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EU set to ignore migrants plight

migrants arriving on the island of lampedusa in august 2007. pictures taken by Sara Prestianni and taken from storie migrante humanity is in short supply. News has eventually filtered out that in the past 10 months 3,300 people have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Malta or Italy. The news only emerged when the Italian government said it was downgrading Operation Mare Nostrum, its very effective sea rescue operation which has helped to safety tens of thousands of migrants in small boats on the Mediterranean.

It is being replaced by a border patrol force from the European Union known as Triton, which is a European Frontier Agency patrolling up to 30 miles along the coasts of EU member states, with the aim of preventing any migrants landing in Europe.

In Parliament during Prime Minister’s Question Time last week there was a deeply unpleasant competition to be the most anti-immigrant and abusive towards migration to Britain.

The sinister power of UKIP and xenophobia seems to be getting stronger and stronger. After the second world war, refugee numbers reached tens of millions, mainly in Europe and the Middle East.

The response then, while being far from perfect, was the Geneva Convention of 1951, which guaranteed a place of safety, and the establishment of various UN agencies including UNWRA for Palestinians and others designed to give security to equally desperate people in Europe.

There are now 50 million refugees around the world — the highest-ever number.

The rich and powerful European and North American nations, plus Australia and some south-east Asian nations, are generally putting up more and more barriers and in some cases, such as Australia, physically detaining refugee arrivals.

Some 3,300 have died this year and 6,000 have died trying to cross from Mexico to the US in the past decade.

On Monday the British government announced that it would no longer take part in rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay said: “We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean” and we shouldn’t do these things “because it encouraged others to migrate.”  The International Organisation for Migration Director General William Lacy Swing points out:

Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people. Undocumented migrants are not criminals but are human beings who need protection and assistance and are deserving of respect.

He calculates that since the year 2000, 40,000 have died trying to reach a place of safety. Some 500 died off the coast of Malta in one incident when desperate migrants refused to transfer to an even more dangerous vessel, and were rammed by their traffickers.

In the Australian Parliament recently there was the unedifying spectacle of Prime Minister Tony Abbott warning people not to try to enter Australia.  Its despicable government pays Papua New Guinea to house potential asylum-seekers.

The causes of migration are not hard to find. The bodies being washed up on the beaches of the Mediterranean are from Syria, Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Mali and many other war-torn countries.

The victims have often made perilous journeys to try and reach the coast in order to get to Europe.

The response ought to be one of humanitarian protection of those in danger, supporting refugees when they arrive, but above all addressing the economic and humanitarian crises in the source country.

Instead, it seems the big and wealthy countries are more interested in exploiting natural resources and selling arms.  History will describe the reaction of the richest, most privileged and most powerful in the world during this most desperate decade as nothing short of abominable in its deliberately looking the other way from desperate people seeking help.

The nearer we get to the general election the more important it is that there be a serious debate about inequality in Britain.

This should not be a difficult subject, as it is very clear that since 2010, inequality in Britain has got considerably worse.

For Labour, it is important to remember the whole purpose of the labour movement — which is about equality of opportunity, provision of public services and, above all, ensuring that poverty becomes a thing of the past.

Famously, the new Labour architect Peter Mandelson said he was intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich in Britain.

Since he strongly supports the general thrust of International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies, he might care to reflect that the International Labour Organisation pointed out that since 2008 there has been a consistent shift of national income away from workers and in favour of the very high-paid, as real wages have fallen in many places.  Indeed, the millennium goals of halving the proportion of absolute poor by 2015 shows that 1.2 billion people still live below the $1.25 per day threshold.

In Britain poverty is measured as those who have an income of less than 60 per cent of the median, which shows 13 million people fall into this category.

Poverty is exacerbated by a combination of low wages, a minimum wage that is not enough to live on and a benefit cap which means that many in high-cost housing areas cannot afford to survive.

This then translates into lower educational achievements and huge levels of health inequality and life expectancy being very low in, for example, east Glasgow, some parts of central Birmingham and east London.

The post-war consensus on both sides of the Atlantic had higher rates of taxation, partly to pay for post-war reconstruction but also, as an act of social policy.

The 1980s era, with Thatcher and Reagan economics, cut taxation for the very richest, encouraged inequality and has left us generations of poverty.

There were screams in every financial paper around the world when Francoise Hollande proposed a 76 per cent top rate of tax in France, while in Britain the Tories reduced the 50 per cent top rate on the grounds that it was easier to collect a lower rate of taxation.

As we move closer to the general election, there has to be a debate about the real levels of inequality and poverty in Britain.

The Tories do not offer anything other than a continuation of austerity, and Nigel Farage proudly proclaims his role model is Margaret Thatcher.

Both will use xenophobic arguments on immigration while at the same time supporting free market economics across Europe, which has a devastating effect on public services and living standards.

For Labour to win an election, we have to offer something far better and far stronger, which does indeed raise tax for the very richest, collects tax from the corporations that systematically sort to avoid it and to remove the benefit cap, whilst at the same time control housing costs. That would be a good start.

This article first appeared at the Morning Star

CC BY Image credit: migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa by Sara Prestianni at storie migrante

One Comment

  1. celynwales says:

    And, closer to home, the government is offering more police to control refugees in Calais, apparently oblivious to the reality that conditions there can be similar to those from which the refugees were escaping in the first place.

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