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What Causes Migrants to Leave and What is to be Done


Migrants are abandoning the Middle East and Africa and flooding Europe. Others leave Central America and Mexico for the United States. Humanitarian crises are at U. S. and European doorsteps. Panic reigns in Europe at the hordes of strangers in their midst. Volunteers and the United Nations have mobilized. Some European governments provide social services, transportation, housing, and food. For migrants, deportation and detention loom as dangers. The dominant media concentrate on refugees’ immediate problems, barriers in their way, and governments’ difficulties in coping. And migrants keep on coming.

Reason at this point, you’d think, would insist on new modes of thought for fixing things. Why, for example, are people leaving? One could discover the reasons, fix them, and end the disaster. Realization might dawn that turmoil in Europe and the United States represent symptoms, and that palliation is not enough. Cure lies in treating the disease. Victims know that, and from experience. They leave in order to survive; their lives are at great risk. That’s the disease asking for a cure. What causes it?

Life at risk in the three regions is a much-told and shifting story, especially as the responsible parties are named. The tale is simple enough, however, and really needs only a few words in the telling. Artists do the trick with word nuggets. The late Portuguese Nobel-winning novelist José Saramago is a case in point.

With Africa in mind, he maintains that, “Displacement from south to north is inevitable. Neither barbed – wire fences, walls, nor deportations will be worth anything; they will come by the millions. Europe will be taken over by the hungry. They come looking for those who robbed them. There’ll be no return for them because they are leaving behind a famine of centuries, and they come tracking the scent of their daily rations. Distribution is getting closer and closer. Trumpets have begun to sound. Hatred is being served and we’ll need politicians who know how to rise above the circumstances.”

This poignant brief on colonialism, plunder, and desperation concerns Africa. Mexican journalist David Brooks, with similar economy of words, tells why Middle Easterners migrate.

The United States, he writes in La Jornada newspaper, “has been the biggest seller of arms in the world … 60 percent of these sales by the Obama administration go to their clients in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East; to whom, in Obama’s first five years in the White House, [the United States] sold $64 billion worth of arms and military services and of this, three fourths were destined for Saudi Arabia. It has another 15 billion in arms formally promised for 2014 and 2015. … At the same time it ended the freeze on military sales to Egypt. Meanwhile in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen it’s reported that massive piles of U. S. arms initially sent to allies have ended up in the hands of enemies like ISIL. While the world is shaken up by pictures of waves of refugees arriving in Europe, the reason for why they flee is lost from sight. It’s the result of countries being attacked by the United States and European powers and being victims of interventions, invasions, and internal conflicts unleashed by the collapse of previously intact regimes. For all that, what is used in internal battles and/or battles between these states are largely products “made in the USA.” (1)

Africa experienced the bloody fruits of colonial possession. The Middle East knows death from bombs and chaos. Refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean end up in the United States to escape the consequences of extraction of resources, land monopolization, bankers’ imperatives, and international- trade prerogatives. The process extended over centuries. A now-stilled poetic voice spoke for migrants forced to leave his America.

Introducing his magisterial “Open Veins of Latin America,” Eduardo Galeano (1973) says: “Our part of the world … was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilization. … But our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others’ needs …The more freedom is extended to business, the more prisons have to be built for those who suffer from that business. Our inquisitor-hangman systems function not only for the dominating external markets; they also provide gushers of profit from foreign loans. …”

Little more need be said, save for trying to make connections. An Argentinean journalist opined recently that, “On our side, in the countries of America, we do know very well what has caused the flow of migrants, because for more now that two centuries we have been on the ‘receiving” end of those migrations that brought millions of Europeans to our countries fleeing from hunger, from wars and political persecutions, from the periodic, destructive economic crises of capitalism.”

Alberto Rabilottta continues: “[In] the colonial era the European powers and the United States caused much danger and social destruction in the countries of America, in particular to the societies of the original peoples. … [T]hose neo-colonial and imperialist policies are still causing never – healing wounds in our peoples … from the Malvinas to Puerto Rico. … [What] the elites of the world don’t want to see is continuing or increasing migration of refugees arriving at European shorelines or at the U. S. southern frontier. But they will be doing so as long as current political, economic, and military policies go on. It’s the military conflicts or lack of means for subsistence that make refugees come.”

Indeed, colonialism merging into imperialism prevails in all three regions. The result is want and great suffering due to already- rich countries having commandeered their wealth and to military force, real or threatened. A late-comer as imperialist victim, the Middle East, fount of oil-based riches, caught up fast once U. S. wars and bombings began. Strong, nationalizing states that once provided for their populations disappeared. The imperialists’ job description says nothing about attending to victims. Seeking safety with their feet, these headed to where riches from their own lands are stored.

The workings of imperialism abroad, and imperialism itself, are thus on the agenda of the refugee problem. To end ongoing disaster, anti-capitalists near the centers of power have every reason to unite in common cause with refugee victims of imperialism. They may initially find familiar grounding as they respond to fascist-like mobilizations of thugs doing their masters’ dirty work on their home turf. But the challenge inevitably follows of how to link popular struggle in rich countries with resistance movements abroad. It’s necessary, and a first step is for those in struggle in Europe and the United States to get serious about leaving division and recriminations behind and they themselves unite. The glue, straightforward enough, would be anti-imperialist struggle on behalf of the socialist alternative to capitalism, everywhere.


1 As source for his information Brooks cites a report by William D. Hartung appearing in April, 2015. See:


W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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