval authorities reluctant to rescue refugees, even when they are in a dire emergency and communicate to ask for help. Concerns are rising that this could be a tactic designed by top-ranking Australian officials to deter the flow of immigrants.
A man eventually rescued off Australia gave this account: He and many other immigrants were in a boat that lost its engine at sea. Soon they ran out of food and water. A satellite phone was used to contact Australian authorities, giving their exact location. They were told, "We know where you are – we will be there in two hours' time." The man continued, "We waited for two hours, 24 hours but nobody came... we kept calling them and told them we don't have food, we haven't had any water for three days, we have children, but nobody came, I don't know why. We were 60, now we are 24, we lost our family. Another man lost nine family members. Yet another lost all three of his daughters and his wife…" (Video-clip interview, The Sydney Morning Herald website, 28 September 2013)
Then there is this story told by Ramin, an 11 year-old boy from Iran. "We were five days and four nights on the boat. It was cold. I put my mother's clothes on and lay down because the sea became stormy. When a wave hit our boat hard I was thrown into the sea. I sank a few meters under the water – a strip of my clothing caught on a bar connected to the boat. My father came to my rescue and freed the cloth. When I came to the surface another wave smashed my father's head against the boat. Blood ran out from his nose and he went under water… Later I was transferred to a hospital… I had no news from my family. I was hoping they had been rescued. I was waiting for my father to come to me but there was no news. Five days ago the picture of bodies of my mother, father and sister were shown to me. At first I didn't recognise them. When I saw the bodies of my father and mother I didn't cry, but when I saw my sister's, I cried." (BBC-Persian website, 15 November 2013)
Ramin was the only Iranian among 28 people who survived when a boat with around a hundred passengers sank off the coast of Australia. During their five days at sea they asked the Australian Navy for help but nobody came to their rescue. The stretch of ocean between Java in Indonesia and Christmas Island in Australia is about 250 kilometres wide. It has become a killing field for refugees.
Hussein is a refugee from Afghanistan. In his attempts to reach Australia, he has boarded a boat four times so far. He says: "Over a year ago my brother and his wife took a boat with 26 people on board bound for Australia. The last time he contacted the family was when he was in the middle of the sea. After that we have no further news from him…" (BBC-Persian website, 15 November 2013)
As in Europe and the U.S., the Australian authorities have introduced draconian laws to restrict immigration. Those who are rescued or make it to shore are sent to Papua New Guinea to live in detention camps in harsh conditions while their application for asylum is being considered. It is reported that many such refugees have committed suicide in the camps.
Inmates staged a protest against their detention in Manus Island, one of several such camps run by the Australian government in Papua New Guinea on 17 February. They were attacked by Australian police, who shot projectiles and live ammunition and had attack dogs brought in. A 24-year old Iranian man, Reza Barati, died of multiple head wounds. Another 64 people were injured.
A young Australian woman who works at this camp blew the whistle on the reasons behind what the authorities called a "riot". She said that employees were required to tell the asylum seekers that contrary to law, they would never be allowed to leave Papua New Guinea, either for Australia or a third country of refuge, so that they would drop their requests for asylum status – and most importantly, discourage others from trying to enter Australia. Further, she said, the camp "was designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure the deterrence." The young man's death, she explained was not a result of a "crisis" in the camp's functioning but "an opportunity to extend that logic one step further." (Guardian, 25 February 2014)
This incident, not the first of its kind, made many Australians horrified at their government. Some 15,000 people at 750 places across the country, from cattle stations to major cities, held simultaneous candlelight vigils to express solidarity with the young Iranian victim and other immigrants, and demand an end to what an organizer called "what's being done in our name."