Voyage of the Damned: imperialist governments attempt to explain why refugees should be left to die

The refugee crisis confronting Europe today (as with earlier ones along the Mexican-US border and in the Indian Ocean) reminds us that the malaise spreading across the globe is not just economic and political, but also a moral crisis. Events that would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago have become, in a sense, inevitable. The post-World-War-II consensus on human rights, the holocaust, and the rights of refugees, upheld in universal declarations of the United Nations, is being violated, not by a single rogue government, but universally by the imperialist governments of Europe and the world.

Hundreds of migrants wait at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest after Hungarian police stopped them boarding trains to Germany. Photo / AP

Hundreds of migrants wait at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest after Hungarian police stopped them boarding trains to Germany. Photo / AP

Suddenly we are confronted with scenes eerily reminiscent of the 1939 Voyage of the Damned, when the MS St Louis, a passenger ship carrying a thousand German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi terror, was refused permission to dock in Cuba, the United States, and Canada, and forced to return its doomed passengers to Europe. The enduring mystery of the holocaust – how could ordinary people stand by and let it happen? – comes closer to the light.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis while the ship was docked in Havana, May 1939

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis while the ship was docked in Havana, May 1939

Not one of the governments affected appears to have anticipated this turn of events. The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011, the wars in Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Libya, Sri Lanka and the persecutions of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar even longer. Four million people have been displaced from Syria alone, not including refugees still within Syrian borders. Yet all these governments seem to have acted on the belief that so long as they ‘sent a clear message’ that refugees were not welcome and would be turned back – or, in Australia’s case, incarcerated on a prison island indefinitely and subjected to physical and sexual abuse, without even the right of communication to the outside world – the refugees would stop coming.

A Syrian migrant hands a girl to another migrant over the barbed wire barrier along the Hungarian-Serbian borderLaszlo Balogh/Reuters

A Syrian migrant hands a girl to another migrant over the barbed wire barrier along the Hungarian-Serbian border  Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Confronted with refugees arriving despite such acts of brutality, their first response is more razor wire and police batons, more detention camps, more boats towed back out to sea, more crackdowns on ‘people-traffickers.’ And more unconvincing arguments why the refugees should be turned away.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key argued straight-faced that since the number of refugees accepted by New Zealand is already infinitesimally small, raising that number would make no appreciable difference anyway. “But if you look at the scale of the issue – because it is a very significant issue – if we were to go back to our original target and go up from 750 to 850, or go from 750 to 1000, it’s hard to believe that’s going to resolve the issue because we’re talking about millions of people,” Key told Radio New Zealand in June, following mass drownings of refugees off the coast of Italy. The New Zealand government then adopted a law requiring mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving en masse, despite the fact that there has never been a single boatload of refugees arrive in the country. The very small numbers of asylum seekers generally arrive by air, singly or in small family groups. On 1 September, Key reiterated his opposition to any change to the quota of 750 refugees that was set back in 1997.

The Hungarian government expresses a similar stance in Europe today. “[Refugee] quotas are an invitation for those who want to come. The moral human thing is to make clear, please don’t come. Turkey is a safe country. Stay there,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said.

(Turkey is at war with the Kurdish people within its own borders, a war which has cost tens of thousands of Kurdish lives over the past twenty years. Last month Turkey resumed bombing and shelling Kurdish-held regions of Syria and Iraq, and unleashed a wave of repression against Kurdish towns and cities in eastern Turkey. Hardly a ‘safe country’ for Kurdish refugees.)

Refugees protest forced removal from train at Bicske, Hungary, by lying down on tracks

Refugees protest forced removal from train at Bicske, Hungary, by lying down on tracks

In another development with chilling echoes of the holocaust, hundreds of refugees boarded trains in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, after being told they were being taken to Austria and Germany, only to be forced off the trains at an isolated ‘camp’ at Bicske, a short distance from Budapest. News media were ordered to leave. “The authorities lie to everybody, they lie to us every day. If you gave your fingerprint and did the procedure, then why don’t they let us go?” a refugee told the Telegraph.

“Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture,” Orbán said. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity.” He announced plans to erect more razor wire along Hungary’s border with Serbia, and to make crossing the Hungarian border without papers a criminal offence. “This is not a European problem, it’s a German problem,” he added.

Headlines in UK newspaper the Daily Mirror

Headlines in UK newspaper the Daily Mirror

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has also adopted a similar stance. “I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees” Cameron said. Britain has pledged £22 million towards ‘improving security’ at Calais, the port in France from where many refugees attempt to enter Britain. The tabloid press in the UK wants it both ways: on the one hand, campaigning in support of the “PM’s desperate bid to halt the tide of illegal migrants,” on the other, lamenting “the heartbreaking human tragedy the world can no longer ignore.”

The United States, an active participant in the Syrian civil war, has settled a mere 1541 refugees from that war over five years.

One rung higher on the moral ladder sits the government of Germany, which has agreed to accept asylum applications from the latest wave of refugees, relieving the pressure on Greece and Italy, the European countries where most first set foot in Europe. Germany has concentrated its efforts on pressuring other European countries to accept quotas of refugees. The Economist reports: “On August 31st Mrs Merkel issued a dramatic call to arms, warning that today’s refugee misery will have graver consequences for the future of the EU than the euro mess. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she said, “it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”

This is, of course, the very same government of Angela Merkel which imposed crippling debt burdens on Greece not long ago; the same concerns lie at the heart of its position on refugees. Germany has staked its economic future on building a united Europe, with a common currency and relatively free internal migration, an economic power large enough to rival US imperialism. The Merkel government recognises that the razor wire fences popping up over Europe are an obstacle to that goal, and is acting accordingly. Back in June, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, had threatened that if the rest of Europe failed to accept a share of the refugees arriving on its coast, Italy would begin issuing visas enabling them to travel throughout Europe.

Thus, the same capitalist interests drive German policy, and as the united Europe increasingly fractures along national lines, German refugee policy can be expected to fall into line with Hungary’s.

Volunteers helping refugees at Austrian railway station

Volunteers helping refugees at Austrian railway station

In contrast to this disgusting display of callousness and hypocrisy, the ordinary working people of Europe have no trouble recognising the refugees as fellow human beings in desperate need of support and solidarity. On the beaches of Turkey, Greece, and Italy, at the railway stations of Austria, Hungary, and Germany, wherever the crowds of refugees have gathered, local people have stepped forward to volunteer with food and water, washing facilities, and offers of accommodation. Thousands of people in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have offered to accommodate refugees in their own homes.

Banners welcoming refugees at football matches in Germany

Banners welcoming refugees at football matches in Germany

While the Hungarian government raised a scare about the encampment at the Budapest train station being under threat of attack by racist ‘football hooligans,’ this attack never materialised. On the contrary, football supporters across Germany have raised banners welcoming refugees. Some 20,000 people demonstrated against mistreatment of refugees in Vienna 1 September, after the bodies of 71 refugees who had apparently suffocated were found in a truck arriving in Austria the previous week.

Mass action by the refugees themselves has been the key to changing the political face of the refugee crisis and forcing the rulers to recognise their humanity. Political pressure generated by the peaceful but determined crossing of the borders into Macedonia and Hungary under the baton blows of the police, turning the encampment in the Hungarian railway station into a political demonstration, and finally the disciplined mass march along the highways towards Austria, are what finally forced the Hungarian government to back down.

Never has the class basis of morality been clearer. This in itself is progress, a shattering of illusions. As Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky remarked, the notions of ‘universal’ values of human rights and democracy, and an eternal, transcendental morality, are nothing but chains forged by the bourgeoisie to tame and enslave the working class. “Only that which prepares the complete and final overthrow of imperialist bestiality is moral, and nothing else.”

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