In September 2015, images circulated of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach; that week, donations to refugee aid charities soared. The Syrian toddler’s death, which occurred during the perilous journey taken by many refugees trying to reach Europe, was one of 3,770 migrant fatalities in the Mediterranean that year but one of the only ones to be seen by a global audience.
In response, people opened their wallets. The Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station received a record 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in one day, compared to a usual 10,000 euros at the time. That week, donations to the Swedish Red Cross were 55 times greater than usual.
Within a few weeks, however, donations returned to their previous levels.
Over the last week, a photograph of Salvadoran father Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, lifeless and facedown in the Rio Grande shallows, has caused similar public dismay in the U.S. and beyond. The father and child drowned attempting to cross from Mexico to Texas. Dozens have died this year alone trying to cross the Rio Grande, where water levels rage the highest in 20 years due to unprecedented snowmelt runoff. The deserts that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border create another dangerous landscape for migrants: Just a few days prior to the Martínezes’ deaths, the bodies of a young woman, a toddler, and two infants were discovered in the Texas desert; they are believed to have died from heat exposure.
At the time of Alan Kurdi’s death, the words of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire became a rallying cry in support of the million-plus migrants risking their lives to seek safety in Europe:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
The poem’s point, borne out again and again by the millions of displaced people who continue to undertake harrowing, deadly journeys to seek safer lives, is that deterrence efforts make little sense in the face of desperation. The same lines have been reposted a number of times on social media since the photo of Martínez and his daughter went viral, and in the wake of chilling reports from the U.S. border’s concentration camps, where children and infants, separated from their parents, are among the tortured.
The European Union killed Alan Kurdi; the United States killed Valeria and Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. The 18,000-plus migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, as well as the over 7,000 deaths around the U.S.-Mexico border since 1994, were state-sanctioned murders. This isn’t hyperbole: Last month, the International Criminal Court submitted an indictment, claiming that the EU and its member states should be prosecuted for the deaths of thousands of migrants fleeing Libya who drowned in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean stretch between northern Africa and Italy is only treacherous if you have to travel on an overcrowded smuggler’s dinghy, without the possibility of a rescue boat saving you if the vessel capsizes. The U.S. border crossing isn’t deadly unless you are on foot for days without water, shelter, or sustenance, hiding from law enforcement, cartels, and militias.
Proponents of deterrence policies recognize that “no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land”; they just choose to make the water more perilous still. Consider President Donald Trump’s tweet in the wake of reports about horrific conditions at migrant detention centers, including those intended to hold children: “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”
It is unlikely that any punitive consequences will result from the ICC’s legal submission; the Hague is not in the habit of holding contemporary Western powers accountable for crimes against humanity. But the assertion that migration deterrence policies are no less than murderous on a mass scale is a proposition that must be embraced and taken to its logical conclusion. The current immigration policies of the U.S. and the EU should already be understood as necropolitical; that is, they organize the lives of migrants in constant proximity to death, to bare life. Risk death by staying in a country destabilized by war, violence, economic and climate devastation, or risk death by fleeing to a purportedly more stable, prosperous state. There is no option which is not framed by exposure to death.
The United Nations refugee agency announced in late June that the number of people fleeing violence is the highest recorded since World War II. In a world where the number of displaced people is inexorably rising from conflict and climate decimation, wealthy countries will have only one of two options when it comes to mass migration: acceptance and opening borders, or genocide through deterrence. In order to avoid the latter, the entire racist, nationalist logic behind migrant deterrence must be rejected.
In the years since Kurdi’s death stirred international outrage, Fortress Europe has only hardened its ramparts against those seeking safety. Internal borders have been shuttered to close well-trodden routes, deportations were sped up, and thousands of refugee boats sent straight back to allegedly safe “third countries,” like war-torn Libya and authoritarian Turkey. Programs for sea rescue operations were ended, aid ships turned away at Italian ports; Europe has led the charge in prosecuting humanitarian workers. Just last week, fascistic Italian authorities arrested a German rescue boat captain who had attempted to bring 40 imperiled migrants to European shores.
In the years since Alan Kurdi’s death stirred international outrage, Fortress Europe has only hardened its ramparts against those seeking safety.
The Trump administration’s cruel “zero tolerance” approach is only the latest iteration of Prevention Through Deterrence, a policy enacted under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s that sought to funnel migrants away from cities into deadly border deserts. Now “zero tolerance” — including family separation — has kicked those efforts into high gear, including attempts to criminalize kindness with equal vigor to European moves against sea rescuers: The prosecution of humanitarian volunteer Scott Warren for providing water, food, and shelter to two migrants in the Arizona desert was the most high-profile in a number of grotesque prosecutions. The necropolitics of deterrence seek to quash any efforts to end the proximity of migration to death.
Europe’s deterrence program has worked insofar as the number of illegal entries to the EU have dropped to the lowest levels in five years. But here is what deterrence “working” really looks like: Thousands of refugees have been turned away and sent back to be held en masse in Libyan detention camps, rife with torture and abuse, and over 143,000 refugees stuck in camps in Turkey, many more struggling to live day to day outside the official camps. Individuals and families have not opted against migration; so-called deterrence has only been possible through programs of militarized removal, mass detention, and, indirectly, murder.
As journalist Patrick Kingsley, author of “The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis,” wrote, “Politicians repeatedly ignored the reality of the situation—namely, that whether they are welcomed or not people will keep coming.” Indeed, despite Europe’s ferocious efforts to make migrant entry impossible, refugees in their thousands are still risking everything to reach safety there. Of the nearly 2,000 refugees who have attempted the treacherous Mediterranean route from northern Africa to Europe in 2019 so far, over 15 percent have died. It should be obvious to anyone paying attention to the harrowing journeys so many thousands of people continue to make that the logic of deterrence relies on a willingness to accept state-sanctioned mass murder.
Mass migration cannot be stopped. As of last year, according to new statistics from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the population of people on Earth displaced by conflict or persecution reached 70.8 million — more than double the number recorded in 2012. Disasters fueled by climate change were responsible for at least 18.8 million internal displacements in 2017, as well as bolstering cross-border migration, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. In another report released last week on climate change and poverty, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned of a “climate apartheid” in which “even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger.”
The rhetoric of the American and European far-right, too often parroted by the liberal center, might lead one to believe that the weight of this global migration crisis is bearing down on the EU and the U.S. It is not.
In 2015, at the height of Europe’s so-called migrant crisis, over 1 million asylum seekers reached Europe. Yet the population of the EU is over 510 million. I’m not suggesting that the swift welcoming and integration of an additional one five-hundredth of a population is no challenge, but a challenge is not a crisis. Meanwhile, 396,579 undocumented people were apprehended after entering the U.S. illegally in 2018 along the southwest border; the number equals around 0.0012 percent of the U.S. population. The 10.5 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be currently living in the country is not a crisis for the United States; it is a crisis for the undocumented, vulnerable to economic exploitation, stigmatization, and, ever increasingly, deportation. Last year, the U.S., with a GDP of nearly $20 trillion, took the fewest number of refugees in 40 years in 2018: only 22,491 people. As a point of comparison, in 2015, Lebanon housed around 1.2 million Syrian refugees in its population of 4.5 million people; one in five people.
The vast majority of terrorist violence in the U.S. in recent years has been committed by far-right white nationalists. The same is true of terrorist attacks in Europe in recent decades.
As James Butler noted in a recent piece for the London Review of Books, it is “powerful states” who have undermined “the architecture of international obligation governing refugees’ rights and states’ obligations to them (the 1951 convention, drawn up in the wake of mass wartime displacement, and its 1967 protocol, which recognised its universal application).” It is fair and correct to blame far-right figures, parties, and media institutions for stoking fears of desperate migrants bringing terror and crime. Yet without the centrist conservatives and liberals, as well as some members of the so-called left, bending to far-right’s jingoistic desires, the normalization of migration deterrence, which is always brutal, would not have been possible.
Far-right parties like France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, and the United States’ Republican Party used high-profile terror attacks that involved migrants, like the 2015 Paris massacres, to shutter borders and enforce migrant detention and deportations. People of conscience, however, must aggressively correct this false narrative: The vast majority of terrorist violence in the U.S. in recent years has been committed by far-right white nationalists. The same is true of terrorist attacks in Europe in recent decades, the vast majority of which have been committed not by immigrants or refugees, but by European citizens with ethno-nationalist or separatist motives.
When it comes to economic concerns, the far-right has been successful in establishing the myth that migrants are a burden on taxpayers, draining scant state resources. A recent major EU-funded study, however, found that “in the European countries which host the majority of EU migrants, these households are a net benefit to the public purse.” Equally, a comprehensive study on the integration of asylum seekers into the German labor market since 2014 found “no clear correlation between access to the labour market and the number of asylum applications a country received.”
More to the point, even if a large intake of migrants were to put a strain on state resources and the job market, the ethical response should not be nativist protectionism. The top 0.1 percent of Americans are taking in over 188 times the income of the bottom 90 percent, corporations like Amazon paid zero federal tax on $11,200,000,000 in profit last year, and just 100 families own about 42 million acres across the country. The left has plenty of intellectual, factual ammunition to show that these anti-immigrant claims are bunk and that resources are not immutably scarce.
The dehumanizing nationalist narrative, which entirely conflates the necessary free movement of peoples with globalization’s devastating free movement of capital, has no place on the left, yet it has found disturbing purchase. The leader of France’s Front National, the vile Marine Le Pen, promised to prevent French workers and farmers from the “wild and anarchic globalisation” of migrant workers and refugees. Calls from Germany’s left Die Linke party for limited immigration to stabilize the welfare state sound little different. Globalized capital has no doubt relied upon and exploited migrant labor, but to suggest that migrating workers themselves are simply tools of capital is a vile negation of thousands of peoples’ humanity. Indeed, the devastation capitalism and colonialism have wrought on so much of the world has helped forge the conditions for the current global migration crisis. To enable rather than hinder people in their escape from tyranny and oppression should be an imperative for any anti-capitalist politics worth its salt.
It is high time that the left vocally rejects the right-wing myth that immigration, even on a large scale, is incompatible with safety and prosperity. Wealthy countries can, and indeed must, accept and manage migration en masse, now and in the coming years. The alternative is intolerable.
A refusal to open borders, or at least make them considerably more porous, will produce a powder keg of further conflict and a mass genocide.
To understand the vicious consequences of successful migration deterrence, we need only look to Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s all-too-brief willingness to open her country’s doors to refugees in 2015 offered a glimpse of what a reasonable response to mass migration could look like. “We’ll manage it,” the famously pragmatic leader said. And she was right: Germany, a wealthy nation of 82 million, could manage the 800,000 refugees registered in 2015. Yet, like the rest of Europe, German policy swiftly turned away from “welcome culture” toward swift deportations and harsh deterrence efforts; the paranoiac xenophobia of Europe’s far-right won the day.
As I argued at the time, Merkel’s short-lived open policy was not saintly: It was no more than a reasonable response to a global migration crisis that the world’s wealthiest nations are indeed best positioned to manage. A redistribution of hoarded resources away from the world’s wealthiest toward the working classes would make the challenge of mass resettlements – and, again, it is no doubt a challenge — more manageable still.
When Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders stated earlier this year that he was against open borders, he said, “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. I don’t think that’s something we can do at this point.” With hope, his use of the qualifier “at this point” is operative and movable. As unlivable portions of the planet continue to grow, a refusal to open borders, or at least make them considerably more porous, will produce a powder keg of further conflict and a mass genocide. This point is fast upon us. One could argue we are already there.