Dead of Summer: Producing Migrant Death at the Borders of Europe and the US

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In early June of this year, I visited the local headquarters and workshop of a street vendors union and social justice organization in Barcelona, Spain. Most of the vendors, who are known throughout Spain as “manteros” for the mantas/blankets they use to display the goods they sell, are from sub-Saharan Africa. Street-vending in the informal economy, which is highly policed and criminalized (Moffette 2020), is one of the only options for newly arrived migrants who must wait at least three years before becoming regularized under Spain’s immigration laws. On this afternoon, I was talking to Malick, a man from Senegal, about my previous research working with unauthorized Central American migrants crossing Mexico. “El dolor is lo mismo/The suffering is the same” he said, on what prompts people to leave their homes behind. “It doesn’t matter if you are from Senegal or El Salvador, the only differences are the politics and how you move.”

A few weeks after our conversation, Malick’s words rushed back to me as I tried to make sense of the disturbing images and news plastered across my social media and news feeds. On Friday, June 24 at least 23 men[i], mostly from Sudan and South Sudan, were killed during a collective attempt to cross the border fence that separates Nador, Morocco from Melilla, Spain. Such mass crossing attempts have periodically occurred in both Melilla and Ceuta—the two Spanish enclaves and only two land borders between Europe and Africa—since 20 ft. high razor wire border fences were installed around both enclaves in 2005. Video footage captured the excessive force and tear gas used by Moroccan officials against migrants, and photographs circulated by human rights groups show the bodies of dead and injured migrants lying on the ground near the fence with officials looking on. While 133 people who crossed were processed in Melilla’s migrant centers, official reports indicate that hundreds more were summarily returned by Spain’s Guardia Civil without due process to apply for asylum, violating international law. This practice of “devoluciones en caliente” or “hot returns” have become a point of controversy in both Melilla and Ceuta. In the days since what has been dubbed the Melilla Massacre and Black Friday, protests have erupted throughout Spain demanding an investigation into the deaths, the identification and dignified treatment of the dead, and an overall end to Spain’s violent and racist border and immigration policies. Protestors carried signs with the phrase “Las Vidas Negras Importan/Black Lives Matter,” signifying the racialized dimensions of immigration enforcement in Spain.

Three days after Black Friday, on Monday June 27, reports started to come out about significant migrant causalities near San Antonio, Texas in the United States. 53 people, mostly from Mexico and Central America, died from suffocation and heat stroke inside the back of a tractor trailer packed with people with no air conditioning or water in the sweltering Texas heat. Authorities report that the migrants had likely already crossed the US-Mexico border before meeting in Laredo, Texas, and boarding the truck that was supposed to take them further into the interior of the US, where they would need to pass several checkpoints, a reminder that it is not just the physical borders between countries that are dangerous for migrants, but also interior spaces of transit where people hope to remain undetected in fear of deportation.

While upsetting, the deaths in Melilla and San Antonio should not be shocking. They are flash points in a broader cycle of state violence, profit, and death at the word’s borders and beyond.

The International Organization for Migration Missing Migrants Project has documented close to 50,000 migrant deaths around the world since 2014, with nearly half in the Mediterranean ocean, the global epicenter of migrant death. But most of these deaths, especially those removed from the immediate borders of Europe and the US, go unnoticed. Where was the collective outrage on June 28, just one day after the San Antonio discovery, when the bodies of 20 migrants, most of whom were from Chad, were recovered near the border with Libya after they were abandoned in the desert and perished from dehydration? Or the outrage surrounding the recent announcement by the Malian government of the death of 22 Malians, including three children, after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya? Such deaths, if even recognized at all, have become normalized in the current world order.

Much of my work has been dedicated to examining the local and what I call intimate economies of mobility along clandestine Central American transit routes in Mexico–the ways gendered and racialized migrant bodies, labor, and lives both gain and lose value within economies of movement, security, smuggling, drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, protection, care, and humanitarian aid. Like many ethnographers, my goal has been to zoom in, if you will, on the complexities of such processes in local spaces. But as I think about these deaths, I think about the value of zooming out, of examining the nexus of what feminist scholars call the global-intimate (Pratt and Rosner 2012). How can we make sense of and potentially link together these twin tragedies—and their ripple effects—at the borders of Europe and the United States? I want to suggest that these are not isolated events, or the work of a few ruthless criminals operating in their own interests, but must be understood as part of a larger story about global racial capitalism, about the differentiating values ascribed to immigrants and people of color who perform the often gendered forms of labor that benefit the rich, and the immigration enforcement regimes that keep it all running. The business of bordering is central to what Catherine Besteman has termed militarized global apartheid (Besteman 2020).

Within this broader political economic context and the understanding that borders are integral to racialized geographies of violence and profit, I want to make several more specific points in regard to migrant death: 1) Migrant deaths are not the “unintended consequences” of bordering policies; they are a systemic product of them, 2) Smugglers are not the root of the problem, stop blaming migrant deaths on them, 3) The ripple effects of migrant death go well beyond borders, and 4) A growing movement of activists and organizations are doing the critical work of rescue, rights, solidarity, and accountability in active resistance to state policy and violence.

In his remarks on the discovery of the 53 dead migrants in San Antonio, President Biden stated, “This incident underscores the need to go after the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths.” He also said that smugglers “have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit.”  And in an interview with La Vanguardia newspaper, Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez stated, “We regret the loss of human lives, in this case desperate people who were looking for a better life and who are victims and tools of mafias and criminals who organise violent actions against our border.”

As clearly demonstrated in these statements, the strategy used by politicians and policymakers is to strip migrants of their agency in their own mobility and instead frame them as victims of ruthless smugglers, criminal organizations, mafias and/or traffickers. But as Gabriela Sanchez (2022), an expert on the intricacies and lived realities of human smuggling, reminds us in a recent piece, such deaths are not the work of sophisticated smuggling rings, as politicians and policymakers would have you believe.  Many smugglers are local people struggling to survive in a border economy with few options beyond migration enforcement or facilitation. The work of smuggling is often temporary and seasonal, payments are piecemeal and split between multiple actors. Indeed, as scholars have long argued, the demand for human smugglers and other clandestine economies increase in response to increases in border enforcement and securitization measures creating a symbiotic relationship that benefits both sides (Andreas 2000, Galemba 2016). As such, these deaths must be seen not as the work of bad guys doing bad things, but as the predictable outcome of stepped-up border enforcement that benefits states through legal and extra-legal profit-making (Sanchez 2022).

On their website, the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project states, “Each number represents a person, as well as the family and community that they leave behind.” While they deal in numbers and statistics, their work is also an effort to humanize what has largely been dehumanized, if recognized at all. As is often the case in immigration debates, the actual (im)migrants, the people who make the most difficult decisions of their lives to leave their homes and their loved ones, are lost amidst chatter about jobs and taxes and crime and assimilation. Their dehumanization continues in their death as they are reduced to numbers and body counts and as they are forgotten once the spectacle subsides. I’ve worked closely with the families of missing migrants and documented first-hand the utter agony of not-knowing what has happened to a loved one who set off on a migration journey. Their families and often wider communities are forever marked by these forms of collective and ambiguous loss (Boss 2004). I am reminded of this loss as I scroll my social media news feed and see reports from human rights groups in Morocco posting photographs and details of migrants who went missing on Black Friday in hopes of locating them and bringing some news to their families. Their pain echoes the pain of Central American families who make an annual trek to search for their loved ones across Mexico. El dolor es lo mismo/the suffering is the same.

This brings me to a final point, on hope. I return to the community space in Barcelona where I met Malick. As we chatted about global movements of people and the brutal decision of leaving home in search of safety and dignity, I made the comment, “they have no other choice, there are no other options,” which is a sentiment that countless migrants have conveyed to me.

Malick pushed back, “But there are other choices, there is another way.” Malick is right, we must think bigger and not accept the current hegemonic order of border securitization. The work being done by human rights groups that track the missing, the NGO search and rescue teams that patrol the seas for vessels in distress, the humanitarian aid organizations that serve migrants and refugees in transit spaces and borderzones, and the (im)migrant rights organizations around the world that work for social justice, teach us that state immigration and border regimes are not the only way. They are met with resistance in public squares and in courtrooms, in migrant shelters and in classrooms. This is one of the great struggles of our times, to reimagine and actively create a future where mobility is not a death sentence, where people are not killed by borders. No more summer of dead.

 

 

 

Andreas, P. (2000). Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. Thaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Besteman, C. (2020). Militarized Global Apartheid. Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

Boss, P. (2004). “Ambiguous Loss Research, Theory, and Practice: Reflections After 9/11.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66(554).

Galemba, R. (2016). “How Immigration Policies Create Smugglers.” Allegra Lab.

 Moffette, D. (2020). “The juristictional games of immigration policing: Barcelona’s fight against unauthorized street vending.” Theoretical Criminology 24(2): 258-275.

Pratt, G. and V. Rosner, Eds. (2012). The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. New York, Columbia University Press.

Sanchez, G. (2022). San Antonio’s events were bound to happen. It was just a matter of time.: www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/2007/san-antonios

[i] Moroccan authorities reported the death toll to be 23, while human rights groups, including the Spanish organization Caminando Fronteras, reported the toll as high as 37 and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights has documented at least 58 people dead or missing.

 

 

 

 

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