The Mediterranean has turned into a sea of death. A few days ago, an improvised raft transporting migrants sank, resulting in international media attention. It is estimated that approximately 900 people died in what may be one of the worst incidents of this type in the past years. The media blitz reporting on the hundreds of lives lost to the sea has forced many governments in the European Union, in particular Italy and Greece, to rethink their strategies and contingency plans to face what looks like a situation that will only worsen with time. In this sense, April’s events brings back memories of another boat sinking in 2013 near the Italian island of Lampedusa, which resulted in the loss of 350 human lives.
Regarding the causes of the deaths, generally both governments and media point to the same things: war, poverty, or the scarcity of the South. The opportunity to find a better future, impossible in their places of birth, is why thousands throw themselves across the sea, in spite of the fatal endings that these odysseys can, and often do have. Nonetheless, these reasons, as self-evident as they may seem, are insufficient to explain these events. Just as it is not possible to understand the phenomenon of the African migration to Europe without discussing poverty and violence, it is also impossible to analyze the situation without addressing the complex relationships between European and African people in terms of colonial exploitation, genocide, slavery, and transnational racism.
The precarious situation of many countries of the Global South, among which several are those countries of origin of those who appear in the Mediterranean, and indeed their very existence, is tied to a complex story of occupation by European nations. The alleged racial and national supremacy of Northern people, which served as a justification for the colonial enterprise, has been perpetuated through the instability and precariousness of new Southern states. The poverty and war in these states, the alleged cause of death of these migrants, are not natural and neutral situations, but rather are tied to historical processes of transnational racial exploitation. Thus, circumstances such as European colonialism in Africa could be considered as one of the causes, however removed in time, of the recent migration waves.
The situation described above is not exclusive to Europe. In America as wellthere are vast fields filled with unclaimed bodies, the remains of migrants that perished trying to find their path. The Sonora desert, in the border between the United States and Mexico, is one of the most paradigmatic cases regarding this issue. During the past decade, at least 2,000 bodies have been found in this place (and there is not data regarding those that have not been found). The majority of the migrants come from Central American countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and walk dozens of kilometers to cross the border between the two countries.
Although, unlike those crossing the Mediterranean, the migrants in the Sonora desert do not face a body of water, but rather the lack of it, the hardships they face are similar. In both situations, those who risk their lives to cross from the third to the first world are not white, they are subjected to processes of racialization and discrimination in the places where they are seeking refuge, always at risk of being deported to their countries of origin, and, due to their legal status, they are detained as though they were criminals. Of course, there are different impacts of the migration of different groups of people, according to factors such as their nationality, language, gender, age, and others.
Both the Africans floating to Europe and the Latinos walking to the United States, confront not only a difficult journey, but also, if they are successful, a new home that welcomes them with bitter words and a reproachful look. At the end of the day, it is worth asking if the inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty ought to come with a clarifying note: “whites only”.
*Daniel Gómez-Mazo is a lawyer from the University EAFIT and holds an LL.M. from UCLA. He specializes in critical race theory, law, and sexuality.
This entry was originally posted in Racial Discrimination Watch’s blog in Spanish.
Photo credit: Jim Mullhaupt