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What’s Unsaid | 2024, another deadly migrant year

‘The more migration routes are militarised or migration is criminalised, the more it pushes people to take dangerous journeys, and the more deaths increase.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Eric Reidy, The New Humanitarian's Migration editor, over a radial gradient background. The color at the center is a purplish blue and the color outside is green. On the top right, a bit skewed to the right we see the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid.

Will 2024 be another year of high migrant and asylum seeker deaths? 

Migration policies are making borders tougher to cross and pushing people to risk their lives along ever more dangerous routes. Key elections around the world in 2024 look set to see an increase in hardline migration rhetoric as populist politicians seek to appeal to voters. 

But could better policies reverse the ever-rising number of migrant deaths? 

Eric Reidy is The New Humanitarian’s migration editor. He joins host Ali Latifi to discuss why we are likely to continue to see a high number of migration deaths in 2024, and what better policies could keep people safe. 

“Migration itself isn't a crisis. It's a normal part of human history and societies. It has benefits. There needs to be more focus on the humanitarian suffering and the human rights abuses that stem from the efforts to stop migration. That is arguably the real crisis, the suffering that people experience when they are fleeing their homes,” Reidy says.

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Irwin Loy.

Guest: Eric Reidy, migration editor at The New Humanitarian 

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SHOWNOTES

Transcript | 2024, another deadly migrant year

Ali Latifi:

Today on What's Unsaid: 2024, another deadly migrant year

Eric Reidy:

The more that migration routes are sort of militarized or migration is criminalized, the more it pushes people to take dangerous journeys, and the more deaths increase.

Latifi:

More than 3,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2023. 

One United Nations agency called the US-Mexico border the deadliest land migration route in the world. 

Populist politicians are promising even bigger walls, tighter borders, and tougher policies. But if there is one thing that has become clear over the years, it’s that none of this is stopping migration.  

That’s why there’s an alarming prediction: 2024 could be a year for record migrant deaths.

This is What's Unsaid, a biweekly podcast by The New Humanitarian where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world's conflicts and disasters. My name is Ali Latifi, staff editor of The New Humanitarian. On today's episode: 2024, another deadly migrant year

Joining us today is my colleague Eric Reidy. He is the migration editor for The New Humanitarian.

Alright Eric, my first question is basically pretty straightforward: Why is it likely that there will be more migrant deaths in 2024?

Reidy:

Basically, there's two reasons. The first is you see an increasing number of people who are migrating irregularly for a whole host of different reasons: conflict, climate change, economic stagnation, gang violence in Latin America, etc. And while at the same time, countries like the US and a lot of countries in Europe, are doubling down on efforts to deter migration, and as we've seen from sort of decades of experience already, the more that migration routes are sort of militarized or migration is criminalized, the more it pushes people to take dangerous journeys, and the more deaths increase.

Latifi:

So do you think that people know that more people are dying trying to reach different borders? And if they do, does it seem that people are, I guess, somehow okay with it?

Reidy:

To be honest with you, I don't think that there is that much of a focus on the deaths that occur while    people are migrating. In American and European media narratives about migration, migration is primarily viewed as a problem for the countries who are receiving refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, and not so much as a humanitarian or human rights crisis for people who are forced or compelled to move irregularly.

Latifi:

Does it get covered in mainstream media in those places?

Reidy:

It does get covered. It's not the main focus of the coverage. The main focus of the coverage is how migration is sort of seen as an imposition on the countries that are receiving people. And then I also think the other thing that's happened is,this has been going on for a long time. The Mediterranean migration crisis was 2014, 2015, when there was a lot of maybe more empathetic coverage. And since then, you continue to have thousands of deaths every year. And so I think a sort of numbing has taken place like. If you take the example of Alan Kurdi, the Kurdish toddler who drowned and whose body washed up on shore, I think it was in 2015. The images of his body on the beach in Turkey sort of precipitated this wave of empathy towards refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, people risking their lives to make these dangerous journeys to try to reach safety. That has happened numerous times since 2015. There are plenty of pictures that you can see of toddlers’ bodies washed up on beaches, whether it's in Libya, whether it's in Tunisia, whether it's in Turkey. And you just don't see the same sort of empathetic reaction taking place anymore. And I think people have heard these tragic stories, and have seen these tragic images, and because nothing has changed, a sort of numbness has set in, unfortunately.

Latifi:

You're talking about things that haven't changed. What are some of the trends that you think were taking place in 2023, that could carry over into 2024?

Reidy:

What we've really seen is a doubling down on deterrent policies. What I mean by that is, basically, things that countries in Europe and that the United States are doing that are making it more difficult for people to try to cross borders. There's that aspect of it. There's also efforts to push the responsibility for hosting refugees and asylum seekers off onto third countries. So the UK’s Rwanda policy is a good example of this. And then sort of along the same lines as all of that, is you have a retreat from upholding commitments to asylum and refugee protection in the UK and a lot of European countries, and also in the United States.

Latifi:

Why is it that everything is getting so much more dangerous?

Reidy:

The harder it is to cross borders, the more dangerous and difficult the journeys are that people need to take. I mean, it's kind of common sense. If you just take the US context, again, as an example of this, three decades ago, in the 1980s, in the 1990s, the vast majority of people who were crossing the US-Mexico border would cross in urban settings. And so then the enforcement priorities of the US Border Patrol was to make it harder for people to cross in those urban settings. And that pushed people out into the desert, into these more remote areas along the US-Mexico border. The idea was maybe this would stop them from coming, but obviously people have incredibly compelling reasons – for protection, safety, economic reasons, etc. – to be migrating. And so it didn't stop migration, it just increased the risks of it. And you can sort of see that along a lot of different routes. The Mediterranean is obviously a dangerous route to take in itself. And so there, there's a certain risk and people getting in these rickety unseaworthy boats to cross the sea to begin with. They're forced to rely on smugglers who have incredibly unscrupulous practices. And then what you've also seen is European countries retreating from search and rescue efforts, literally pulling their navies and coast guards further and further back from the coast of Libya. And also the criminalization of volunteer and NGO groups that are doing search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean. So sort of all of these reasons have made it more deadly and more difficult for people to migrate.

Latifi:

How does this play out on the ground in these different regions?

Reidy:

I can give you an example of somebody that I saw when I was on a reporting trip at the US-Mexico border last March and April. I was in a place along the border by the river, and I was walking along sort of like a riverfront park in the afternoon having finished my day of reporting on the Mexican side of the border in a place called Piedras Negras. And in broad daylight, at like four o'clock in the afternoon, I saw a woman and two children walking along next to me, and I didn't think anything of it. And then there was sort of this weird shift in the atmosphere of the whole place that was sort of unexplainable. And then, they plunged into the river. And that spot in the river was fairly shallow, so people could walk across. The water would get about up to people's waist. But this woman and the two children that she was with were followed by a man and a woman, and then another small child who also plunged in after them. And as they were walking across, you could tell that the current in the stream in the river was actually really strong. And the adults were clinging onto the hands of the children. You could see that they were sort of being pulled away. Luckily, the group of six people that I saw cross the river made it to the other side and were quickly apprehended by the US Border Patrol and the Texas National Guard that were waiting for them. And I'm not sure what happened to them after that. But just like two weeks ago, on January 12, in essentially the same place where I saw this happen, a woman and two children died doing the same thing, because the Texas National Guard prevented the US Border Patrol from responding to a distress warning from Mexican authorities. So this idea of preventing people from trying to rescue people who are in danger as a way of deterring migration is very much active.

Latifi:

You yourself, you've traveled to different parts of the world, to sort of these border areas along these routes. When you talk to people who are making these journeys, when they're in the middle of these journeys, do they understand the dangers they're in? Because I can tell you from my own experience, when I speak to Afghan refugees in Turkey, and in Greece and other countries, the smugglers lie to them so much that very often, especially in the beginning of the journey, they have no idea how bad it's going to be. Do other refugees and migrants who you've come into contact with, do they tend to be a little bit more informed and aware of the situation?

Reidy:

I think it's a mixed picture. It sort of depends on when you're talking to people. There are certain communities that have been members of those communities that have been migrating for a really long time, and they tend to be better informed about what's going on. The misinformation from smugglers is definitely an aspect of it. There's also a tendency for asylum seekers and migrants who have reached a place not to talk publicly, or show on their social media accounts, or communicate back to family members how difficult the experience was that they went through. Those are parts of it. But I have also found, oftentimes, that people are aware of the dangers. I remember talking to a Sudanese refugee in Northern Italy in 2017 who had recently crossed the Mediterranean, and he was waiting to try to cross the border from Italy into France. He told me that the Sudanese people in Libya call the central Mediterranean route “the route of death”. He knew that before he got on a boat and Libya, and still risked his life to make the crossing. And the mentality that he explained to me, and that a lot of other people that I've spoken to in my reporting have explained, is sort of this idea that either you make it or you die trying. And what that has always emphasized to me is just imagine what people are escaping, imagine what they're fleeing, imagine what they're running away from, to make that calculated risk seem like it's worth it. 

Latifi:

Are we seeing this idea of routes in general becoming more dangerous, even for routes that aren't necessarily as well covered? For instance Colombia and Venezuela, or people trying to make their way from the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa? Are those routes also becoming more dangerous in recent years?

Reidy:

I think there's an important point here, which is that media coverage tends to focus on migration from the Global South to the Global North. In reality, many more people migrate between countries in the Global South than they do from the Global South to the Global North. So one thing is just about how we understand migration and the biases that are baked into migration coverage to begin with. The answer to the question is, yes, some of those routes are becoming more dangerous. Also, xenophobia and racism don't just exist in the United States and Europe. South Africa is a good example. It's a destination for a lot of people from East Africa in the African continent, and there's a lot of racism there as well. You do see similar deterrent policies being implemented along other routes. Myanmar, and Bangladesh could be another example. And then the other thing that you see is the exporting of these deterrent policies by the United States and the European Union. You have the US, not just making it more difficult for people to cross its southern border, but incentivizing Mexico to make it more difficult for people to cross Mexico’s southern border. And Guatemala, same thing. So you see this cascading effect and export of border control policies.

Latifi:

How does that figure into things, the role that sort of middle countries – somewhere like Mexico, or Guatemala – might play? And their, maybe, willingness to go along with US and Canadian policies?

Reidy:

I guess the question is: Where does that willingness come from? It definitely impacts the overall movement and the danger. Not that it wasn't dangerous before, necessarily, but just how much more dangerous it has become for asylum seekers and migrants to cross Mexico, and to cross Guatemala in the past 10 years or so. And in terms of where that incentive comes from, I mean, on the one hand, there's financial incentives. On the other hand, there are sort of the threat of punitive action. You see the EU increasingly sort of threatening to use visa access as a way to get countries to apply with its migration agenda. Also development funding, foreign aid, discretionary budget support – all of those tools are levers that both the US and the EU use to try to get people to implement migration policies that fall in line with their agendas. And then the other thing is the absence of criticism on various topics. So, the US and the European Union wouldn't admit to this, but the implicit agreement to not criticize people or to not take actions for governments that are violating human rights.

Latifi:

Another big issue this year will be elections around the world, right? We're gonna see elections in the United States, in the UK, in Pakistan, local elections in Turkey. What kind of an impact will the political discourse have on migration overall, because most likely, a lot of these countries will become more hardline in their talk of immigration as they get closer to their respective elections. Does that lead to a noticeable spike in dangers, and deaths, and things like that?

Reidy:

Those deterrent policies are already in place. The election factor will probably make the situation worse. On the one hand, because of the performative aspect of needing to crack down on migration in order to show that politicians are taking this issue seriously. And then the other thing that we're gonna see a lot of is that we are already seeing a lot of is dehumanization and demonization of asylum seekers and migrants. Sort of the stoking of the idea that migration is out of control, and that it's an unmanageable crisis, when neither of these things are really true. But we're going to see a lot more of that, that then sort of feeds into the perceived need to crack down on irregular migration.

Latifi:

Migration will never end, right? It's inevitable. But is there a better approach? A more beneficial, better way to handle the issue of migration?

Reidy:

I think there definitely is, I think it's happening in some places. Looking specifically at Europe for a second, there seems to be a pragmatic recognition, even by some of the same people who are pushing the anti-migration agenda, that migration is actually needed. The EU Commission earlier this year said that the EU needs 1 million migrants per year to come to the continent because the workforce in Europe is aging. So you see countries like Italy, which has a right-wing, anti-migrant government. At the same time as they're using anti-irregular migration rhetoric and policies to sort of campaign on and build their political identity around, they're also setting up legal migration schemes to bring workers into the Italian economy because it's needed. So I think there is this sort of practical recognition that migration is something that is needed in a lot of places, and it's also beneficial to society. And if it is managed better, if groups of people who are migrating irregularly aren’t as just demonized and marginalized and pushed to the margins of society, that there's ways to handle the situation that's better. But there's the tension between the politics of it and sort of the practical reality of it.

Latifi:

Are there any examples of countries or communities that are, sort of, bucking the populist, anti-migrant anti-refugee trend, enacting more migrant-friendly policies that are going against the globa,l sort of, political grain?

Reidy:

There's a lot happening on a more local level. You see cities being much more supportive of migrants and migration than national authorities often. There are cities in Europe who have explicitly come out and said that ‘We want to take people who are rescued in the Mediterranean, and please, please send them to us’. You see Germany piloting city-based refugee resettlement. You see a lot of mayors also advocating for better, more inclusive, more humane migration policies. That's happening at the city level in a lot of places. Another big example is the EU welcoming Ukrainian refugees at the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You have 4.3 million Ukrainians who have been granted temporary protection in the EU. In comparison, only 2.5 million people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2015. 2.5 million people is still a lot of people, but that's over the course of almost a decade, compared to 4.3 million Ukrainians in two years. And you don't really see people talking about the presence of Ukrainians in European countries as this major unmanageable crisis. So it just goes to show you that if better policies are put in place – in the case of Ukrainians, they were given access to housing, they were given access to employment, they were given access to education immediately when they arrived – it's just an example of if you put more welcoming policies in place, there is actually capacity to receive people.

Latifi:

So how could you make something like that a reality to get the rest of the world to understand that migration can be beneficial, no matter what the people look like or where they come from?

Reidy:

Migration itself isn't a crisis. It's a normal part of human history and societies. It has benefits. Sometimes it poses challenges. There are resources that need to be mobilized in order to receive people, particularly during times of crisis. But when it's well managed, it can contribute to economies, it can make societies more rich and more diverse in terms of human experience. That's part of it, just the idea that it actually can be managed. It certainly can be managed better than it's currently being managed. And there needs to be more focus on the humanitarian suffering and the human rights abuses that stem from the efforts to stop migration also. That is arguably the real crisis. The suffering that people experience when they are fleeing their homes, when they are compelled to move, and when they do, encounter these deterrent policies at borders that strand them in camps at borders for long periods of time, push them into the hands of militia groups and smugglers who commit all sorts of abuses, leave them in the hands of government authorities that also commit all sorts of abuses. That reframing is really important.

Latifi:

Is there anything that you think could prevent 2024 from becoming another record year for migrant deaths across the world?

Reidy:

I wish I had a more optimistic answer here. Unfortunately, at this point, I don't think there is anything that could prevent the factors that are already in motion. We're talking about decades of policy approaches that are deeply entrenched. We're talking about a year in which there are many elections taking place that are going to incentivize political actors who are already empowered to double down on these policies to try to shore up their position in the polls. Unfortunately, we're going to see a continuation, if not an intensification, of these trends of seeing people die while they are crossing borders in this year. But if I am trying to be somewhat optimistic, to say that there are sort of points of hope somewhere, it’s this new emerging pregnant pragmatism around the recognition that there is a need for migration. And there are a lot of people who are working to reframe the narrative around migration as, well, away from it being a crisis, to it being more of an opportunity. Focusing on those two things – the pragmatic recognition that migration is inevitable and it can be beneficial, and that we have work to do in terms of how we understand migration – if we do those two things this year, we could maybe start to reverse the trend of deadly borders a little bit.

Latifi:

Eric Reidy, thanks for joining us today.

Reidy:

Thanks for having me. 

Latifi:

Eric Reidy is The New Humanitarian’s migration editor. Please visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on migration – from the policies across the world to how it’s affecting people who are on the move. 

What are people afraid to talk about in today's crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know. Send us an email at podcast at [email protected]. And subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What's Unsaid, our podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths.

This episode is produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson, andis hosted by me, Ali Latifi.

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