From the desert to the sea: make it safe, make it legal


In 2013, my wife Regina and I started MOAS, an organisation dedicated to saving refugee and migrant lives on the Mediterranean, as well as advocating for Safe and Legal Routes. Over our years of operation, we were involved in the rescue of 40,000 people — people who might have otherwise drowned. This year, the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project announced a grim milestone for that body of water: since 2014, over 20,000 people have died attempting to cross it.

Increasingly, my attention has been pulled to the US-Mexico border crisis. There are lessons from the Mediterranean sea that can readily be applied to the desert.

From the get-go, Trump’s rhetoric about migrants to justify an expensive spree of fence-building and a tougher border regime has been dehumanising and downright alarmist. This sort of populist bigotry is a cheap trick that appeals to people’s ignorance, prejudice and fear.  We see it the world over.

In 2019, Trump sought to justify his toughening of the border as a way of protecting children who were being exploited by ‘coyote’ smugglers, cartels and gangs. But this obscures the fact that the very business model of such smugglers exists because of the toughening of the border regime.

Think about it: if there were a safe and legal channel for migrant workers or refugees to cross the border (or a sea), why would they ever pay thousands of dollars to an unscrupulous middleman?

When there are no safe and legal routes, people don’t stop moving. Those who are desperate enough will continue to move, and the journeys they take will be increasingly dangerous as a result. They will be more vulnerable to exploitation.

We see this reflected in the increased number of bodies found in the desert, or the number of drownings — on the Mediterranean, in Southeast Asia, and on the US-Mexico border.
The IOM has recorded a growing number of deaths on the US-Mexico border every year since 2014, documenting a total of 2403 over six years — 497 of which were recorded in 2019.

As the IOM points out, there’s a shift toward more dangerous routes.

“Many people also attempt the crossing through the remote rugged terrain of the vast Arizona deserts. At least 171 people lost their lives in this part of the border in 2019, a 29 per cent increase over the 133 deaths documented in this area in 2018.”

Those are the bodies that do get found.

According to the IOM, 2019 was one of the deadliest years on record. The UN agency said that at least 810 people died crossing deserts, rivers and remote terrain on different migration routes across the Americas. Over 3800 have been recorded in the Americas since 2014. This is likely an underestimate.

As in Europe and elsewhere, the pandemic has given a figleaf to hardline immigration policies, disguising clampdowns on migrants and refugees as a rational response to the threat of transmission of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s election season, so we can expect the rhetoric to get uglier and more divisive, with migrants and refugees scapegoated. We see it in Trump’s current crusade against Sanctuary Cities, with the Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act, which has seen him trot out grieving relatives of people killed by illegal immigrants, where the deaths didn’t even take place in sanctuary cities.

We need a sober and fact-driven discourse around these issues, not the hysteria of a floundering demagogue.

Trump has slashed our refugee intake and fostered a hostile climate for migrants.

As the grandson of Italian-Irish immigrants, and someone who works closely with refugees, I see that as cheating America out of its greatest asset, which is new blood and new invigorated citizens, contributing to the United States. He’s reversed that and turned us inward.

Trump has pulled the US from the Paris climate accord, despite us being the world’s biggest contributor to climate change — a phenomenon which is likely to define mass migration for the rest of this century as large swathes of the earth are rendered uninhabitable.

The upcoming election is a crucial test not only for the United States, but for vulnerable people all over the world. This year on World Refugee Day, the Biden campaign marked the occasion with a pledge to restore refugee intake and rapidly seek to undo the damage done by Trump’s xenophobic policies.

For their part, the Trump administration marked the same occasion by pushing ahead with a bid to, as Human Rights Watch put it, “redefine refugees so that virtually no one will qualify for asylum”. HRW remarks that the Trump administration is forging “a new definition of persecution that requires ‘actions so severe that they constitute an exigent threat.’ To qualify, you would essentially need to show that a gun was held to your head.”

I changed when I witnessed the suffering people endured firsthand. These are women, children, mothers, fathers and families. They’re only doing what any of us would do in their situation, whether that be fleeing war or cartel violence or famine or hyperinflation.

I think with that realisation, all of the stereotypes disappear into the sea — or the sand.

People have always moved. People always will move. There need to be safe and legal channels.