The Migration Crisis Stems From the Crisis of Capitalism

The crisis of capitalism manifests itself in many different ways. At the heart of it is the fundamental contradiction between capital and labour, and the need to increase exploitation of the working class by driving down wages and increasing workloads in attempt to offset the falling rate of profit; a process first fully explained by Karl Marx. The crisis also expresses itself through the presence of endless wars, which have since the end of World War Two been largely proxy wars between rival imperialist powers, but have now, as the Ukraine situation has demonstrated, entered an even more deadly phase of direct confrontation between Western and Russian imperialism. Adding to the horror of capitalist barbarism we can include environmental degradation, climate change, destruction of life supporting ecosystems, and as a consequence, the exponential increase in involuntary mass migration. The term ‘involuntary’ is used in the sense that these migrations are not premised on wanderlust but the need to escape from capitalism’s ever growing number of hell holes where even the most basic conditions for sustaining life are ever diminishing. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are now 100 million displaced people in the world. Climate change projections suggest that they will be joined by another 200 million by 2050, as the places in which they currently live will become uninhabitable.

Of course there’s nothing new per se about migration. The history of the working class, and indeed the history of the human race itself, is a history of migration. If it wasn’t we’d all still be living in the East African Rift Valley. And the forced migration of millions of Africans in the slave trade provided the surplus value for the “primitive accumulation” of capitalism long before industrialisation visited new horrors on the newly created working class in Europe. Some of them joined the slaves as indentured labourers on plantations, whilst others from the rural backwaters of Europe were compelled to escape famine, oppression and poverty by heading for the capitalistically colonised worlds of America (North and South), Australia and New Zealand. We recently published in English an article by our Italian comrades of Battaglia Comunista which includes a useful insight into the history of European migration including the history of migration from Italy mainly to the Americas(1). This shows how capitalism utilises the desperate poverty of workers to generate cheap migrant labour and illustrates a fundamental contradiction within the migration process which, like all its other contradictions, capitalism is incapable of resolving; that whilst capital benefits from cheap migrant labour, at the same time it rails against it to foster divisions in the working class between migrant and native workers, particularly in times of economic and political crisis where the crisis has itself generated a mass migration, whether it be the Irish potato famine, the Tsarist pogroms against the Jews or current conflicts such as Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, to name just a very few.

The reaction of the Italian state to the current wave of migration into Europe from across the Mediterranean will sound very familiar to readers in the UK, USA, and many other countries, as the anti-migrant rhetoric, generated by politicians and much of the media, is virtually the same whether the boats are coming from Libya to Italy or just across the Channel to the UK from France. It provides a great opportunity particularly for (but not limited to) populist right wing regimes to provoke anti-migrant hostility by talking about ‘invasions’ that must be curtailed before the country is completely “overrun” by foreigners, and the cost of putting up asylum seekers in hotels where they live the life of Riley at we taxpayer’s expense.

In order to make this rhetoric a bit more palatable to those who aren’t outright xenophobes and racists, government ministers voice their concern for genuine refugees and wanting to save them from the dangers they face from crossing the sea in totally inadequate small boats, which is why these sea crossings must be stopped, to save migrants from callous people-smuggling gangs. Now we’re certainly not claiming that the boat operators are acting out of altruism to help migrants, and by putting migrants in these boats they show a cynical disregard for human life. In that respect they display much the same qualities as the politicians. In the UK we’ve been hearing this bullshit for years; previously when ex Prime Minister Theresa May was Home Secretary in the Cameron Government, creating a ‘hostile environment’ to deter migrants was official policy, and although that distasteful term was officially dropped, in truth the hostile environment has continued unabated and in reality is more hostile now than ever before. As an aside it is perhaps interesting to note that Prime Minister Sunak, the virulently anti-migrant Home Secretary Suella Braverman (who “dreams” of seeing plane loads of deported asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda) and her equally obnoxious predecessor in the Johnson regime Priti Patel, are all themselves offspring of migrants. This is a clear example of the idiocy of identity politics, our rulers irrespective of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., etc., purely look out for their own interests and the interests of their class and have no affinity at all with minority groups unless it presents a good photo opportunity; it’s the class struggle, stupid!

Ramping up the anti-migrant rhetoric, Sunak has pledged legislation that goes even further to criminalise illegal entry than the recent Nationality and Borders Act. And it’s all for their own good. After all, who would risk their lives crossing the Channel when they can fly in business class if they really have a genuine asylum claim? The reality is that most asylum seekers are not in a position to apply for visas to come to the UK, say as a tourist or a student and then apply for asylum on arrival. For the majority with extremely limited means small boat crossings are the only option as most other avenues have been closed down. Stopping the crossings was one of Sunak’s 5 New Year pledges, suggesting that this is as important as bringing runaway inflation under control or sorting out the collapsing NHS. And whilst the small boat crossings did increase in 2022 to around 40,000 this is actually lower than the government’s own prediction of 60,000. The overall number of asylum seekers coming to the UK still remains considerably lower than many other European countries. Figures for 2021 show that Germany (the highest with around 140,000 applicants) followed by France with 103,000 and Spain with 62,000 all had higher intakes than the UK with around 50,000. Yet the British government and mainstream media always imply that the UK is carrying the main burden as other European countries are failing to pull their weight. This is not to suggest that rest of Europe has a more liberal or humane attitude to migrants fleeing from war, persecution and destitution, because it does not. Anti-migrant rhetoric and policies are an EU wide phenomenon.

The ongoing absence of a refugee-sharing mechanism among member states is leading to ever harsher treatment of migrants at borders and the continuing rise of illegal pushbacks. Along the borders of Hungary, Croatia and Romania, EU law and UN conventions are being openly defied as migrants languish in a freezing no man’s land. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s new government has introduced legislation to make life more difficult for NGOs attempting to conduct search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Britain’s unenforceable Rwanda deterrence strategy is championed by countries such as Austria as a way forward for the EU.

Guardian, 14.01.23

Even these examples don’t tell the whole story because entering, and not being immediately deported from Europe, is just the initial hurdle migrants face. The UK’s ‘hostile environment’ deterrent approach ensures that, partly by design and partly because of incompetent and under-resourced bureaucracy, the life of a newly arrived asylum seeker is a life of uncertainty and misery. Given that bosses in many industries complain about post-Brexit labour shortages, it is perhaps surprising that asylum seekers are prevented from working whilst their applications are being considered. Recent UK government statistics show that there are currently around 148,000 outstanding asylum applications in the system, meaning it can take up to several years for a decision to be made. Over 90% of applications made in 2021 have not yet received decisions. Being unable to work, applicants with no financial means of their own either have to rely on family support or survive in a twilight world of State support amounting to £1.17 per day for those accommodated in hotels or £6.00 per day for those who are not. Lives are needlessly put on hold whilst the government bureaucracy slowly grinds on.

Contrast that with the situation for Ukrainian refugees. Since the start of the war last February 104,000 Ukranian refugees have been admitted under the sponsorship scheme plus a further 40,000 have been allowed to enter to stay with relatives. They are permitted to work and around 56% of those who have arrived have found jobs. Of course those fleeing war zones should be given a safe haven but why the preferential treatment? The hell hole of imperialist conflict which the Western powers and Russia have created in Ukraine is no worse than other war zones such as Syria where those fleeing have faced desperate struggles to enter into any European country. The preferential treatment reflects an underlying racism that informs the UK’s immigration policy as well as those of most other ‘advanced’ capitalist countries. The first UK immigration laws in 1905 were introduced to stem the wave of Jewish migration from the Russian Empire, Ukraine being one of the main centres of virulent anti-semitism. Further legislation has usually followed similar concerns relating to other migrant groups such as Asians and West Indians. As most Ukrainians are white Christians they are not viewed with the same level of suspicion as people coming from Asia or Africa. Perhaps more significantly, projecting the suffering of the Ukrainian people is a key element of Western propaganda in supporting a war which the West is as guilty as Russia in provoking even if, purely by reason of the specific logistics of the war, Russia has been the main perpetrator of attacks against civilians. Admitting Ukrainian refugees is intended to portray the (bogus) humanity of the West compared to Russian barbarism, and so justify Western involvement in the war.

As we have previously argued(2), ‘asylum’ as defined by the Refugee Convention of 1951 and based on the provision of sanctuary to persecuted individuals is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the contemporary world. The Convention reflects the values of ‘liberal’ democracy (which in reality it seldom lives up to) and was intended to demonstrate its superiority compared to the new Cold War adversary, the Stalinist Russian bloc. It was designed mainly to provide asylum to individuals who had fallen foul of regimes in the rival imperialist camp, and it offered all freedoms except freedom from poverty, as this would go against bourgeois democracy’s most cherished freedom, the freedom to exploit the working class. But in the contemporary environment it is not the persecution of individuals that is driving mass migration, it is the near total breakdown of the system in many parts of the world that is making life increasingly intolerable and unsustainable for those who need to live by selling their labour, i.e. the working class. Whilst we abhor the often callous treatment of migrants whose only crime is wanting to survive, there will be no solution to mass migration until the underlying causes are addressed, and that requires getting rid of capitalism, and the revolutionary transformation of society to create a socialist world.

Communist Workers’ Organisation


Image: UK Home Office (CC BY 2.0),

(1) See

(2) See

Wednesday, January 18, 2023