The Forces Pushing Asylum Seekers to Cross the English Channel are Poorly Understood

Strait of Dover. Photograph Source: NASA Satellite image – Public Domain

The impulse driving tens of thousands of desperate people to cross the Channel in inflatable dinghies is the outcome of a dozen hot wars and military stalemates in the Middle East and North Africa. These conflicts, largely forgotten by the rest of the world, tear apart societies and wreck economies, leaving whole populations facing unending violence and poverty – and no choice but to flee.

Mass flight from this great zone of conflict, which stretches from Mali to Afghanistan and Turkey to Somalia, will go on as long as the conflicts that first set the exodus in motion continue. These are the true generators of the immigration crisis that has engulfed Europe over the past 10 years or more, and has done so much to toxify its politics. Boris Johnson’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is only the latest bid to gain political advantage from the anti-immigrant reaction.

Political choices made by the West

Governments and voters in Europe mistakenly treat this influx as if it is inevitable and not the result of political choices made, often within the past 10 years, by Western governments and their allies. The Nato powers’ decision to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 reduced Libya to violent chaos and turned it into a lethal corridor for migrants from West Africa and beyond.

The outside world was unconcerned as Syria fragmented into armed and hostile camps, appearing neither to know nor care that this inevitably meant that millions of Syrians would be unable to survive at home.
Since the failure of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has increasingly favoured tight economic sanctions, resembling a medieval siege, as a way of degrading its opponents. This does not produce regime change, but it does shatter economies and, if this provokes a wave of immigration, it will hit Western Europe rather than the US.

My main point is that it is the “push” to people who believe that they have no choice but to escape their broken countries, and not the “pull” of the British and Western European living standards which is the decisive factor in propelling people into undertaking their dangerous journeys.

Nothing could be more misleading and hypocritical than Johnson’s claim this week that he is somehow doing the Channel boat people a favour by saving them from the lure of “the vile people smugglers”. In reality, he will be adding to the profitability of their business by blocking legal means of seeking asylum in Britain.

What, then, are the real motives for people from the Middle East and North Africa starting risky and expensive odysseys to Europe? Ultimately, their troubles may stem from perpetual war or the threat of war, but not necessarily from the immediate impact of violence, though this cannot be ruled out.

Fear of conscription

One eyewitness in the Kurdish enclave in north-east Syria apologised to me for his slowness in replying to a message, saying that his home village had been “under heavy shelling by the Turkish army and their proxies for more than two weeks and, though my parents moved to Qamishli [the nearest big city] last year, my grandfather and cousin were still stranded there”.

He explained that Kurdish forces would fire a rocket from the back of a truck in the village square and this would attract Turkish counter-shelling.

The direct impact of violence is a cause of flight, but in states permanently gripped by war, the conscription of young men of military age by all sides is an ever-present threat. Families often see this as a death sentence for their sons, since once in an army, it is difficult to get out.

Raman, a 45-year-old teacher of Arabic from north-east Syria, explains that this is why he fled to Iraq and made a failed attempt to get to Europe, before returning home. “One of my reasons that pushed me to leave the country is taking my little brother Saman, who is 19 years old,” he says. “He was wanted for their military forces by both the Syrian government and the Kurdish authorities. If he joins the Syrian army, he would be transferred to the dangerous areas around Idlib and Aleppo to fight the Turks and the opposition. And if he joins the [Kurdish-led] forces he will be transferred to Deir Ezzor province, which is also dangerous because he would be fighting Daesh [Isis].”

The dilemma for parents can often be more complicated. Hoshang, a 54-year-old builder from Qamishli, wanted to stop his 24-year-old son, Sarbast, being conscripted, but found that his younger son, Nalin, and daughter, Jawin, were eager to join the Kurdish forces because, in his view, they had been brainwashed.
“They started shouting in any discussion and became negative about attending school or university,” he says.

His daughter pointed out that even if she did continue with her education, she would not be able to get a job when she finished it because there were none available, so she would better off in the Kurdish security forces. Hoshang and his wife decided to move their family to northern Iraq, paying $800 a head to smugglers to get them there illegally.

The economic implosion of the region between China’s border with Afghanistan and the Mediterranean has been happening for years, but has recently got much worse.

“In the past two years,” says Raman, “many times I have had to leave my work for hours and sometimes the whole day looking for bread or a gas cylinder, or in winter for diesel, or repairing the heater because of the bad quality of the diesel. During the past year, we have had electricity for an hour or two hours every three days.”

Sometimes there is no electricity for two weeks. Bakeries have closed because there is no fuel, or it is too expensive. Medicine comes largely from factories in government-held areas but when the border between government and non-government zones is shut, pharmacy shelves are empty. Agriculture has declined. “Our region, which was once called the bread basket of Syria, is now importing flour and vegetables,” says Raman.

How the crisis could balloon

This deepening of the general economic collapse is the outcome of intensified sanctions applied against Syria, Iran and Afghanistan that have led to the decline or collapse of currencies and soaring prices. Pro- and anti-government forces are equally affected. Though Raman teaches in a Kurdish-held area allied to the US, his teacher’s salary, which used to be worth the equivalent of $300 a month in 2018, is now worth only $25.

This general crisis in the Middle East and North Africa that forces people to take flight is about to get much worse because of global price rises post-pandemic and because of the invasion of Ukraine. As the Russian economy is hit by sanctions, great numbers of workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus who work in Russia will return home – and also think of joining the great migration to the West.

Further thoughts

I am fascinated by the efforts of the media to distinguish between the bad Russian oligarchs, who used their political pull in the 1990s to make great fortunes by looting the Soviet state, and their somewhat similar – and often equally dishonest – Western counterparts.

Anybody who has any doubts about this should watch the excellent three-part BBC documentary House of Maxwell. It shows Robert Maxwell committing his frauds more or less openly while protected by the legal secrecy surrounding his financial dealings, the law of libel, and his social and political connections. He drowned in 1991, but not before he had embezzled the Mirror Pension fund.

I used to think about him a few years later when I lived in a flat in Jerusalem with a fine view of the Mount of Olives where he was buried. It was said – though I never saw this – that former employees of the Mirror Group would throw stones on his grave. Given that the Mount of Olives is prophesied to be the place where the world will split open on the Day of Judgement when the dead will rise again, I thought it comical that Maxwell was going to be among the first to be resurrected, no doubt scattering writs in all directions.

I had met him briefly in Moscow in about 1986 or 1987 where he claimed that he wanted to produce the Pravda newspaper in English, though his real purpose was said to be a bid to get a shareholding in Aeroflot. He never did the deal, but this was just the sort of super-profitable privatisation of state assets that was to produce so many Russian billionaire oligarchs ten years later.

Beneath the Radar

One of the frustrations of trying to find out what is happening in Russia is that there are so few reliable well-informed sources. These were always in a minority, but until the invasion of Ukraine they did exist until they were all closed down or driven out of business. Instead, Moscow produces undiluted propaganda and Western media happily fields exiled Russian oligarchs who got on the wrong side of Russian President Vladimir Putin as if they were non-partisan sources with up-to-the minute information.

Some unaccountably earn the title of “ex-oligarch”, not because they have given their ill-gotten gains to the poor, but because they are saying the correct anti-Putin things that the American or British media wants to hear. Their views are presented as if they were governed by academic standards of objectivity with no mention of likely bias.

Retired American generals are likewise respectively interviewed for their less than Napoleonic understanding of the battlefield with no reference to their frequent post-Pentagon employment by different branches of the defence industry which stand to profit enormously from a long war in Ukraine. One day PhD students will be writing their theses about the implosion of journalistic standards during the present conflict.

For those who want to get a well-sourced up-to-date view on what is happening to the Russian elites and their relationship to the Kremlin, I would suggest this piece by Farida Rustamova, one of the casualties of the Putin’s purge of the Russian media, who is still operating effectively.

For those who wonder if the Russian oligarchs are not all too typical an example of the international financial elite, it is worth reading Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World by Tom Burgis.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).