Socialist Worker

No safe haven—how desperate refugees fleeing conflicts are turned away

by Ken Olende and Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2466

Refugees and supporters protest in Calais last Saturday

Refugees and supporters protest in Calais last Saturday (Pic: Passeurs d'hospitalites)


A series of bloody conflicts right across the world lie at the roots of the current refugee crisis.

There’s nothing wrong with people moving in search of a better life—for whatever reason. But as desperate refugees risk their lives at Britain’s border, many politicians and commentators have devoted themselves to accusing them of faking it. 

The racists claim “real” refugees would stay in the first country they came to. In reality few refugees come even as far as Europe and those who do find little welcome.

But the Tories use this mean-spirited argument to deny a safe haven to people who have travelled thousands of miles to find one—and who have nowhere else to go.


Sudan and South Sudan—torn apart by resource wars 

Britain conquered Sudan in the 1890s and it remained in the British Empire until 1956. 

Sudan is ten times the size of Britain with a population of about 37 million. Four million people have been internally displaced by repression and war.

The dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir which has ruled since 1989 has been rocked by repeated waves of protests in recent years. Sudan has a history of popular uprisings, and people have overthrown dictators in 1964 and 1985.

The discovery of oil has led to a renewed interest by imperial powers—and particularly China and the US.

It has expanded existing tensions and led to civil war, sometimes fought in Darfur to the west.

After years of civil war, the south broke away to form South Sudan in 2011, taking most of the oil producing areas. Disputes over control of the oil have returned the two countries to war.


Eritrea—ruled by regime of military terror

Eritrea is one of the most militarised societies in the world. Thousands of Eritreans flee each year mainly to avoid compulsory extended military service.

The state was colonised by Italy in the late 19th century. The British governed it after the Second World War until it was annexed by Ethiopia.

The US supported Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea because its ruler at the time was a US ally.

But through the Cold War the US cynically supported the EPLF Eritrean rebels against the Ethiopians who were allied with Russia. 

President Isaias Afewerki was the leader of the EPLF which led a liberation war against Ethiopia. He has been president since independence in 1993. He introduced compulsory military service in 1995. 

The regime became increasingly authoritarian.

Everyone under the age of 50 is enlisted in the military for an open ended period, usually of several years. At any time about 5 percent of Eritreans live in barracks in the desert. 

There are no official figures, but people interviewed for a recent survey for South Bank University had each spent more than six and a half years in the military. Some serve twice that time.

No one can go to university or be formally employed until they have completed national service.

This vast conscript army is mostly used for labouring—such as road building. Other functions include working as teachers.

“The government has held the youth hostage,” one former conscript told the survey. “You cannot reconstruct a country on forced labour.” 

Others said “cruel and corrupt” camp commanders “demand sexual favours” and threaten to kill conscripts who do not follow orders.

Despite having a population of just 6.5 million, Eritrea produces around 2,000 refugees a month. 


Somalia—invaded by the US and its allies

Somalia is in the Horn of Africa  which has been an imperial battleground since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 put it at the centre of world trade routes. 

Parts of the country were incorporated into the British and Italian empires. By the 1960s this was refracted through the Cold War.

Dictator Major General Mohamed Siad Barre was backed first by the Soviet Union and later the US. Since then the US has directly invaded and has encouraged an invasion by neighbouring Ethiopia. 

The combined result of these has been to turn the remnants of a relatively moderate Islamist movement that looked capable of setting up a central government into the brutal Al Shabaab.

Once more without any functioning central government the country is occupied by troops from Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Dadaab across the border in Kenya is currently the biggest refugee camp in the world, housing some 350,000 Somali refugees.


Naveed’s journey is ‘dangerous and hard’

Naveed has travelled from Afghanistan to Athens

Naveed has travelled from Afghanistan to Athens


Naveed came to Athens because he was caught “in the middle” of the war in Afghanistan, he told Socialist Worker. 

His story shows the barriers refugees face at every turn.

He was deported on his first attempt to reach Europe.

The second time he had to cross by sea to the island of Lesvos after Greece’s land border with Turkey was fenced off.

Locals who give migrants a lift on the long walk to the immigration centre can be prosecuted as traffickers—though some have defied the cruel rules.

“It’s dangerous and hard,” said Naveed.

“Even the taxi drivers say they aren’t allowed to help you.”

But his difficulties haven’t ended in Greece.

“The situation for people who look for asylum here isn’t good,” he said. “There’s no food, no work, most people are trying to get out”.

Naveed’s “dream country” would be Britain.

He speaks English, and used to work for a firm distributing food to British troops in Afghanistan.

“But I’m very scared that they would turn me down because the immigration system is so bad there,” he said. “That would ruin my life.”


Why don’t they stay in Europe?

 Only a minority of the world’s refugees come to Europe. And Britain takes in a shamefully miniscule proportion of these.

But those who don’t want any refugees in Britain ask why they can’t just stay in France.

It’s true that European Union (EU) member states are more stable than the places refugees are fleeing—or even transit countries such as Libya or Iran.

But that doesn’t mean they provide safe haven. Instead border blockages and diplomatic rows are breaking out inside the EU as states scramble to push refugees out—or push them on.

The EU’s Dublin Convention says refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they enter. Other states use this as an excuse to turn them back.

Dublin rules only came into force in 1997. They provide Britain’s justification for the horror of Calais. And the same happens elsewhere.

In south eastern France, cops drive refugees back to the Italian town of Ventimiglia. Dozens of migrants camp on the rocks either side of the border.

Around 200 held a protest in June, with signs saying “we need to pass”. This blockage is despite Italy and France being part of the Schengen Agreement of open borders between some EU states.

At the same time states try to drive refugees to move on by making the asylum process as difficult as possible.  

A rejection in one EU country would almost certainly rule out asylum in any others. And few EU states offer housing to asylum seekers while they wait to find out.

In Paris groups of mainly African migrants have had to defy police violence and attempts to split them up. 

Hundreds are now occupying an abandoned college—but many are sleeping rough.

The post-it note held by one migrant arrested in June shocked France.

Handwritten, but with the official stamp of the Calais immigration service, it said, “This man has an appointment with the asylum service. Please authorise him, for a short time, to sleep outdoors where he wants. Thanks!”

Many African refugees in Calais came across the Mediterranean then through Italy. Fascist groups in some towns have led violent “protests” to drive them out—backed up by right wing politicians.

Afghans and Syrians also face hardship on the “Balkan route” through Greece and Hungary.

Around 600 Afghans are stuck in Athens’ Areos Park.

Anti-racists demand that abandoned hotels be re-opened to house them. But the authorities have provided just four chemical toilets—creating dire conditions and an outbreak of gastroenteritis. 

With EU funding, 9,000 Hungarian soldiers are building a 13 foot razor wire fence along the 110 mile border with Serbia. 

They began two weeks ago and hope to finish by the end of August. 

Officials in the capital Budapest encourage migrants to hurry on deeper into Europe, while border town Asotthalom has hired armed “rangers” to hunt them down and send them back to Serbia.

Government posters say, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take Hungarians’ jobs.” Volunteers helping migrants claim asylum accuse the authorities of blocking their applications.

But this isn’t enough for Hungary’s government. A new law this month defies the Dublin Convention. 

It says migrants coming through any neighbouring country except war-torn Ukraine should apply for asylum there—effectively making them EU entry countries without EU membership.

Fortress Europe doesn’t stop at the Mediterranean. European states are caught in a sickening race to make migration hellish.And Britain leads the pack.


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