Refugees risk death fleeing war, terror and climate chaos

June 28, 2015

From the July-August 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Ron Kelch

“Where are human rights? Where is humanity?” exclaimed Naser Alden Abdulaziz, as French border police stopped him from crossing the border from Italy. Abdulaziz is fleeing the hell of a decade of ethnic violence and genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and, along with others from Libya and Eritrea, demonstrated and started a hunger strike at the border, declaring they will never return. Millions of human beings on the move all over the world are putting the global political and economic system on trial, exposing its rhetoric about human rights for what it really is: a callous disregard for the mass of humanity suffering economic destitution, ethnic violence, climate disaster, perpetual war and terror under the regime of global capitalism.


Rohingya refugees, exhausted and starving, trying to find a safe harbor.

More than a million Rohingya, who have lived for generations in Burma’s Rakhine province, have been declared a non-people in their own country since 1982. Subjected to perpetual ethnic violence and concentrated into squalid camps by Buddhist security forces, thousands have packed into tiny boats dubbed “floating coffins” provided by profiteering smugglers. They are taken out to sea, along with starving Bangladeshis and other South Asians escaping poverty—all trying to find a place to live. When navy vessels of neighboring countries—Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia—encounter them, a few provisions are handed out if they’re lucky, but then the vessels sail away.

Australia’s anti-immigrant Prime Minister Tony Abbott not only adamantly shut down any suggestion the Rohingya could go there, but, in violation of international law, has his forces stop boats and reward each member of smuggling crews $5,000 to take refugees to Indonesian waters. Bodies keep washing up on shores. Many of those who manage to land alive are discovered later in mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia.

Israeli writer Ben Samuels aptly compared the Rohingya flotilla to the SS St. Louis, which in 1939 was packed with Jews escaping the Holocaust, many of whom were killed upon returning to Europe after they were denied entry everywhere including Miami, where the State Department declared they’d have to “await their turns.” (See “Jews in 1939, Rohingya in 2015: Will the world act to prevent a 21st century SS St. Louis?Haaretz, May 28, 2015.)

Burma is a country of many minorities who have suffered racial violence at the hands of Burmese nationalistic Buddhists. The Muslim Rohingya face genocidal elimination. A week before an emergency meeting of local powers in Bangkok, which supposedly reversed the policy of turning stranded refugee boats back out to sea, Burma passed a Population Control Health Care Bill, making it a law that women in areas having a high population growth rate, that is, Muslim areas, space each child at least three years apart.

“Democracy” is supposedly on the agenda in Burma today, yet the iconic leader of the movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father was a Burmese nationalist, refuses to even mention the existence of Rohingya. Bishop Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel Peace laureate, warned her: “A country that … fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.” Tutu also speaks against the frequent violent mob attacks in his own South Africa against non-citizen foreigners from the rest of Africa.

When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir showed up at an African Union summit held in South Africa, South Africa’s High Court prohibited Bashir from leaving the country until it decided whether to turn him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. The ICC had issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest in 2009 for his role in the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region—the first 21st century genocide. Instead of honoring the court’s directive, the ruling African National Congress let him fly back to Sudan. South Africa had signed the treaty to honor ICC rulings and miserably failed its own test of being a democracy under the rule of law. Bashir’s military unleashed and cooperated with marauding Arab militias, the Janjaweed, against fellow Muslims in non-Arab villages in Darfur. Over 480,000 have been killed, 2.8 million are displaced refugees, many still in danger and seeking safe haven, and the number of women and girls raped is in the tens of thousands. Many try to make their way to Europe through Libya.

Another flotilla of boat people fleeing war, terror, poverty and even climate change in Africa have faced a similar fate in the Mediterranean. When, in a single incident, as many as 900 perished off the coast of Libya in April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi saw it as a moment of truth for Europe’s oft-touted Enlightenment humanism. Renzi called it our day’s Srebrenica, referring to an incident that highlighted the reappearance of genocide in Europe 20 years ago when over 8,000 civilian Bosniaks in a “safe area” under the protection of the UN were murdered by Serbian fascists. (See “Twenty Years after Srebrenica: A Women’s Court demands justice, p. 2.) Today’s refugee deaths are not accidental but are a direct result of European authorities’ barbaric and calculated neglect: cutting their sea rescue capacity in an effort to keep out fleeing immigrants.


European officials’ main concern is not the immigrants’ hell on earth, but avoiding further embarrassment. They proposed to destroy boats in Libyan waters, effectively shutting down any escape for people brutalized by war and terror. The European Court of Human Rights at first found against Italian military ships that returned immigrants to Libya without investigating their right to asylum and international protection. Incredibly, the court later gave the military the right to return refugees to Libya based on assurances from the reigning brutal warlords and fundamentalist authorities that the refugees would not be “subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Why this totally hypocritical “human rights” posturing? Because what sets rulers’ priorities is a growing fascistic undertow of narrow nationalism in Europe. In France we see the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, a neo-fascist anti-Muslim party aligned with another neo-fascist, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives in Britain kowtow to the growing anti-immigrant UK Independence Party. They are now trying to renegotiate terms of their membership in the European Union to be able to exclude non-English from entering.

In the midst of this crisis, France drastically cut its asylum approvals. On June 2 it bulldozed a refugee tent camp in Paris that was a stopover for many on their way to more sympathetic countries in northern Europe. France and Germany wouldn’t even agree to an inadequate European Commission plan to take their shares of 40,000 migrants over the next two years.

Refugee camps are also being destroyed in Italy. The governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia from the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Northern League, opposes Renzi’s modest rescue efforts. Zaia demanded all services for immigrants be removed because of a supposed negative impact on tourism. When dozens of migrants on the French/Italian border started their sit-in and hunger strike on June 14, demanding freedom to pass through French border controls, Renzi said either Europe takes some of the refugees—most of whom enter through Italy—or Italy will have to deport them.

Many refugees enter Europe through Greece, including 100,000 Syrians who arrived after perilous Mediterranean voyages. Though Greece is in a deep depression, German and international financial overlords are demanding more austerity, knowing well they are aiding the rising fascist anti-immigrant and anti-euro Golden Dawn party that is waiting in the wings.


Today an unprecedented number of refugees are on the move, embarking on perilous sea journeys, against a backdrop of a protracted global economic crisis that started in 2007. Four years later, Arab Spring initiated a new drive for self-determination and democracy that spread in public squares throughout the world. Multiple counterrevolutionary states with a seemingly endless reserve of means of violence set out to smother those pervasive democratic aspirations.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad met the persistent and peaceful multi-ethnic struggle for democracy with mass murder conducted with Russian approval and technology. Other states like Iran support Assad, while the reactionary U.S. ally Saudi Arabia supports Sunni fundamentalists who oppose Assad.

They all participate in the slaughter and the struggle to destroy the secular revolutionaries such as the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish fighters of Rojava. Since 2011, 11 million Syrians have been displaced, with four million seeking refuge outside the country, and perhaps tens of thousands of women raped.

Among Islamist Sunni fundamentalists, the totally barbaric terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) outdid al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra in ruthlessly killing civilians and unarmed prisoners and chopping off heads. ISIS also holds substantial territory in Iraq, where another endless civil war—the result of U.S. imperialism’s effort to remake that country—has produced an estimated five million refugees and displaced persons.

Turkey now has 1.7 million Syrian refugees. President Tayyip Erdogan, who put down the massive Gezi Park democracy protests in 2013, closed Turkey’s border with Syria in March, though tens of thousands of Syrian civilians broke through the those barriers in June. With tanks stationed just across the Syrian border, Erdogan did as little as possible to help Kobani Kurds facing annihilation from ISIS. Turkey’s oppressed Kurdish minority then rioted across their southeast enclave. The secular Kobani Kurds survived and continue to gain ground against ISIS.


Palestinians are a stateless people for whom the Yarmouk camp in Syria was no refuge when the Assad regime’s siege drove out hundreds of thousands and later allowed the bloodthirsty ISIS to enter. (See “Death in Yarmouk,” May-June N&L.) In the last Israeli election, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Jewish statism openly revealed what everyone already knew: Israel never intends to grant statehood or equal rights to the millions of Palestinians living under its brutal occupation, even as it promises to expand its already massive theft of internationally designated Palestinian territory.

In Ukraine, Putin’s Russia started a covert war when a popular movement overthrew an authoritarian government. Ukraine’s economy, already in dire straits, has contracted 9% andnow there are 1.3 million displaced people getting help from a woefully underfunded UN agency. Western European countries reject Ukrainian requests for asylum.


Today’s unprecedented number of refugees fleeing from economic collapse, war and terror has been exacerbated by climate change. More destructive storms and natural disasters disproportionally impact the poor. The ever-expanding Sahara desert is cutting already scarce resources in places like Darfur. On island countries like Tuvalu, rising sea levels are forcing people to emigrate.

This Tuvaluan girl is holding her sign at a site she picked as an example of environmental degradation. Tuvalu is expected to become covered by the ocean in under 25 years, displacing the entire population.

This Tuvaluan girl is holding her sign at a site she picked as an example of environmental degradation. Tuvalu is expected to become covered by the ocean in under 25 years, displacing the entire population.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has grown to be a mega-city of 17 million, up from 12 million in 2005. The growth is primarily in a sprawling, squalid, disease-infested shantytown. Dire conditions and deep poverty in the countryside as well as in the urban slums explain why so many boat people come from Bangladesh.

Much of the city’s population growth is due to climate change refugees. The lowlands of Bangladesh have suffered from powerful super-cyclones like the one that hit in 2008, which, helped by rising sea levels, wreaked widespread destruction. The rising sea will inundate one-sixth of the country by 2050, displacing millions. In many areas, fresh water is already turning salty from seawater intrusion, undermining farming.

Today’s treatment of refugees of war and economic disaster portends a bleak future for tomorrow’s climate refugees.

Global capitalism has been put on trial by minorities and other humans designated as “outsiders.” In the U.S. the justice system massively brutalizes and incarcerates minorities and exploits immigrant laborers when they are needed, even as it constantly keeps them in a state of fear through workers’ illegal status.


Today’s thoroughly integrated global capitalist production has resulted in stagnant growth and a humongous global surplus army of unemployed human beings. The capitalist regime grew in a humus of a statist system bringing out the vilest, anti-human tendency to make the “other” a scapegoat. This is not new in the history of capitalism. What can stop today’s permanent war, terror, climate disaster and genocide from degenerating further than World War II, namely, into nuclear annihilation and/or total destruction of the life-sustaining capacity of the planet?

Only the firmest international solidarity can answer the immigrant’s passionate cry, “Where is humanity?” Humanism without borders is a beginning toward realizing Marx’s humanism as the fullness of a new society.

0 thoughts on “Refugees risk death fleeing war, terror and climate chaos

  1. In my view, the article lacks stressing the concept of immigrants and refugees as revolutionary subjects. There are some elements there, like mentioning the demonstrations and hunger strikes of Africans at the Italy/France border, and how this challenges capitalism. However, the concept would need to be more stressed and developed, since the focus of the article makes us think of the refugees more as “victims” than as subjects. This would pose the self-development of an important revolutionary subjectivity, just as N & L does every issue letting us hear the voices of prisoners as a form in itself of theory.

  2. One cannot read this article and not feel a real sense of urgency. The whole of humanity stands on the very precipice of complete annihilation. Thus, we need to recognize the urgency of the present moment. We cannot fail to recognize the interconnectedness of dislocation and poverty-stricken existence we all are being relegated to due to the avaricious tendency of globalized capital. The enormous number of innocents on the move, is not by their own free will but more out of an apparent sense of doom. Hence, the questions set forth in the article that are on the minds of those desperately seeking some form of peaceful refuge: Where are human rights? Where is humanity? These two very fundamental questions definitely speak to the race/ethnic, class and sexist divide as the struggle for life’s sustainability intensifies between the haves and the have-nots.
    The good news is the article ends with a philosophical concept of humanity’s way forward, i.e., humanism without borders. We all should heed this philosophical concept with a true sense of urgency and begin to work out a path where the whole of humanity can stand together unified in the transcendence of false social constructs.

    In Solidarity!

  3. What is theory in the subjectivity of refugees, if not a challenge to the state-centered capitalist system: ignoring its borders, exposing the total hypocrisy and pretense of adhering to global rule of law with regard to refugees, and especially questioning “Why didn’t you help us when we challenged the brutal Assad regime and got slaughtered?” as one Syrian refugee in Greece put it recently.

    It is important to capture the content of revolutionary subjectivity, when it doesn’t match the prevailing expectation. The idea of a secular, multi-ethnic revolutionary struggle for democracy doesn’t get its due as a subjectivity against our global system of counterrevolutionary states with a seemingly endless reserve of violence out to kill just that idea and the global awakening initiated by Arab Spring. Being a refugee is not something one does willingly, so refugees’ status as “victims” is inseparable from their subjective challenge to the regime of global capital in this moment of counterrevolution.

    For me something deeper was at issue in discussion of the refugee crisis at our recent Plenum: how does Marxist-Humanism engage this subjectivity? Though a request to write a lead came out of that discussion, the context was not a lead for the next N&L, but rather confronting what the lead merely intimated in the conclusion, namely, “realizing Marx’s humanism as the fullness of a new society.”

    At the Plenum the issue of what is Marx’s humanism was revisited in light of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. The Srebrenica massacre of Bosnians struggling for a multi-ethnic society is a moment that has been etched into European consciousness. This was reflected, as I said, when 900 refugees perished off the coast of Libya in April due to Europe’s calculated neglect and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called it our day’s Srebrenica. Gerry Emmett’s archives report at the Plenum recalled the Srebrenica massacre where “over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered in the largest scale war crime on European soil since World War II. It was the culmination of three years of genocidal attacks by Serbian nationalist militias and helped to bring about the Dayton Accords that ratified this ‘ethnic cleansing’ by dividing Bosnia along ethnic lines.”

    Our energetic support at the time of Bosnian struggle for a multi-ethnic society stood out, with a few exceptions, from the rest of the left and is reflected in our Bosnia pamphlet. But after all these years Gerry Emmett thought to ask why we have never separated ourselves philosophically from Mihailo Markovic whose Marxist humanism transformed into its opposite, becoming an eager promoter of national socialist, Serbian fascism. Why, indeed, have our differences been soft peddled over Marx’s 1844 Humanist Essays, which Markovic also drew upon? Why didn’t we break with him philosophically and not just politically?

    Gerry Emmett recalls that a need for serious philosophic critique of Markovic was discussed at the time but no one felt up to it. Yet Gerry Emmett shows how such a critique can begin by sharply contrasting Markovic with “Dunayevskaya’s 1987 essay—written, astonishingly, for a never-completed project, a Yugoslav Encyclopedia of Socialism—’A Post-World War II View of Marx’s Humanism, 1843-83; Marxist Humanism in the 1950s and 1980s’”:

    Philosophically, consider the conclusion of this essay as compared to Markovic’s view.

    Markovic: “Many followers of Marx have misinterpreted his method and construed it as a more or less closed methodology….But for Marx dialectic was primarily a weapon of social criticism, a means of explaining existing social reality that would immediately point the way to revolutionary action.” (Socialist Humanism, 1965)

    RD [Raya Dunayevskaya]: “The self-development of ideas cannot take second place to the self-bringing-forth of liberty, because both the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory, and the development of theory as philosophy, are more than just saying philosophy is action. There is surely one thing on which we should not try to improve on Marx—and that is trying to have a blueprint for the future.”

    These quotations are rich in difference. Here I’ll just point to the philosophic difference between “immediacy” in Markovic versus the development by RD of philosophic categories adequate to encompass spontaneity, different cultures and forms of development, and non-state forms of collectivity. Without this development Markovic fell into the most hideous kind of blueprint making possible.

    Though I agree with Emmett’s conclusion on Dunayevskaya’s encompassing “philosophic categories,” why not follow through with the contrast between Markovic’s view of Marx’s methodology as “immediate…revolutionary action” and methodology that insists “the self-development of ideas” doesn’t take a back seat to “the self-bringing forth of liberty”? Marx actually takes on the limits of the former even as he intimates the latter view in his 1844 Essays. The second view of methodology resonated strongly with Dunayevskaya’s chapter called “Power of Abstraction” in The Power of Negativity from which I got the form for my own report to the Plenum on “Marx’s Self-determination of the Idea as Organization.” Both reports are available in our Post-Plenum Bulletin #1 and my own is also available on-line at ronkelch dot wordpress dot com. I hope some of this new philosophic divide on attitudes toward Marx’s humanism will be reflected in future issues.

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