The capsize of a ship overloaded with migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean has galvanized attention on what The New York Times characterizes as a surge in refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With, as The Times reports, “about 17 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year,” the human tragedy unfolding is shocking, particularly to those of us who have never faced such a perilous choice.
But while calls for a naval blockade continue to be heard, a more nuanced take on Fortress Europe and the obligation to consider human dignity have surfaced. Pope Francis, who last year urged European leaders not to allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery, reminded those gathered for his weekly address that the migrants whose boat had foundered are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.
Even European leaders who according to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli have long been “pressed by anti-immigrant parties… are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struck a new note when he said: “We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.”
The recognition that migration is more than a border security issue is one the United States needs to take seriously.
Several weeks ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep had a rather horrifying exchange with Simon Henshaw, the U.S. State Department deputy secretary charged with explaining how the United States’ is fulfilling its international refugee protection obligations despite its multifaceted deterrence strategy through a recently-opened process for Honduran children whose parents are permanent residents to enter the U.S. more quickly than the normal visa backlog allows:
INSKEEP: Does it bother you, though, that there may be a young person who asks
for help and then has to go away from a U.S. consulate and go back into the neighbor-
hood where their lives have been threatened?
HENSHAW: Yes, it does. But what really bothers me is the thought that that child
might take a risky journey through Mexico and come to the United States. So what
I want to do is make sure that our program addresses their situation as fast as possible.”
Yes, Mr. Henshaw, La Bestia is dangerous. But even more dangerous is abandoning the fundamental right to non-refoulement – to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.
Last December NPR’s Robert Siegal summed up the Obama Administration’s official word: “if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you’ll be put in detention; you’ll be sent back; you’ll be flown back home.”
In a report released this month, Detention Watch Network traced the role of deterrence strategies in U.S. immigration policy, noting that the Obama administration’s “recent reliance on the deterrence justification to rationalize the long-term detention of asylum-seeking families marks a new level of aggressive and inappropriate use.”
The human rights violations endured by asylum-seeking families are numerous. Included in the (very long) list of violations flagged by The Advocates for Human Rights and Detention Watch Network in a joint submission to the UN last year was the growing use of detention to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection in direct contravention of international obligations. We pointed to Central American mothers and children seeking asylum being subject to arbitrary detention in a stated effort by the United States to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.
Detention and deportation to deter people from seeking asylum from persecution (in direct contravention of this fundamental human right) is not the only tactic being used by the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that “under U.S. pressure, Mexico for the first time in many years has launched a wide crackdown on the migrants. More than 60,000 have been deported this year, as many as half in recent months, the government says.” Also on the deterrence menu: increased train speeds.
While the United States’ deterrence strategies violate international law by abrogating the right to seek asylum, the European Union’s shift toward targeting the traffickers is little better. As commentator Kenan Malik writes, replacing the border security narrative with a narrative of criminality is not the answer:
The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril.
But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s
own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter
not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy
of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.”
What, then, is the answer? Perhaps an immigration policy that includes the words “ensure human dignity” is a start.
By Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.