Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

The human cost of border deterrence

The price of preventing people from crossing borders is measured in lives lost

Alma Maquitico
20 May 2022, 2.29pm

Walking into the United States


Adrees Latif/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

As officials from around the world gather in the United Nations to evaluate progress on the Global Compact of Migration, their governments continue to build walls, militarise borders, and criminalise human mobility. This harms the world's most disadvantaged, including women, children, Indigenous, and Black migrants.

Instead of addressing the root causes and drivers of migration, or creating regular channels for those escaping climate and socio-political crises, governments are also continuing to conclude bilateral and multilateral agreements to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from crossing borders in search of protection. In Central America alone, more than a million migrants have been subjected to expulsions, pushbacks, and violence at borders often in violation of international human rights and the principle of non-refoulement. This principle guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman treatment or other irreparable harms.

The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) guarantees respect for the human rights of migrants and establishes a framework for international cooperation to save lives. Yet, along the North and Central American migration corridor, migrants face suffering and life-threatening situations at all stages of migration. This includes food and housing insecurity, walls and military forces, organised crime, family separation and unjust and prolonged detention. At the US-Mexico border especially, ‘prevention through deterrence’ policies single out Brown and Black migrants as targets of their simple message: ‘don’t come’.

Pain, trauma, and death are central consequences of the immigration deterrence model.

The US has, for decades, used immigration deterrence as its primary tool for addressing migration. Its complex architecture of laws, walls, drones, biometrics, data-sharing, surveillance technology, and human guards is designed to enforce two parallel border regimes: one that facilitates the mobility of the privileged, and one that criminalises the marginalised and the forcibly displaced.

The sealing of the border, and successive border shutdowns during the pandemic, created a human rights catastrophe. Thousands of migrants have perished or gone missing in the vast territories of the borderlands. The families and community organisations trying to track them down, meanwhile, must contend with a web of morgues, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, embassies, and consular officials to recover their remains. Pain, trauma, and death are the central and intended consequences of the immigration deterrence model.

Made in the USA

This model is now being exported to Central America. Several signed agreements between the US and Central American countries have set the basis for extra-territorialising the US-based immigration deterrence strategy. These include: the US-Mexico Joint Declaration and Supplementary Agreement (US-Mexico); the Guatemala Arrangement for Irregular Migration (GAIM) and the Biometric Data Sharing Program (US-Guatemala); the Border Security Agreement and Biometric Data Sharing Program (US-Honduras); and the Asylum Cooperative Agreements (US-El Salvador), among others.

Military participation in migration management also increased considerably with the pandemic. In the case of Mexico, the US-Mexico Joint Declaration and the Supplementary Agreement resulted in the initial deployment of more than 6,500 members of the Mexican National Guard on the southern border and 15,000 on the northern border to deter people from migrating to the US. In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the US promoted the participation of border patrol agents in the training of military forces and civilians to halt migration flows.

Communities along the northern and southern Mexican borders have long experienced what it means to have the military carry out immigration functions. Racial violence, in particular, has intensified against Black migrants, Indigenous, and people of Indigenous descent. These groups are systematically profiled, subjected to arbitrary detention, and targeted with xenophobic narratives and other forms of discrimination.

The externalisation of the US immigration deterrence also enables violence against women, girls, and non-binary migrant persons. The presumption of criminality subjects these groups to persecution rather than protection and creates a permissive environment for border agents to dehumanise, abuse, beat, and sexually abuse migrants. Victims of sexual assault in immigration detention are often deported without an opportunity to seek justice, enabling soldiers and immigration officers to continue acting with impunity. Furthermore, policies purportedly undertaken to assist victimised migrant women worsen their situation, as anti-trafficking strategies are used to 'justify' a host of militarised immigration enforcement interventions that make migrant crossings even more dangerous. The immigration deterrence project makes the migration journey more violent and deadly for migrants.

Safe, orderly, and regular migration, in accordance with GCM, can only be achieved if:

States reorient migration governance away from deterrence strategies that fuel the crisis of migrant deaths. They must also ensure the centrality of human rights in all border policies, practices, and procedures.

  • End pushbacks at the border, which make migrants vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, discrimination, and violence in countries of transit.
  • Ensure migrants and asylum seekers have immediate access to protections, shelter, and safety at the border, including access to services, asylum, and due process.
  • Develop migration governance frameworks that recognise and address the structural drivers of migration, including climate change, systemic racism, poverty, and social violence.

Develop mechanisms and protocols at all levels that facilitate search, identification, and reunification of deceased migrants with their families.

  • Provide full support to civil society organisations and forensic teams engaged in search and identification.
  • Work collaboratively towards mitigation and guarantees of non-recurrence to address the crisis of migrant deaths and disappearances.
  • Extend psycho-social, economic, and holistic support to families of disappeared migrants and those who perished in transit.

Create pathways for regular migration. These must provide immediate rights-based protection, options for permanent residence, citizenship, and meaningful participation in civic life.

  • Increase access to visas and rights-respecting migration pathways for people in migration who are moving across borders in search of jobs, family reunification, or escaping social, economic, and political devastation.
  • Address the growing climate crisis fuelling internal displacement and migration and improve support, protection and assistance to people migrating due to climate change.

This article is part of a series published to coincide with the UN's first International Migration Review Forum (16-20 May). The series was produced in collaboration with the Global Coalition on Migration, and draws its content from their new Spotlight Report on Global Migration. The report centres migrant human rights in the discussion and calls for gender-responsive and permanent regular pathways, regularisation of undocumented migrants, and protection of migrants’ rights. It highlights the voices of grassroots organisations, activists and communities across its six chapters.

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