By Everard Meade
This week marks a series of deadly anniversaries for migrants and refugees. It’s the end of a summer in which nearly 3,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. It’s the one-year anniversary of the Lampedusa shipwreck, in which 368 African refugees drowned in route to Italy. And it’s the twentieth anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper on the U.S.-Mexico border, which funneled migrants away from busy urban crossings like San Diego and towards remote and unforgiving deserts, resulting in the death of perhaps 10,000 migrants.
In our political culture, the most spectacular and lethal incidents tend to stand in for the broader phenomenon of desperate people on the move. The narrow focus on individual disasters, even when it’s entirely sympathetic, tends to obscure the systemic decisions and practices that produce them. Instead, we get individual bad guys – ruthless traffickers, corrupt dictators, snoring bureaucrats, etc. – and the simplest good guys – child sex slaves, persecuted religious minorities, or simply the dead.
These spectacles have a long history. The worst incidents involving desperate migrants bound for new continents are uncomfortably familiar to the present cases. They ask us what it means to be dependent upon largely invisible sub-populations, and why it is that their lives seem to be worth measurably less than that of the average citizen.
The point is not to claim that migration from contemporary Mexico is the same as the Atlantic slave trade, that kidnapped Chinese coolies or fleeing Haitian refugees should be measured against prisoners in a Soviet gulag. But, if we look at the incidents themselves and the government responses to them, there are some chilling commonalities.
In addition to the terror and tragedy of the incidents in the slide show accompanying this article, the deaths in all of them were directly related to the fear of exposure. The lives of the human cargo were simply worth less than the reputations, the convenience, or the personal security of the sea captains, smugglers, and government officials who could have saved them.
The victims were members of groups whose status was a permanent exception to the norms of citizenship in the polities that governed them. Their perilous transit was but an extreme symptom of the way in which governments have tried to deal with migrant populations in remote locales, invisible to the broader body politic.
There’s little acknowledgement of the coercive nature of the process, either. Even separating out slaves and convicts, people on the move during moments of dramatic socioeconomic change have had much less choice in the matter than policymakers have generally been willing to admit, regardless of their economic importance.
Finally, while governments memorialized the dead with pomp and circumstance in each of these cases, they made little effort to prevent the next disaster or to address the underlying injustice. Indeed, they concentrated on mitigating their own future political risk or embarrassment, even if the resulting measures exacerbated the conditions that make people on the move vulnerable in the first place.
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