by Joseph Nevins
The deaths of unauthorized migrants have long scarred the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. But as evidenced by a single incident on Sunday, April 19, the Mediterranean is the global epicenter of such fatalities.
An estimated 850 migrants—from a variety of countries, including Eritrea, Syria, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh— perished when their less-than-seaworthy vessel capsized in the waters between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa. According to one report, “authorities described a grisly scene of bodies floating and sinking in the warm waters, with the majority of the dead apparently trapped in the ship at the bottom of the sea.”
In response, Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, borrowed a page from the talking points of U.S. authorities by pointing the finger at migrant smugglers. Using words that obscure how the growing strength of the European Union’s border policing apparatus—what many call “Fortress Europe”—effectively requires migrants to rely on professional smugglers and take ever-riskier routes to reach their hoped-for destinations, Renzi called smugglers “the slave drivers of the 21st century.”
It is hardly surprising that officials charged with policing national territorial boundaries do not indict the very system that kills migrants: the nation-state and its associated apparatus of exclusion for those deemed undesirable or unworthy. In the case of international human rights organizations, however, one can and should expect much better. Instead, one gets (at best) handwringing and calls for governments to make greater efforts to rescue endangered migrants. Meanwhile, these same organizations uphold and legitimize the very practices that make migrant fatalities inevitable, and thus help reproduce them.
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