Wars and armament sales behind world’s refugee crisis

BERLIN  – “A million refugees in Germany this year,” predicted Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. But Angela Merkel had announced that all were welcome – winning her a reputation as the most humane leader in all Europe. Did her internationalist upbringing in East Germany, with a progressive Christian pastor as father, play some role at first?

But suddenly the line was changed; German crossing points from Austria were shut down. Then Austria closed its entry points from Hungary, while Hungary, by far the most brutal, plugged up its entry points from Serbia with razor wire and, when it felt necessary, with batons, tear gas and multiple arrests.

Now Serbia has followed suit, Croatia felt forced to do the same, and those Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and other refuge-seekers who survived dangerous crossing through ever stormier seas are caught in a series of mouse-traps. Their loud chants of “Germany, Germany” and joyful waving of Merkel portraits have largely vanished.

Is it fair to charge her with hypocrisy? It may have been impossible for her to foresee how many would move northward, singling out Germany, far less often Sweden, as desired goals.

Who could predict the jammed railroad stations, disastrous, improvised shelters or videos of crying children – or drowned ones? She must also have been aware that the truly amazing, heart-warming welcome by over half the German population might, under the weight of numbers, go into reverse, providing new strength to the ever-menacing xenophobes, Islamophobes, and other far-right racists. 

Some cynics whisper that Merkel’s mercy was really motivated by hopes that a large increase in population, especially by young people of working age, would not only counteract the demographic threat of a Germany with ever fewer babies but also build up a “reserve army” of eager workers, useful in counteracting fights for wage increases by a work force already hit hard by a growing number of temp, part-time, low-paid jobs, always harder to organize and easier to exploit. 

But her policy reversal was also based on the refusal of the European Union to take in more than 120,000 of the 1,000,000 expected in Germany alone. Few member countries have accepted even modest quotas; Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic countries – many now celebrating “velvet revolutions for human rights” a quarter of a century ago – refuse to take in even a handful.

The quarrel is threatening the very basis of the highly-heralded European Union, especially one of its key achievements – visa-free borders, unhindered travel and migration from Estonia to Malta, from the North Cape to the Rock of Gibraltar.

Of course it must be admitted that the shaky economies of many EU members are hardly able to cope with great influxes, nor has there been any clamor on the part of the refugees to settle in Poland or Portugal.

Yes, the huge numbers were perhaps unexpected and pressure from Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria has grown increasingly anti-immigrant. (Its name, Christian Social Union, and hers, the Christian Democratic Union, considering their programs, make the names almost oxymorons.) But she, too, like most of the media, used humane clichés but carefully avoided the causes of this unsettling chaos.

One long-lasting cause is the colony-like treatment of poorer countries. Most African immigrants (aside from Eritrea, a different story) are from Nigeria, about which Afrika Focus comments: “With over 50 years of oil exploitation, vast stretches have poor water quality; there is pollution, disruption and degradation of farmlands and fishing ports, destruction of wildlife and biodiversity, loss of fertile soil. Moreover, there has been no provision of adequate compensation or a planned mitigation policy for the areas affected. …The response … in the form of protest and campaigns against the activities of the multinational oil companies, has led and continues to lead to violations of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in the form of extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and unlawful restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. These restrictions are imposed by security agents mostly with the complicit support of oil MNCs.” 

Is it surprising that, when naught else helps, many are ready to risk their lives in the Mediterranean rather than endure a life-long struggle for bare survival in filthy slums?

But behind all the recent human surges are wars started or supported by the “western democracies.” Large numbers have fled from Iraq and Afghanistan, both thrown into deathly turmoil by illegal foreign invasions. We can soon expect similar large numbers from Yemen.

In Syria, Germany and other major powers have provided all sides with weapons for years, even poison gas, while repeatedly rejecting peace negotiations unless Assad is eliminated, an impossible condition for any realistic efforts. The worst killer in the region, ISIS, has constantly exported oil (and valuable antique objects) via that friendly Western ally Turkey, now carrying out a merciless bombing campaign against left-wing Kurdish groups, far and away the most effective force in fighting ISIS.

Main sources of ISIS weapons, it is clear, have been Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, close U.S. allies, who also use them to fight Saudi’s chosen new foes, the Houthis, destroying much of Yemen in the process. They, in turn, were supplied for years by just those western countries which complain most loudly about ISIS cruelty.

While the USA is the main supplier, Germany has also sold them arms worth billions. In February and March it sold huge amounts of ammo and spare parts for tanks and ground-air missile equipment.

In April came the OK for 100 drones, radio equipment and tank replacement parts. Rifles dropped by Saudi planes over Aden to fight the Houthis were products of the famous firm Heckler & Koch, which is ably represented in the Bundestag by Volker Kauder, a recipient of its constant election contributions, and who, aside from being an ardent Christian evangelist and Islam-hater, is a main supporter of arms sales, especially from Heckler & Koch, as well as head of Merkel’s party caucus in the Bundestag since 2005. Is a suspicion of hypocrisy fully misplaced?

A sudden decision by Merkel to stop weapons sales to the Saudis, just reported, would be a surprising, welcome reversal of the blood-stained trade deals, till now blushingly approved by Social Democratic Vice-Chancellor Gabriel.

It could be a result of growing world alarm at the terrifying destruction in Yemen – and fear of huge, new waves of refugees when Yemeni ports are re-opened. But we must be generous and congratulate Merkel on the decision – if it is genuine and if it holds against opponents, transatlantic and within her own party.

It is clear; humane treatment is a must in accepting the refugees, while the only way to stop more such waves is to end the wars and the armament sales.

This has been the consistent  message of the LINKE party in Germany.

It is also the position of the new head of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.  We may hope that his clear, sharp, evidently popular demands will have some long-range effect on Germany’s Social Democrats, who have thus far failed to rejoice at his success – indeed, in the case of one leader, have denounced him. But voices and actions like Corbyn’s are bitterly needed in an increasingly tense continent.

Photo: A Turkish soldier gives a bottle of water to a handicapped Syrian refugee at the border in Suruc, Turkey.  |  Burhan Ozbilici/AP


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.