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How rich governments use compassion as an excuse to let thousands of migrants die

Yesterday, my colleague Amanda Taub posted a map showing thousands of people have died this year trying to immigrate to a better life. Here's the map, via the International Organisation for Migration:

IOM migrant deaths map

As Taub writes, these border crossings don't have to be deadly. It's only because legal immigration is so restricted in rich countries that migrants are forced to pay criminal smugglers to take dangerous journeys.

What's even more alarming is the response that rich governments have taken to the deaths of hundreds, or thousands, of people trying to enter their countries. This year, the United States, the European Union, and Australia — countries that at least 3,500 people have died trying to get into since the beginning of 2014 — are all cracking down on the people trying to make those journeys. They're doing less to rescue migrants in danger, and doing more to detain and deport the ones who manage to survive.

Perversely, all three governments say they're acting out of compassion. They claim that they're trying to save migrants from deadly border crossings by deterring them from making the journey to begin with. President Obama made this clear over the summer: "We have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at great risk, and families putting their children at great risk."

But it's not like there's nothing these governments could do to make the journey safer — they could relax immigration restrictions so that illegal smuggling networks could be less lucrative, they could engage in humanitarian rescue missions to help immigrants making the journey, or they could simply take the asylum claims of immigrants who do arrive seriously.

Instead, the governments are taking a "cruel to be kind" approach, which is certainly convenient for them. They get to look tough on "illegal" immigration for political benefit, while convincing themselves that they're really doing what's best for everyone.

But their compassion is empty. There's a reason migrants make those journeys: the places they're leaving are more dangerous than the border journey itself. And by refusing to make the journeys any easier — or making them even more dangerous — the rich governments of the world are putting thousands of migrants in even more danger, both on the journey and at home.

"They can't know I'm here"

Honduran men deported return

The US government removes immigrants' shoelaces before they're deported. The Attention Center for the Returned Migrant in San Pedro Sula gives them a new set. (Stephen Ferry/Human Rights Watch)

Honduras has the highest murder rate on earth. Gang violence starts young, with recruiters targeting young teenage boys — and threatening their families with violence and death if they don't join. Women, meanwhile, are threatened with domestic violence and sexual assault.

This spring and summer, the volatility in Honduras (and other countries in the Central American "Northern Triangle") sent tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families from Central America. They arrived on the US/Mexico border and turned themselves over to Border Patrol, after a perilous weeks-long journey through Mexico. An unknown number of migrants died on the journey.

la bestia family

A migrant family on "La Bestia," the train through Mexico. (Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP)

The United States government's response to refugees dying on the journey to the US was to try to convince them to stay in their home countries — implying that the real danger was the journey through Mexico, not the risk of being murdered in Central America. The US put advertisements in Central American countries emphasizing to parents how much danger their children would be in if they went through Mexico. It worked with the Mexican and Central American governments to intercept and send back children and families who tried to leave anyway. And it's continuing to build detention centers to hold hundreds of migrant families who manage to arrive safely — so that it can quickly deport them.

The results have, in some cases, been horrific.

Many of the Hondurans interviewed in the report haven't been able to return to their houses — instead, they're staying with relatives, or moving from house to house every few days, so that gang members don't know they've returned to the country. One man, who left Honduras after his life was threatened by a gang member who was having an affair with his wife, told the report authors that he couldn't go outside without covering his face: "I put on a motorcycle helmet inside the house to come here."

Deported Hondurans are too afraid even to contact their children to let them know they've returned. The man who wears the motorcycle helmet outdoors said, "I think about my children all the time. I can't contact them or tell them that I'm back in the country though. That would be dangerous." Another man, who fled Honduras after he watched his mother get killed by gang members, said, "I have two kids here but I can't see them because that would put them in danger. They can't know I'm here."

"You will not make Australia home"

The Australian government's response to its own refugee crisis makes the United States look like a wide-open door. Australia is also putting migrants in detention centers en masse — despite allegations of sexual abuse of detainees. And it's launched its own ad campaign, which practically brags to would-be migrants: "You will not make Australia home."

Australia immigration poster No Way

An ad campaign being run in 17 languages to deter would-be migrants. (Australian Government)

As Elias Groll wrote for Foreign Policy: "The implication, of course, is not only that asylum does not await, but that the journey itself may result in death." Since January 2014, according to the IOM, 205 would-be migrants have died in the Bay of Bengal (presumably on their way to Australia) and an additional 70 have died elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The end of rescue missions in the Mediterranean

The most lethal migration in the world, however, is the journey from North Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. That voyage has killed at least 3,000 migrants in 2014 alone, according to the IOM. 500 of those died in a single shipwreck, when the smugglers transporting them deliberately wrecked the boat.

The Mediterranean journey has killed 20,000 migrants over the last twenty years. In 2011, the most dangerous year so far (though 2014 is on pace to exceed it), one in every 50 migrants trying to sail into Europe was killed.

lampedusa migrant on stretcher

A victim of a 2013 shipwreck in the Mediterranean. (Marco di Lauro/Getty)

In the wake of a shipwreck last year, the Italian government has been coordinating rescue missions in the Mediterranean — an operation they're calling Mare Nostrum, or "our sea." They've rescued 150,000 migrants over the last twelve months.

But the Italians are looking to wind down Mare Nostrum. On November 1st, the EU's border patrol, Frontex, is going to launch its own mission in the Mediterranean — and despite assurances from the Italian militarythat Italy will be working with the new EU mission, the Italian government has made it clear that it's hoping to scale back its involvement once the EU steps in.

The EU's mission is going to be totally different from Italy's. It's going to focus on patrolling the shores to catch migrants and process them, rather than trying to rescue migrants in danger on the open sea. It's not clear that EU boats will even be far enough from shore to notice when migrant boats are in trouble.

Some EU members are pleased that the EU won't be engaging in rescue missions — for exactly the same reason that policymakers in the US and Australia cite: they don't want to encourage anyone to make the journey. Britain's foreign minister, Baroness Anelay, "said such operations could encourage more people to attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing to enter Europe," according to the BBC.

So faced with the most dangerous border crossing in the world, Europe is deciding to make that journey even more dangerous — betting that if they make it hopeless enough, no one will attempt to cross.

migrant rescue

A rescue worker tends to a small girl off the coast of Spain. (Sergio Camacho/Getty)

Migrants know the risks

In all three cases — the US, the Mediterranean, and Australia — migrants are fleeing some of the world's most dangerous places. The unaccompanied children who came to the US this summer came predominantly from the areas with the highest murder rates in El Salvador and Honduras, two of the most dangerous countries on earth. People arriving in Australia, according to the IOM, are overwhelmingly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Iraq. And the most common nationality for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, according to the EU border agency, is Syria — with other war-torn countries, such as Eritrea, Somalia, and (again) Afghanistan, also sending thousands to Europe.

Pew Frontex Mediterranean migration map

(Pew Research Center)

The people making the most dangerous border crossings in the world are the people whose home countries are the most dangerous places in the world. That means, for one thing, that they're likely to be genuine refugees — and that many of them likely have genuine asylum claims, which aren't going to get heard if they get summarily deported or are deterred from leaving at all.

People don't make the decision to immigrate lightly. They're not naive about the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean, the Bay of Bengal, or the Mexican desert. Migration experts agree that migrants understand the risks and rewards when they make the decision to migrate — maybe even better than policymakers do. "People make the calculus to do this," former US Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Doris Meissner said this summer. "They know what the dangers are."

The danger simply isn't a deterrent.

So rich governments are betting on a deterrence strategy that won't work. They're being cruel to real people, in order to be kind to imaginary ones. Their so-called compassion is completely empty.

At least, as Foreign Policy pointed out, Australia gets some credit for being honest. Their government's made it clear that they simply don't want migrants coming to their country. That's callous to the humanitarian needs of the people they're turning away, and possibly runs afoul of international law regarding asylum. But it's better than a fake compassion that's going to end up killing more human beings than it saves.

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