The Horrific Human Consequences of Anti-Migration Policies
Sally Hayden on the Brutality of Borders
Imagine this. Your very existence is effectively about to become illegal. Your family and friends may be obligated to betray you. You could be sent to prison for decades. Journalists who report on your plight could be locked up too. You have a short period of time—maybe weeks, maybe days, maybe hours—to leave your country and get to a safe place.
That was the situation over the last few months for those who are LGBT+ in Uganda, where a brutal new anti-homosexuality bill has now been adopted into law. Its introduction was overseen by a long-standing dictator—an ally of Western donors—and encouraged by US evangelical groups. The victims are Africans on a continent where the majority of other countries also outlaw same-sex relations. Most can’t get a visa to Europe or the US.
They hear that if they reach a remote refugee camp in a neighboring country they might be considered for legal resettlement, but that can take years. They would be vulnerable while waiting: potentially ostracized by other refugees; exploited by security forces; likely left without enough food to sustain their daily caloric needs. They trade rumors of the corruption they could encounter while proving their cases. As they contemplate their options, many have already been ousted from employment, attacked in the streets or evicted from their homes.
Now imagine this. You are Somali, in a war-torn country where a devastating drought has likely killed tens of thousands of people. Most of those deaths go unrecorded; they are referenced only as part of an estimate. The global public will never know the hopes, dreams, passions and kindnesses of the dead, though they might have a vague awareness that Somalia—like most African countries—produces a tiny fraction of the world’s emissions, yet is on the forefront of climate change. Somalis know that if they can get to a wealthy, secure state, they could send back money to keep their families alive.
Imagine you are Eritrean, fleeing a dictatorship where you may be forced into lifelong military service, in what the UN has called a “slavery-like” system. Or you are a woman or girl from South Sudan, where you are more likely to die in childbirth than finish secondary school, according to the UK’s International Development Committee. You are Sierra Leonean, where crushing poverty makes decent healthcare virtually inaccessible. You are Congolese, and grew up knowing how the West has plundered your country’s minerals; hearing how millions of your people died in horrific ways under colonial rule.
I read recently that “the West” is the world’s biggest gated community. The phrase struck a chord. Those gates, and their brutality, may not be obvious to those who are privileged.
In the rich world, dehumanization and othering is on the increase. Once an individual starts to move, all that they are will be lumped into a category with tens of millions of other people from a huge array of different backgrounds: referred to, often derogatorily, as “migrants,” their only uniting factor being that they aren’t rich enough, or weren’t born in the right place, to travel in a safe way.
They are conscious of this; know there would likely be an outpouring of public shock and grief if a boat full of European “tourists” drowned in the sea, but the world will look away when it’s a boat of “migrants.” Shouldn’t everyone, first and foremost, be referred to as “people”? Is the loss of one life more lamentable than another?
As a journalist, I don’t propose or advocate for specific policies, but I report on the human consequences of them. Today, rich countries are increasingly willing to spend huge sums of money propping up dictatorships, militias, warlords and other systems that oppress people further, if that means migration can be halted. We were already living within a global inequality crisis, and this money is compounding the reasons people need to leave, even as it makes it harder for them to do so.In the rich world, dehumanization and othering is on the increase. Once an individual starts to move, all that they are will be lumped into a category with tens of millions of other people from a huge array of different backgrounds.
Since 2014, more than 27,500 people have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach Europe. More than 21,300 of those deaths took place in the Central Mediterranean, which the United Nations has called the deadliest migration route in the world. In March, an independent UN fact-finding mission said the EU’s efforts to stop people reaching its shores are fueling crimes against humanity and war crimes; this echoed what human rights organizations, lawyers and victims have been shouting for years.
My reporting, for much of the last decade, has focused on how Western countries are cementing their borders to keep the rest of the world out. It was the focus of my first book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, which was published by Melville House last year. I wanted to document the consequences, and raise the voices of those who are directly, and often devastatingly, affected by this.
Abusive policies happen incrementally. And rich countries appear to learn them from each other. They see what the others can get away with, then take it one step further.
Meanwhile, the humanity is stripped from the situation: the voices of people caught up in these systems are silenced because they are so frightened that anything they say can and will be used against them. The deaths rack up; the torture, the trauma. And many analysts argue that that is the point of it: the pain and suffering is meant to be a deterrence.
In the rich world, the “debate” often ignores how “illegal” migration is a story about us and our actions, as much as it is one about the conditions in poor countries. The migration we see today is intrinsically linked with the impacts of white supremacy; colonization; unfair trade deals; exploitation; and environmental destruction.
Stopping the “business model” of smugglers is paramount, say politicians. But human smuggling businesses only exist because there are no other ways for those in need to reach safety. For much of the world, there are no legal routes. For those who will eventually be recognized as refugees, the only way to claim their right to international protection is often to “illegally” get to safe territory first.
Political soundbites distract; they can mean that us, journalists, or the public, are not asking bigger questions. Like what kind of world do we want to live in? Do we still believe in human rights for everyone? Are labels like “migrant” deliberately used to distance us from the deaths of the most vulnerable? What damage has already been caused abroad through Western policies? And what anti-migration related atrocities, aimed at keeping the rich world comfortable, are its citizens implicated in?
My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden is available now via Melville House.