Pandemic Disaster Looms for the Despised and Displaced Migrants of the World

by Ellen Isaacs

April 5, 2020

Who has not sobbed at the pictures of the drowned young migrant child on the beach, of children shivering under thin foil blankets without their parents in ICE detention, of the refugees living in squalor in camps in northern Syria or the islands north of Australia?

And yet the stories keep multiplying and the protestations of immigrant advocates cannot prevent most of the tragedies.

Just too many desperate workers are roaming the world, and now, with no sorrow from capitalists, a pandemic may cull their number.

At present, there are 272.7 million migrants worldwide, 3.5% of the global population, including 71 million refugees who are fleeing violence or persecution. In addition, there are about 700 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), those who have not left their own countries. Overall, these are workers who are so impoverished or terrified that they have fled their homes, no matter how perilous the journey. And yet they had the courage to do so. Some are roaming the world in search of work as laborers, while others endure in wretched camps. In other cases, as in Gaza, there live populations despised by their rulers, refugees from displacement three generations ago, whose oppressors give no value to their lives.

Just as within the wealthy imperialist nations, where the poor and denigrated minorities are dying in the greatest numbers from the Covid-19 pandemic, an even greater sacrifice will be made of the world’s migrants. Not only will they be the most decimated, but racist and nationalist aspersions are cast at these victims of international capitalism as the cause of the pandemic. It is inspiring that many global activists are fighting for immigrant rights, integration into society and release from detention, but it will not be enough.

As articles on this blog and many others have attested, the emergence of the Covid-19 virus into the human population and the total inability to contain it are aspects of capitalist agriculture, imperialism and greed for profits. Incursions into the forest, poor health of millions of the world’s workers, and poor to borderline public health and health care internationally are largely to blame. The poor will suffer the most, but to the money-counting rulers of this planet, the pandemic is also a burden. Nonetheless they are counting the ways it can be used to their advantage. Not only will large enterprises be able to drink at the trough of ruling class largesse, just as they did after the economic crisis of 2008, but they will be able get rid of some of that surplus humanity whose labor is not needed and whose needs, though scarcely met, are a burden.

Worldwide capitalism is suffering from an excess of workers. There are more poorly paid workers than are needed to satisfy the market’s needs for food, clothing, iphones, and the multitude of goods sold for profits. This has little to do with satisfying the needs of people, but that is not a calculation in this economic system, only what can sell. Now that mass of excess humanity which represents only a burden to capitalism may be pruned back, and none of the profit-mongers are weeping. How nice it would be to pare down the ever-increasing number of migrants to more nicely fit just the need for very low paid labor.

At least 174 million people in the world are officially unemployed in 2020, but this number only counts those who are a recognized member of the workforce, that is have previously worked or are actively seeking employment. At least 24 million migrants are not classified as workers, so are not counted as unemployed, while 70 million migrants of working age (over 15 years old) are unemployed.

(https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_652029.pdf).

Never to be counted are the 2.6 million people living in refugee camps. Some number of unemployed are needed under capitalism, usually said to be 4-5%, in order to depress the general level of wages, in order to assure that every worker with a job knows that he or she can be easily replaced by someone eager to earn a few pennies. But too many without work become a source of pestilence, unrest, and cost.

Another source of duress in impoverished lands is the closure of borders in 174 countries or territories as of 3/25/20, trapping migrants or making them unable to get to jobs. The developing world as a whole receives $529 billion annually in remittances sent from workers in other countries as of 2018, so poverty in those areas will only increase (https://www.csis.org/analysis/five-ways-covid-19-changing-global-migration).

A comprehensive report by Refugees International (https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2020/3/29/covid-19-and-the-displaced-addressing-the-threat-of-the-novel-coronavirus-in-humanitarian-emergencies) describes the situation of migrants around the world. Some of the data are reproduced below:

Afghanistan – 3 million returned from Iran, scene of a massive  Covid-19 outbreak, and 2.5 million IDPs. With 3 doctors/100,000 population, half of population may be infected

Bangladesh – 1.3 million Rohingya refugees in or near camps with minimal services

Ethiopia – 900,000 refugees and over2.6 million IDPs

Somalia – 16,000 refugees and 2.6 million IDPs, without clean water or health care

Niger – 187,000 IDPs without water, sanitation or health services

South Sudan – 2.2 million refugees in neighboring countries. 1.5 million IDPS in terrible conditions

US-75,000 asylum seekers living outside its borders in squalid conditions. 38,000 imprisoned in ICE detention centers in the country, in crowded unsanitary conditions with minimal health care. Undocumented workers in US not included in any emergency government benefits.

Italy – 300,000 refugees with even less access to health care than citizens and worse living conditions

Greece – 40,000 asylum seekers in squalid camps in Aegean Island camps

Syria – 5.6 million external and 6.5 internal refugees, most living in crowded unhygienic conditions

Gaza, Land of Permanent Refugees

One of the most desperate examples in the world of the travails of refugees and dehumanized persons is in Gaza. There are two million persons in this tiny strip, of whom 600,000 live in refugee camps existing since the 1948 and 1967 mass displacement of Palestinians by Israel. They have been under a blockade since 2007, and very limited goods are allowed in. Machine parts and even substances like hydrogen peroxide are barred, with the amount of food calculated by Israel to just barely enable survival. Eighty percent of the population is dependent on aid to survive.

Now Gaza has its first few Covid-19 cases, but there is no doubt it will spread quickly among the densely crowded population, with poor nutrition and only 5% potable water. In all of Gaza there are but 70 ICU beds and 65 ventilators, most of which are already in use. Social distancing and frequent hand washing are virtually impossible. It should be expected that a very high percentage will become infected and a much higher percentage will die than in wealthier societies. Under Trump, the US has cut all aid to UNWRA, which was the main service provider in Gaza.

But what do Israelis care about this? Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians can perhaps be summed up by the video showing an ambulance dumping a febrile young Palestinian man on the ground near a checkpoint (https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/coronavirus-palestine-labourer-found-near-west-bank-checkpoint-covid19). Although there are attempts to marshal aid by groups of Israelis and internationals, some Israelis may be delighted with a deadly outcome in Gaza. Gaza is a source of only 6000 workers in Israel, but a much greater source of conflict and ill will. If half of the Gazan population gets infected and the death rate approaches that of the highest risk groups(even with ventilators) of about 8%, then over 160,000 could die, many more than the approximately 3600 killed in the Israeli attacks of 2008 and 2014. This is, of course, pure speculation, but not at all unreasonable in its order of magnitude. Some speculate that such a catastrophe could lead to greater rebellion and more international antagonism to Israel, but such extreme decimation might also quell unrest  – Israel’s hope. In any case, it helps Israel’s dedication to maintaining a Jewish majority.

Migrants: The Worst Example of Capitalist Brutality

The focus on migrants is a painful way to illuminate the devastating effects of inequality, racism and greed for profits in this capitalist world. In the US, statistics are emerging of a much higher Covid-19 death rate among the black population, with roughly three times the death rate of whites in Milwaukee and Michigan. Migrants suffer from the burden of deprivation from centuries of colonial domination and post-colonial exploitation by the imperialist world as well as racism as they try to escape.  Migrants represent not only some of the world’s most destitute people, but also its strongest. They are those with the strength and determination to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, they are destined to suffer the worst outcomes of this pandemic that will afflict all the world’s workers.

The pandemic has exposed the cruelty, inequality, ineptitude and greed of capitalism for all the world to see. When it is over, there is likely to be an ongoing consolidation of businesses and large-scale unemployment and impoverishment around the world. Moreover, the repressive measures instituted to enforce quarantine and other health measures may well remain to suppress workers’ revolt. However, we must be inspired and hopeful as we witness widening rebellion on the part of workers at their mistreatment before and during this event.

We can envision a world in which no person would be illegal, unwelcome or unemployed. If providing housing, food, education and health care for all the world’s people were a priority, there would be plenty of work to divide up. Whatever time would be left over would be for leisure and creativity –the joy of life. Let the workers of all nations, and those wandering between them, build upon the struggles emerging everywhere and unite to fight for an end to capitalism and a worker-run society.

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