Why migrants face the risks of treacherous journeys
Recent weeks have highlighted the dangers that migrants face when attempting to travel across borders without legal documentation.
In Texas last week, at least 53 people died in a tractor-trailer that lacked a functioning cooling unit — the worst known case of deaths from a single human trafficking incident in modern US history. Also last week, at least 30 migrants were left dead or missing after Doctors Without Borders rescued others from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Around the same time, Libyan officials found 20 migrants who had died of dehydration in the desert near the border with Chad. The deaths in Texas and the Mediterranean included men, women and children.
Around the world, millions of people migrate within and between countries. Even those who do so with legal documentation face some risks, including potential exploitation. Those who migrate without legal permission face far more risks, but they continue to attempt journeys anyway. Some countries have tried to harden borders and take other measures to stop irregular migration, but many migrants are not deterred.
The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project has recorded 49,353 migrant deaths and disappearances since 2014, though the actual number could be much higher. The top cause of death is drowning, followed by environmental exposure, violence, sickness and transportation accidents. The central Mediterranean route, moving people from North Africa to Italy or Malta, is the most dangerous in the world; combined with the eastern and western Mediterranean routes, this sea alone accounts for more than 24,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014.
Migration is a global phenomenon. After the Mediterranean, Africa is the second-deadliest region for migration, followed by the Americas, Asia, Western Asia and Europe, according to the Missing Migrants Project. After the central Mediterranean, some of the other most dangerous routes include the US-Mexico border crossing, the Sahara and other water crossings.
Migrants face multiple extreme risks. Many die from drowning, violence, exposure, sickness and vehicle accidents. The migrants who died in Texas were not the first to die of suffocation, heat or cold in sealed trucks; within the last 15 years, migrants have died in such situations in the US, the UK, Austria, Libya and Thailand. Many women and girls suffer from sexual violence while migrating, at the hands of traffickers as well as security officials and other migrants. Many migrants experience beatings, torture and other violence from traffickers and border guards. Traffickers sometimes hold and abuse migrants while demanding more funds from their families and some migrants are forced to work for no pay.
The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project has recorded 49,353 migrant deaths and disappearances since 2014.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Many migrants exhaust all their savings or their families’ savings to pay human traffickers to help them reach their destination. Despite these sums, some fail to reach their destination. If they succeed, they face the threat of deportation if discovered. Irregular migration seldom results in a stable and secure life.
So why do millions of people still attempt irregular migration, all around the world, despite the costs and risks? Some potential migrants may not be fully aware of the risks. However, in today’s globalized world, with access to information and personal networks that often include people who have migrated before them, many migrants know the risks and choose to continue anyway. Many experts who work with migrants say they are at least generally aware of the risks, and some migrants repeat journeys they have previously undertaken.
The reality is that the risks of the journey are often equal to or less than the risks that migrants face at home. For example, many of the migrants attempting to cross from Mexico into the US — including some of those who died in the tractor-trailer — are from Central American countries with extremely high rates of homicide and violence. At home, many face death threats, violence, sexual violence, racketeering and being forced to join gangs. For many children and adults, these threats at home are certain risks; in comparison, the risks of migration are no worse, and a new country at least offers some hope.
Many migrants are fleeing war, persecution and extreme violence; therefore, violence on the journey seems comparatively manageable. Many migrants who have attempted dangerous sea crossings say they knew that they might die onboard overly packed, small boats in large seas, but they also knew they might die at home. At least they saw hope for a better life if they reached their destination.
Other migrants travel in search of opportunity more than escape. These economic migrants are likely to have a lower tolerance for potential death and violence. However, many young people around the world see no opportunity to provide for their families or buy a car or house — let alone to achieve larger aspirations — if they remain at home. Even those who do not face extreme risks at home will often embrace the risks of migration in the hope of a better life for themselves and their families.
Countries that try to put up barriers and raise the risks will mostly fail to deter migrants who are fleeing far worse situations at home. Many people do not want to leave their homes and families but see no other choice. Any effective solution to the problems of migration will have to accept that reality, as well as the global nature of migration. Helping people to find security and opportunity at home should be the ultimate goal.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica.