2020 Was One of the Deadliest Years for Migrants — and Not Just Because of COVID

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Brutal immigration policies in the United States and Europe resulted in the deaths of more than 3,200 migrants in 2020.

Photo: Massimo Sestini

On December 24, the bodies of more than 20 Tunisian refugees, including at least four pregnant women, were recovered after their boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea. The vessel, which was bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa, was reported to be carrying as many as 45 passengers, but only five people are known to have survived the wreck. 

Like the more than 10,000 Tunisians who have attempted to reach Italy this year, these refugees were fleeing crushing poverty, economic deprivation, and a brutal IMF-imposed austerity plan that has caused irregular mass immigration since 2011 to several European countries including France, Italy, and Germany. Tens of thousands of Libyans and sub-Saharan African immigrants, fleeing poverty and violence, have also used Tunisian ports or attempted to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, and hundreds have died in the attempt. 

Despite the scale of this tragedy, the incident received very little attention in the mainstream media in the United States and Europe, in part because such events have become all too common. Indeed, according to the Missing Migrants Project more than 1,100 refugees died just this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and since 2014, more than 25,000 deaths have been attributed to irregular migration attempts from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, more than 38,000 immigrants have died attempting to cross closed borders or find sanctuary since 2014, with the migrant passage to the United States closely trailing the Mediterranean and Africa for total migrant deaths during this same period. Although 2020 was not the worst year for migrant deaths (2016 currently holds that record), the deaths recorded this year are part of an ongoing and unfolding tragedy that seems to have no end in sight.  

Death By Design 

Such tragedies as these, however, are not mere accidents, but direct and often intentional products of the harsh immigration apparatuses of the European Union (EU) and imperialist countries such as the United States. While largely maintaining freedom of movement for Europeans, the EU has imposed tough restrictions on immigration from outside its external borders. This has resulted in an enormous, complex, and highly militarized European border control system that critics have come to call “fortress Europe.” From the Mediterranean to the Baltic and all ports in between, security and surveillance against irregular immigration has increased steadily since the Union was founded, and even more since the so-called migrant crisis, which began in the middle of the last decade and was caused in considerable degree by the political, economic, and environmental fallout of European and American interference in the Middle East.

This apparatus has included increased military surveillance of the Mediterranean in particular and the use of detention centers in Greece, where more than 42,000 detainees are currently being held. These camps, originally built for a total of less than 6,000 migrants, are extremely overcrowded. The refugees there are subject to coronavirus infection, and, perhaps worst of all, many are being denied the chance to even submit claims for asylum or refugee status — a violation of the Geneva Convention as well as the EU’s own convention on human rights. But the most pernicious policy by the EU to stop irregular immigration has been to outsource the policing of borders to the countries from which or through which many immigrants are attempting to reach Europe. Towards this end, the EU has reached deals with both Turkey and Libya to act as brutal deterrents to European migration. The Libyan coastguard, for instance, has received more than 90 Million Euros from the EU since 2017 to stop immigrants from crossing the Mediterranean, and Libyan detention centers have become notorious for their cruelty, squalid conditions, exploitation, and instances of sexual abuse. In Turkey, which has acted as a gatekeeper for European immigration for many years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has used the immigration question to win European support for its incursions into Northern Syria, even as it sends detained immigrants and their families back to war zones to die without ever the chance to present their case for asylum. 

Meanwhile in the United States, the border zone between the U.S. and Mexico still remains one of the deadliest immigrant crossings in the world, second only perhaps to the Mediterranean. Since 2014, more than 2,500 people have died attempting to reach the United States, primarily from Latin America and the Carribean, and 2020 was the third deadliest year for deaths at the U.S. border since 2014, despite the continued threat and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus. Tens of thousands of immigrants, including thousands of children, remain imprisoned in immigration detention centers across the country in conditions that are unsanitary and often unsafe. Like Europe, the United States has also outsourced much of its immigration deterrence to other countries, Mexico in particular. Beginning in 2018, the so-called “progressive” President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) agreed to a deal with President Donald Trump whereby the newly created Mexican National Guard would be deployed to capture, detain, and guard mostly Central American and Carribean immigrants attempting to enter the United States through Mexico. Since the agreement, Mexico has deported more than 100,000 immigrants and asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing economic and political turmoil that is often the result of U.S. imperialism and direct interference, such as the right wing coup in Bolivia and the attempted coup in Venezuela.

Despite the efforts of the EU and the United States to curb irregular immigration, the number of desperate refugees willing to take the risk has only increased. The biggest effect of these policies, then, has not been to reduce irregular immigration, but to make the process of immigration more troublesome, humiliating, and dangerous for the hundreds of thousands of people who seek entry into Europe and the United States each year. At the same time the constant threat of deportation if and when they do arrive keeps many workers in a constant state of precarity that oils the wheels of capitalist exploitation. These policies are in part designed to discourage future immigration, but also to placate the voices of right-wing populists that have used immigrants and immigration as a scapegoat for the increasing inability of capitalism to provide even the most basic necessities to ever-increasing sections of the population. 

Dividing the Class

The policies of Fortress Europe and the continued militarization of the U.S. border are, as any student of contemporary politics will tell you, driven in large part by a growing and increasingly powerful right-wing populism that is inherently anti-immigrant. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, for instance, have both benefited from and added fuel to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK and the United States, and their ideas have found supporters among both the petit bourgeoisie middle classes and everyday working people. But that is only part of the story. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been around for decades, after all, and the militarization of the U.S. border was a widely popular bipartisan affair. Even today, support for militarized borders and tough immigration laws remains strong among liberals and the so-called Left. In the United States, for instance, President-Elect Joe Biden, afraid of what he argued would be a rush of millions on the Southwest border, is now walking back campaign promises to immediately overturn Trump’s horrific immigration policies that have stranded hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Mexico. In Europe, even leaders of supposedly Left wing parties, such as Germany’s Die Linke, have felt compelled to pursue an anti-immigrant platform to appeal to angry working class voters

This new wave of xenophobic anti-immigration sentiment that has swept Europe and the United States may be driven by populist and nationalist politics and politicians, but its roots lie in the ongoing economic and political crises of global neoliberalism, which has immiserated the working classes of the developed world, driving down their standard of living and creating growing inequalities that have left increasing numbers of working people behind. The race for profit through globalization, outsourcing, casualization, and efficiencies of production, combined with decades of state austerity, have resulted in millions of workers without access to stable, well-paying jobs, health care, education, or affordable housing. In such situations, scapegoating immigrants by blaming them for driving down wages or threatening to bankrupt already reduced social welfare programs has become an easy way for political leaders and the capitalist class to elide responsibility for the failures and contradictions of the system of capitalism that they are attempting to prop up and from which they so richly benefit. 

But immigrants are not a threat to working people in Europe or the United States. In fact, the militarization of arbitrary borders, the continued criminalization of irregular immigration, and the classification of human beings into legal and illegal, citizen and non-citizen, only divides the class in ways that make the power of working people weaker and less able to fight back against capital and the state. Instead of supporting anti-immigrant policies, all working people, including working class immigrants, must first recognize our shared interests and take up a program that unites rather than divides. Toward that end, we must fight for the demilitarization of borders, the closure of all detention centers, an end to all deportations, full legal and democratic rights for all immigrants, admission of all refugees and asylum seekers, and an end to all imperialist interventions in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The deaths in the Mediterranean and on the U.S. border in 2020 are a tragedy. But they were avoidable deaths. The people who died were desperate working people, victims of a system built on profit that uses the instrument of the state to enforce exploitation and limit cooperation among the international proletariat. Putting an end to such deaths will require the end of the capitalist system as we know it, but to do that, working people must also put an end to imperialism, nationalism, and the very borders that divide us.  

About author

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, and activist. He teaches at The City University of New York.