Possibly more words have been written about immigration than any other subject, in recent times. Is there anything more to say? I think so.

If there’s one subject everyone in the UK has an opinion on, it’s immigration.

Humans originated in Africa, and we’ve been immigrating ever since. But global conflicts and austerity have created a new refugee crisis. Peoples’ lives have been so deeply disturbed that they are willing to chance life itself to find a new beginning. It has never been easy to find a country willing to take you in, but today, it has never been tougher, as both Western Europe and North American say, go away, we are full! We are trying to close our doors to new arrivals.

I want to focus primarily on the people coming across the Mediterranean by boat and arriving in Italy. Despite the hazards of death by drowning, and the awful reception they receive on arrival, they keep on coming in ever larger numbers. Why do people take these risks?

Immigration is nothing new. My own great grandparents were immigrants just over 100 years ago. A couple of years ago, I sat down with a cousin, who lives in Switzerland, and we discussed where we had come from. My wife’s mother was born in Russia, and left in 1917. My cousin’s mother had been born in Spain, her husband’s family were from western Russia and my family originated in Holland. Many of us British have immigrants somewhere in our families. Huge movements of people have been occurring from time to time since the beginning of the 19th century, disturbed by the ravages of capitalism and its accompanying wars.

Historically it is easy to see why people moved in the hundreds of thousands. During the Irish famine, in 1844, over three million Irish people left Ireland. Many braved the North Atlantic seas and arrived in the Americas. How many died on the way we don’t really know.

At the end of the 19th century, pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe and old Russia led to waves of Jewish people again crossing the Atlantic. At the end of both world wars, in 1918, and again in 1945, wave after wave of people crossed the oceans all over the world.

More mundanely, it is quite easy today, in London, to talk to immigrants who have come across the world, and entered illegally into Britain at great cost of lives. When ever I travel by air, I call up a taxi, and sure enough, the driver is an immigrant who is happy to talk about their experiences in coming to this country. I used to think of this taxi ride as the most interesting part of my journey!

My point is a simple one, immigrants come from parts of the world where lives have been turned up side down, where normal life becomes impossible; where the most daring leave the home of normality, to try again to find new ways.

Immigration on a huge scale is always an indication that somewhere in the world, life has become impossible, and many people are willing to take their chances to try and find a new way.

I am setting the situation out to give it historical context. It is easier to see the present situation if we have a sound historical perspective. In the past there was more room in the world than there is today. In the 19th century, the Americas and Australias were looking for more white immigrants. There was space in the world, which has since closed up. Today, our economies have been hollowed out, and the number of jobs available is in decline. Whether it is South Africa, or Europe or the UK, immigrants create huge domestic tensions.

The present situation arose after 1945, when the old colonised territories were made independent states, and run by their own people. Before this time, the major disturbances, and consequent movements of people, had been created in the white dominated world. After this period, the human movements of displaced peoples, began to come from the Near East and Africa

The African continent had been colonised in 1884, and the Middle East, in 1922. This huge area was carved into modern states, and then in the late 1950s and 60s, they all become independent. All these territories were in a short time period part of the world’s capitalist system. And the new dominant world power, the USA, was determined that all these new states would create systems that were friendly to American capitalism. I grossly simplify, I know, but my point is that so many of these newly created state systems are now in turmoil. The kind of turmoil that has created the waves of immigration that I mentioned above.

For the sake of this article, I want to focus only on Libya, but I could equally have focused on at least a dozen other territories in turmoil, caused in large part by our own policies. The simple fact is that we, Britain and France, acting on behalf of NATO created the breakdown in Libya that has led to to the desperation that causes people to turn up in Italy.

Colonel Gaddafi until recently, ran Libya. Libya was oil rich, and one way or another the Western powers managed to get along with Gaddafi. Then the Arab Spring arose, starting in Tunisia, and groups of people thought this is was chance to improve the lot of their country. Different Arabic peoples behaved in different ways. In Libya a group challenged Gaddafi violently, and he responded equally violently. The NATO powers thought this was their chance to get rid of the man and bombed the country. But having destroyed the infrastructure, and then destroyed the ruling families, they then left the country to find its own way. In a word, the Western powers had left a sophisticated society in chaos. As a result many thousands of people are crossing the Mediterranean by board, risking lives to get away from situation we have created, and then walked away from.

The Libyan situation is not replicated precisely elsewhere, but in all cases, the hand of the Western powers, through military means, or via the IMF, and World Bank, have so thoroughly disrupted lives, that the world is awash with people seeking sanctuary on our shores.

Everywhere we look we see human catastrophe, and in Libya’s case it is on the shores and in the seas of Italy, day in day out.

What are we to do?

There is no simple solution. But there is something we ought to learn and in this case, we need to help to create peace in Libya. Libya will need a massive investment programme, and that will have to come from Europe. If it does not come, as is most likely, we will continue to see wave after wave of immigrations, drowning in the seas and entering Italy all this coming summer.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Roger van Zwanenberg

Dr Roger van Zwanenberg is the former managing director of Pluto Books.

Read All Articles

Related Articles

Who should we hate?
Tue Mar 2015 /

Who should we hate?

A Danish construction worker considers the effects of migration on the industry. This is the foreword to the book Battle Sites – we’re raising money to have it translated into English.

Read More