From where Violeta Monterroso stood, in a migrant encampment near one of Tijuana’s main border crossings, she could almost see San Diego, the shimmering American city just beyond the frontier fence. She could see American cars as they slid down a highway and disappeared toward a ghostly skyline, and she could imagine what lay almost within reach. But that promised land was also infinitely distant. From the Mexican side of the border, mired in inches of mud that reeked of broken portable toilets, the entire U.S. might as well have been a mirage.
When Monterroso and her husband Cándido Calderón arrived in late November with their children, Kenia Jasmin, 12; Isaac, 11; and Yeimi, 9, they added their names to the bottom of a list in a thick book. There were more than 5,000 migrants ahead of them waiting to request asylum in the U.S., and because of recent changes in policy, American authorities were processing only 40 to 100 requests a day. Monterroso and Calderón expected it would take months before their names were called.
But they were willing to do whatever it took. Going back to Guatemala was simply not an option, they said. Monterroso explained that in October, their family was forced to flee after a gang threatened to murder the children if they didn’t pay an exorbitant bribe, five months’ worth of profits from their tiny juice stall. The family hid for a day and a half in their house and then sneaked away before dawn. “There is nobody that can protect us there,” Monterroso said. “We have seen in the other cases, they kill the people and kill their children.” Her voice caught. “The first thing is to have security for them,” she said of her kids, “that nothing bad happens to them.”
All told, more than 159,000 migrants filed for asylum in the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, a 274% increase over 2008. Meanwhile, the total number of apprehensions along the southern border has decreased substantially—nearly 70% since fiscal year 2000. President Donald Trump has labeled the southern border a national crisis. He refused to sign any bill funding the federal government that did not include money for construction of a wall along the frontier, triggering the longest shutdown in American history, and when Democrats refused to budge, he threatened to formally invoke emergency powers. The President says the barrier, which was the centerpiece of his election campaign, is needed to thwart a dangerous “invasion” of undocumented foreigners.
Tracing the Journey
But the situation on the southern border, however the political battle in Washington plays out, will continue to frustrate this U.S. President, and likely his successors too, and not just because of continuing caravans making their way to the desert southwest. Months of reporting by TIME correspondents around the world reveal a stubborn reality: we are living today in a global society increasingly roiled by challenges that can be neither defined nor contained by physical barriers. That goes for climate change, terrorism, pandemics, nascent technologies and cyber-attacks. It also applies to one of the most significant global developments of the past quarter-century: the unprecedented explosion of global migration.
Monterroso and Calderón, along with the thousands of other families who had gathered in late November in encampments outside Tijuana, represent a tiny fraction of the record-breaking 258 million international migrants, defined by the U.N. as people living outside their country of birth. The total number has more than doubled since 1985 and ballooned by 36 million since 2010.
They abandoned their homes for different reasons: tens of millions went in search of better jobs or better education or medical care, and tens of millions more had no choice. More than 5.6 million fled the war in Syria, and a million more were Rohingya, chased from their villages in Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands fled their neighborhoods in Central America and villages in sub-Saharan Africa, driven by poverty and violence. Others were displaced by catastrophic weather linked to climate change.
Taken one at a time, each is an individual, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, hope and despair. But collectively, they represent something greater than the sum of their parts. The forces that pushed them from their homes have combined with a series of global factors that pulled them abroad: the long peace that followed the Cold War in the developed world, the accompanying expansion of international travel, liberalized policies for refugees and the relative wealth of developed countries, especially in Europe and the U.S., the No. 1 destination for migrants. The force is tidal and has not been reversed by walls, by separating children from their parents or by deploying troops. Were the world’s total population of international migrants in 2018 gathered from the places where they have sought new lives and placed under one flag, they would be its fifth largest country.
The mass movement of people has changed the world both for better and for worse. Migrants tend to be productive. Though worldwide they make up about 3% of the population, in 2015 they generated about 9% of global GDP, according to the U.N. Much of that money is wired home—$480 billion in 2017, also according to the U.N.—where the cash has immense impact. Some will pay for the passage of the next migrant, and the smartphone he or she will keep close at hand. The technology not only makes the journey more efficient and safer—smugglers identify their clients by photos on instant-messaging—but, upon arrival, allows those who left to keep in constant contact with those who remain behind, across oceans and time zones.
Yet attention of late is mostly focused on the impact on host countries. There, national leaders have grappled with a powerful irony: the ways in which they react to new migrants—tactically, politically, culturally—shape them as much as the migrants themselves do. In some countries, migrants have been welcomed by crowds at train stations. In others, images of migrants moving in miles-long caravans through Central America or spilling out of boats on Mediterranean shores were wielded to persuade native-born citizens to lock down borders, narrow social safety nets and jettison long-standing humanitarian commitments to those in need.
The U.S., though founded by Europeans fleeing persecution, now largely reflects the will of its Chief Executive: subverting decades of asylum law and imposing a policy that separated migrant toddlers from their parents and placed children behind cyclone fencing. Trump floated the possibility of revoking birthright citizenship, characterized migrants as “stone cold criminals” and ordered 5,800 active-duty U.S. troops to reinforce the southern border. Italy refused to allow ships carrying rescued migrants to dock at its ports. Hungary passed laws to criminalize the act of helping undocumented people. Anti-immigrant leaders saw their political power grow in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Italy and Hungary, and migration continued to be a factor in the Brexit debate in the U.K.
These political reactions fail to grapple with a hard truth: in the long run, new migration is nearly always a boon to host countries. In acting as entrepreneurs and innovators, and by providing inexpensive labor, immigrants overwhelmingly repay in long-term economic contributions what they use in short-term social services, studies show. But to maximize that future good, governments must act -rationally to establish humane policies and adequately fund an immigration system equipped to handle an influx of newcomers.
It is impossible, of course, for individual migrants like Monterroso and Calderón to fully appreciate their role in this immense global movement. When they left Guatemala on that dark morning, they could hardly consider the news footage that would frame the migrant caravan as a column aimed at breaching the U.S. homeland. But they got a sense of things when they arrived. In Tijuana, Kenia and Yeimi knelt on a sidewalk, piecing together a Frozen-themed jigsaw puzzle. But just across the border, U.S. soldiers, fresh from overseas deployments, gathered to defend the U.S. against people like them. The sound of a military chopper cut the air.
In Murfreesboro, Tenn., Albertina Contreras sits in a folding chair behind a Mexican restaurant just down the street from the small brick house she shares with two other families. She wears brown sandals, despite the crisp December weather, and when she speaks, her eyes periodically brim with tears. But she seems less nervous than relieved. She and her 11-year-old daughter Yaquelin Yohana García Contreras are together now, she says, safe in the U.S., thanks to the grace of God.
It’s been a long year. Albertina and Yaquelin fled their home in Cubulco, Guatemala, in early May. It took them three weeks and $6,000 borrowed for the trip. Albertina, 27, says that for years she was raped and beaten by different men in her town, and she’s worried that Yaquelin, her eldest, who is at that tender age between childhood and adolescence, would soon face a similar fate. “She’s on the cusp of that time period of being 13 or 14 years old, and that’s when the girls get picked up,” says Albertina, describing the ubiquitous sexual violence that many Central American women endure. She waits to recount details of her own horrific assaults until her daughter is out of earshot. “There are a lot of women in my country who are killed,” she says.
Traveling to the U.S. felt like a last refuge to Albertina and Yaquelin, but when they crossed into Texas just before dawn in late May, they stumbled into a different kind of nightmare. A few hours after they arrived, U.S. officials forced them apart. No one would tell Albertina where they were taking her daughter, and no one told Yaquelin when she would see her mom again. “It’s humiliation,” Albertina says. “They tell you, ‘You’re illegal. What are you doing in our country? You know they’re going to deport you.’” The worst part was that she had no way of contacting her daughter, and when she finally got her on the phone in early July, all the girl did was cry. They were separated for more than a month, an eternity.
Albertina and Yaquelin didn’t know it at the time, but they were caught up in a major shift in U.S. policy toward asylum seekers. Announced by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018, it resulted in untold thousands of children under 18 being forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S. border last year. Sessions presented it as common sense. People who cross the border illegally are committing a crime, he explained, and therefore must serve jail time. And since children can’t be jailed with their parents, they must be removed from their families. “It’s that simple,” Sessions said. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
The policy was unprecedented in modern U.S. immigration history and, because of it, American officials, following federal orders, acted en masse to detain children. Because of poor record keeping, scores of parents were deported without their kids, -advocacy groups say, and hundreds of migrant children may end up permanently in U.S. foster care. Officials are still scrambling to figure out how many families may have been torn apart. A January 2019 report from the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that the Trump Administration may have begun separating children from their families at the U.S. border in 2017, long before Sessions announced the new policy. Thousands more children may have been separated from their families than previously known.
While the Trump Administration, in the face of intense, bipartisan political pressure, eventually distanced itself from the effort, the question at the heart of the policy remained unanswered: What moral obligation do wealthy nations like the U.S. owe to the world’s most vulnerable? Or, to put that another way: To whom should Americans grant refuge?
In the past, policymakers attempted to answer that question precisely. When the U.S. signed the 1967 U.N. refugee protocols, a refugee was defined as someone outside his country of origin who is afraid to return because of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” In 1979, Congress passed the Refugee Act, committing the U.S. by law to grant asylum to anyone who met that description. But in a changing world, many of the international migrants arriving at the U.S. border no longer fit neatly in any legal category. The Cold War refugee protocols are silent about migrants fleeing rape or corrupt police harassment, or climate-related destruction, or hunger so severe that kids wake up every night crying.
Darileni Rodríguez, 25, left Honduras with her husband, her 3-year-old twin girls and her niece, because they didn’t have enough food. “Sometimes you go one day, two days, without eating,” she said. “I can take it, but the children can’t.” Patricia Hernández, 39, fled her town in El Salvador when she was raped and stabbed after being accused of reporting a gang murder to police. Should either qualify for asylum? What about David Maldonado, 31, a wiry construction worker who fled Honduras after gang members shot him with a 9-mm pistol, once in each leg, just above the knee, for taking a job on a construction site controlled by a rival gang? What about Luz, who fled Honduras with a fresh cesarean scar because her husband beat her so violently she feared he’d kill her next time?
There are no easy policy answers to these questions, no hard-and-fast algorithm that decides whether Albertina and Yaquelin get to stay in Tennessee. What’s clear, however, is that two years into Trump’s presidency, his black-and-white approach to immigration is having a measurable effect, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. By June 2018, less than 15% of people applying for asylum were allowed to proceed through the process, down from nearly 33% a year earlier. And as of last year, the U.S. agreed to accept fewer refugees than it has in more than 40 years.
Americans are hardly alone in finding their nation shaped by its reaction to waves of newcomers. The collapse of the Venezuelan economy has driven more than 3 million people into neighboring countries. And violence in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan has made Uganda, Kenya, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan into the world’s largest refugee camps. Europe, which from 2015 to 2016 received roughly 2 million new migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, is seeing the political landscape remade in many countries as a result.
Sami Baladi and Mirey Darwich, who fled their middle-class home in Aleppo, Syria, in 2013, were among the first wave of Syrians to arrive on European shores. They both remember the day they left with searing clarity. The war had come close, and they feared for their two young daughters’ lives. They called a friend and climbed into the back of Sami’s pickup truck, lying flat on the bed beneath a cover. Sami held their daughter Fabienne, who was 6 years old at the time, while Mirey carried Joyce, who was 1½. They remember the sound of bullets zipping over them, the boom of distant mortar fire. When they finally boarded a plane, a packed troop transport, the pilot warned his human cargo to prevent their cell phones from creating any light, then took off down a darkened runway, flying in a steep corkscrew to avoid fire. Mirey, who was pregnant with their third child, Clara, almost threw up. Sami, overwhelmed, felt nothing at all. “I didn’t have the energy to feel,” he says.
When the Baladis first arrived in their new town, Anröchte, Germany, they were a rarity. Fabienne was the only Middle Eastern kid in her new elementary school, and it was impossible to find a good Syrian restaurant. “When we first came, we were the only Arabic people in Anröchte,” says Mirey. “When I heard Arabic in the street, I would stop them.” Seven years later, everything has changed. From 2011 to 2017, roughly 500,000 Syrians arrived in Germany, according to U.N. data, giving the nation the world’s fifth largest population of Syrians outside Syria. Under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrist party, Germany accepted thousands of migrants from other countries as well. Every fifth person in Germany today is either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, according to the German Federal Statistics Office. By 2018 it was no longer rare to hear Arabic spoken in Anröchte, and Fabienne, who’s in seventh grade now, chatters away in a mixture of German and Arabic with her friends from school.
The surge of new migrants to Europe from the Middle East and Africa was driven by geopolitics. Worsening wars in Syria and Afghanistan were compounded by ISIS’s newfound control of a third of Iraq, authoritarian rule deepening in Eritrea and raging local conflicts in West Africa. But the rapid influx of new immigrants to the region has cut both ways. While newcomers now have a larger immigrant community to rely on, explains Mirey, who wears bleached blond streaks in her long brown ponytail, Germans have inarguably hardened against them. In national elections last year, the far-right anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany nearly tripled its vote share, winning its first-ever seats in Parliament—a win widely seen as a resounding rebuke to Merkel’s immigration platform.
The influx of new migrants to Europe has dropped precipitously since 2016. Arrivals in Europe today are roughly equivalent to what they were in 2014. But, as in the U.S., voters in the E.U. are moved less by statistics and more by the widespread perception of “out of control” migration—language often fueled and perpetuated by populist leaders. And the rhetoric is working.
In elections across the E.U. in 2018, anti-immigrant politicians, campaigning on promises to curb migration and protect Europe’s “Judeo-Christian culture,” have won unprecedented power. Voters in the Czech Republic reelected the anti-immigrant President Milos Zeman in January 2018 and, nine months later, elevated the anti-immigrant Civic Democrats to power during Senate elections. Voters in Sweden, Slovenia, Hungary and Italy followed suit, giving their own right-wing parties a boost in parliamentary elections. In Italy, the virulently anti-immigrant party Lega won nearly 18% of votes, more than four times the votes it had just five years earlier. By the end of the year, polls suggested that if an election were held again today, Lega would bring in 30% of the vote.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who since 2010 has quietly transformed his nation into what he brags is an “illiberal democracy,” has also raised his profile significantly in recent years, largely by embracing hard-line antimigrant policies, describing Muslims as “invaders” and forcing migrant-aid NGOs to pay a 25% tax on foreign contributions. In May, as his government forced George Soros’ pro-democracy foundation out of the country, Orban crowed, “The era of liberal democracy is over.”
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who has emerged as the de facto leader of Italy, has played a role similar to Orban’s in southern Europe. Like Trump, Salvini characterizes migrants broadly as criminals and conflates crime rates with immigration rates. “If I could reduce the number of these crimes and the presence of illegal immigrants, they can call me racist as much as they want,” he told TIME in an interview at Viminale Palace, his Rome headquarters. “I will continue, and people will still support me.” In June, he earned cheers from populists around Europe for refusing to allow about 600 African migrants to disembark from a rescue ship, which had to be rerouted to Spain. Three months later, he worked a 2,000-person political rally into an anti-migrant froth. “Go home! Go home!” the crowd roared in unison.
European populist leaders say they plan to use their newfound electoral power to gain control of the European Parliament in elections in May. That’s ambitious, analysts say, but hardly far-fetched. Under E.U. law, populist parties must capture only one-third of the seats, and then vote in unison. If they do that, they might have the power to influence the E.U. commissioners who control Europe’s divisive immigration decisions. An October study by the European Council on Foreign Relations estimated that populist parties could capture about 31% of the total votes in May. “History will entrust us with the role of saving Euro-pean values,” Salvini told TIME
Centrist politicians are scrambling to contain voters’ concern over new immigration, in order to limit populists’ most powerful rhetorical weapon. In April, the French Parliament passed a new law that speeds up deportations of those who have come to Europe looking for jobs rather than asylum. “We cannot take on the misery of the world,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on French TV in 2017. In May, the Danish government approved a range of new measures to restrict migrants, including requiring newcomers to send their children to Danish child care to learn the language and integrate, and limiting where women can wear the niqab and burqa.
The broader message—that generous immigration policy is incompatible with long-term centrist political success—has become gospel among center-left politicians. In an interview published in November, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the leaders of liberal democracies that they must curb immigration or see it used against them as a political tool. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame” of right-wing populism, Clinton told the Guardian.
The challenge, migrant advocates say, is to avoid allowing short-term political fears to handicap Europe in the long run. Because in truth, while a rapid influx of new migrants strains communities and resources in the short term, newcomers often act as an economic boon to aging nations down the road—helping the very people who fear them the most.
When Kazi Mannan left his village in Pakistan in 1996, wearing the only pair of shoes he owned and clutching a one-way ticket to Dulles airport in Virginia, he was a hard-line anti-immigration advocate’s worst nightmare. The 26-year-old Muslim had no money, no high school diploma and no English. He’d worked since he was a child, hauling ice into his village from a neighboring town, but he had no marketable skills, no résumé, and he was dirt-poor. Mannan’s plan, such as it was, was to secure a tourist visa to visit his cousin, who already lived in the U.S.—and then, somehow, get rich and never leave.
That was just over 20 years ago, and these days Mannan, who’s now 48, owns two businesses in Washington, D.C.—a halal restaurant and a car-service—where he employs 15 people and gives away thousands of meals every year to the homeless. In 2004, eight years after coming to the U.S., he became a citizen. “I was so excited that I am here,” he says.
Mannan’s story scans, at first, as a quintessential telling of the American Dream: that familiar mythology of a young Horatio Alger character who, through grit and hard work, makes something of himself. But what is lost in that reading is that Mannan’s adopted country will likely benefit from Mannan as much as or more than he benefited from it. That’s partly because, like most of Europe, the U.S. has both an aging population and a fertility rate well below replacement—a double-barreled death sentence for long-term economic growth. The number of people worldwide over age 60 is expected to more than double by 2050, according to the U.N., with the highest percentages of elderly in rich, liberal democracies.
People like Mannan, who migrate when they are young, are key to turning around those dismal demographic indicators. In 2017, three-quarters of all migrants were of working age, compared with 57% of the global population, and Mannan’s sons, who are 15 and 19 years old, will enter the workforce in the coming years, just as tens of millions of baby boomers are leaving it. “Politicians today are shooting themselves in the foot by saying they don’t want migrants,” says Hanne Beirens, the acting director of Migration Policy Institute Europe. “In the not-so-distant future they are going to be in the position of telling their people, ‘Actually, we need these migrants.’”
Albertina Contreras and her daughter at a restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Albertina Contreras and her daughter at a restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Davide Monteleone for TIME
Measuring the total economic impact of migrants across all industries is an impossible task. Migrants’ collective influence on an economy shifts depending on their skills and levels of education, and the industries in which they work. But in general, studies show that while first-generation migrants use more social services and rely more heavily on the safety net than native-born citizens, they reduce their need for such aid over time. The economic outcomes of children of immigrants tend to converge with those of children of native-born parents, according to a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution.
There’s also widespread agreement among researchers that migration, as a whole, raises a nation’s total economic output, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. By increasing the number of workers in the labor force, immigrants, who also drive demand for goods and services, make the U.S. economy more productive and contribute to state and federal coffers. One study estimated that foreign-born workers contributed roughly $2 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2016. That’s about 10% of annual GDP.
Basil Bacall, 54, fled Iraq in the 1980s and now owns 22 hotels in Michigan, which together gross more than $100 million each year. As a philanthropist, Bacall has raised more than $10 million for his nonprofit, which supports refugees, and as the CEO of Elite Hospitality Group, a development and management company, he employs more than 1,000 people, about 40% of whom he estimates are foreign-born. Without that immigrant workforce, he says, he’d struggle to keep growing while keeping prices down. “We could not sustain the same amount of development or create as many jobs,” he says.
Bacall is a Republican, but he disagrees with the Trump Administration’s immigration policy. If he had been a young migrant from Iraq today, he says, there’s “zero chance” he’d be let in. “I wouldn’t have had a chance to make an impact or give back.”
The challenge for leaders, in a changing world awash in an enormous population of international migrants, is to ease the fears of native-born populations while simultaneously maximizing the benefits of the pluralistic societies already taking root. Framing the challenge honestly is a good place to start.
Despite the fevered rhetoric in Washington, there were actually fewer undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in 2016 than in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center study. Apprehensions along the border with Mexico plummeted in 2017 to their lowest level since 1971. Inside the U.S., immigrants are less likely than U.S. natives to commit crimes (despite Trump’s suggestion to the contrary) and are overwhelmingly more educated than immigrants were in the past. According to a Brookings Institution analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the biggest group, 41%, of new immigrants from 2010 to 2017 came not from Latin America but from Asia. And as whole, 45% of immigrants to the U.S. had college degrees—compared with roughly 35% of non-Hispanic white Americans.
But statistics go only so far. In elections, facts often matter less than voters’ feelings. In fact, studies show that native-born U.S. and European citizens’ perception of immigration writ large, and the character of new immigrants in particular, is largely wrong. Native-born citizens dramatically overestimate how many immigrants live in their own communities. They also underestimate the average immigrant’s skills and education levels while overestimating their poverty rate and dependence on social safety nets. Native-born citizens also overestimate the share of immigrants who are Muslim.
But as always in politics, perception is reality. A 2017 study by Democracy Corps, a research firm co-founded by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, found that white Trump voters without a bachelor’s degree, who had voted for Obama and identified as Democrats or Independents, overwhelmingly felt that their culture was under siege. America, they reported, was divided between white, struggling, working-class people like “us” and a nonwhite, often immigrant “them.” That sense of cultural siege held even in a community that remains more than 80% white, the study found. Researchers in a 2018 Harvard study on immigrant perception reported similar findings. “While all respondents have misperceptions” about immigrant communities, the researchers wrote, “those with the largest ones are systematically the right-wing, the non-college-educated and the low-skilled working in immigration-intensive sectors.”
Experts say correcting misperceptions about newcomers is only half the battle. The other half requires wealthy nations, like the U.S. and much of Europe, to rationalize their immigration policies, streamline asylum systems to eliminate torturous wait times, create a better system of temporary work visas and consider offering safety nets to the low-wage native-born workers most likely to compete with immigrant labor.
In the U.S., comprehensive immigration reform has consistently stalled in Congress despite bipartisan support. Legislative proposals to fix the system would require restructuring visa criteria and creating a legal path to citizenship for certain immigrant groups, including the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. Most bipartisan bills also include more funding for technology-based border enforcement. Instead of building a physical wall, as Trump has promised, existing bills propose cameras, radar towers and fiber-optic cables to secure the boundary.
In the E.U., stuttering efforts at immigration reform have focused on which E.U. countries are obliged to settle refugees and economic migrants, and how to distinguish between them. Immigration-reform advocates have also focused on creating uniform integration programs across the E.U. and on efforts to enforce asylum denials.
But any long-term solution, experts insist, must address the reasons people leave home in the first place. In Central America, that means establishing security and rule of law. Texas Republican Representative Will Hurd, among others, has suggested implementing a comprehensive foreign aid plan for much of the region, comparable to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. Doris Meissner, onetime head of the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the director of the Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, has suggested a similar, international effort to funnel humanitarian aid and establish stability and export markets in nations from which tens of thousand of people flee each year.
Destination nations can help by standardizing migrants’ reception. Last year, world leaders debated two new agreements designed to establish international norms governing how nations should treat refugees and asylum seekers. In December, the U.N. General Assembly took steps in that direction, adopting two nonbinding compacts. One of the agreements, the Global Compact for Migration, is the first-ever U.N. agreement creating a comprehensive global approach to international migration. The U.S. did not participate in the negotiations and does not support the agreements.
But protocols and treaties can, at best, hope to respond to the human emotions and hard realities that drive migration. No wall, sheriff or headscarf law would have prevented Monterroso and Calderón, or Yaquelin and Albertina Contreras, or Sami Baladi and Mirey Darwich from leaving their homes. Migrants will continue to flee bombs, look for better-paying jobs and accept extraordinary risks as the price of providing a better life for their children.
The question now is whether the world can come to define the enormous population of international migrants as an opportunity. No matter when that happens, Eman Albadawi, a teacher from Syria who arrived in Anröchte, Germany, in 2015, will continue to make a habit of reading German-language children’s books to her three Syrian-born kids at night. Their German is better than hers, and they make fun of her pronunciation, but she doesn’t mind. She is proud of them. At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise, she tells them, “We must be brave, but we must also be successful and strong.”
Risking it all crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous trek no one should tackle
In the notorious Darien Gap spanning the Colombia-Panama border, a young pregnant woman and her husband from Haiti were left alone to face the unforgiving jungle along one of the world’s most dangerous irregular migration routes.
No roads, poisonous snakes, steep mountain ranges, raging rivers and groups of armed robbers had deterred Jean Horima, 25, and his wife Rose from risking their lives as thousands of desperate people from countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh or Somalia do every year trying to reach the United States, Canada or Mexico.
More than 42,000 Haitians, including thousands of children, have tackled the perilous journey so far this year, hoping to gain refugee status and better futures. Many have not made it and Jean and Rose know they are lucky to have survived, especially as the baby came early.
“The jungle is brutal; it’s really, really tough. The hardest thing for me was to climb the mountains and cross the water,” says Jean. ”There are also people in the forest who will rob or kill you. I know some who got killed. Yes, people who left before me and when I arrived, I found them dead in the woods.”
The couple had started the week-long slog from the Colombia side with 50 others, but when the first hill loomed, the group abandoned them. After several days tackling the dense rainforest, Rose went into labour in the middle of nowhere.
“I was with my wife, and she told me what to do to help and save her,” says Jean. She gave birth and told her husband to cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors. “I also had a black string, so I told him to use it to tie the baby’s umbilical cord. Then, we used a t-shirt to make a bag to put the baby in,” says Rose.
The birth of a healthy baby boy gave them the courage and strength to continue and three days later, the exhausted but relieved family emerged at the Migrant Reception Station (ERM* by its Spanish acronym) in San Vicente, Panama, which is managed by the Panamanian Government with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
Vertulo Renonce and Guerline Mettelus from Haiti have also survived the Darien trek. They had travelled from Chile with their three-year-old son Louvertir, and crossed Colombia’s border with Panama in February. The couple has five other children and hope to join their two eldest in Guatemala. The other three are still in Haiti.
The parents have had difficulty communicating with their children since they arrived at the migrant reception centre in Lajas Blancas, but life there is not just an emotional drain.
“The can of milk Louvertir drinks costs USD 4.50 and about every two days I have to buy a new one,” says Guerline. The room in the Guatemala hostel where her children are staying is USD 20 a night, and her children in Haiti have missed school for more than a month because their fees have not been paid.
They arrived in Panama with USD 400 they had hidden from three armed attackers who had robbed their group of 14 people along the way and have only USD 3 left.
Lajas Blancas looks like a small neighbourhood where up to 500 people can be sheltered. Near the only entrance is a small kiosk where people gather to buy refreshments and biscuits and to charge their mobile phones. Off to the right are tents, showers and toilets. Down by the river is the quarantine and care area for people with COVID-19, where access is restricted.
Outside his tent, Jean François, who left Haiti in 2015, is grateful for the respite in his journey from Brazil with his four children. He greets a childhood friend who dumps firewood collected from the riverbank to prepare rice and beans.
“The food they give us here is not bad, but it is not made with love. That’s what we need,” says Jean François. They had survived a week in the jungle with very little food and travelled from Necoclí, Colombia. “Among the 230 people who crossed the jungle, there were around 100 children. It hurts to see them; the children don’t deserve this,” he says.
In the San Vicente ERM, Jean Paul, his wife and their four children are taking a breather on their way to the United States. After the perils of the Darien Gap, they must still travel through Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
They travelled by boat to the border of Colombia and Panama, where they paid a “coyote”, or migrant smuggler, to walk them through the jungle in groups of hundreds of migrants, most of them Haitian nationals.
On the swings and slide in San Vicente, three of Jean’s young children play.
It’s noon. The officers of the National Border Service are handing out the food and people are crowding at the entrance waiting for their turn. Jean Michelet is sitting with a plate of food in one hand and, lying in his arms, is one-year-old Alejandro, who has not wanted to eat since they arrived at the station three days earlier.
Jean Michelet made sure the three eldest children had eaten and took them to play, giving his wife who sleeps in one of the houses a break. Unsuccessfully, he keeps trying to get his baby to eat. In his face you can see anguish – concern for the future and the pain of remembering the nightmare of the merciless Darien Gap.
*The ERM was built by the Government of Panama with support from international cooperation, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and private enterprise to reduce overcrowding in La Peñita, another ERM. San Vicente provides dignified conditions in which physical separation and other biosecurity measures can be maintained to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Story written by José Espinosa Bilgray, IOM Panama.
Stitching hope: Empowering women in South Sudan towards self-reliance
It is only the first day of training in hand-sewing and the women already have big plans about how they are going to use their newly acquired skills to support their families to gain independence.
“Once I get the hang of hand-sewing, I will learn how to sew with a machine. From there, I will make bedsheets, curtains and tablecloths to sell and use the money to provide for my children,” says 50-year-old Adut Akwar.
Adut and 14 other women from the Hai Masna Collective Centre, an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state, are part of the selected group to be trained by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in an array of techniques including sewing, business and entrepreneurship as well as leadership skills. The group comprises women living with disabilities, young mothers and female-headed households.
Adut lives in Masna with her six children. They fled their home in 2017 when renewed fighting rocked their village in Jur River, forcing thousands of people, including women, children and the elderly to flee to save their lives. Many found refuge in Hai Masna (hosting 3,850 IDPs) and other collective centres around Wau, while the majority of the displaced sheltered at Naivasha IDP camp, formerly known as the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Wau.
She is among the 40 women from Hai Masna and Naivasha who have benefited from the training workshops through the Women Participation Project (WPP). Through this project, IOM’s Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities through vocational and leadership skills training to support them to become self-reliant, encourage them to raise their concerns when they have them and take up leadership roles within the IDP camp and within their communities.
“I am very impressed by the enthusiasm that the women have shown in learning these skills which will help them in rebuilding their lives,” says Titus Muniri, IOM CCCM’s Community Participation Assistant.
“Some women who participated in previous trainings have even gone up and taken leading roles in the camp’s governance structures. We have four women who completed our training who were elected as members of the Community Leadership Committee (CLC) in Naivasha camp,” says Titus.
Adut Akwar says that she “has a plan.”
“When I return home, I will go back to ploughing my fields to grow food for my children,” she says.
“That’s not it though,” she adds with a renewed sense of excitement. “I will also use my time to sew bedsheets that I can sell to make an income.”
Adut says that she hopes that as peace holds in Western Bahr el Ghazal, more women will choose to leave the camps and return to their villages.
“When we leave, we can come together and form women-led cooperatives putting to use the business management and craft-making skills we learnt. We can make some real changes in our lives,” says Adut.
Adut, who was born with congenital upper limb reduction, says that she has never been one to depend on others to do things for her because of her disability.
“I guess, being born with a disability, you are also born with an inherent sense that you have to push harder to show the world that you can,” says Adut. “That is why when I was selected for the workshop, I did not think twice about joining.”
“Sure, I may need help putting the thread through the needle, but the rest I can learn and do by myself,” says Adut.
The Women Participation Project (WPP) is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) under the global “Safe from the Start Initiative” through which IOM’s CCCM team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities.
To find out more about the Women’s Participation Project, visit https://womenindisplacement.org/
Written by Liatile Putsoa, Media and Communications Officer.
Observatory on smuggling of migrants
The Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants is a research initiative funded by the Governments of Denmark, Canada, Japan and Italy, and is being implemented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime since 2019. The website of the Observatory was launched in May 2021.
Smuggling of migrants is a complex crime involving the facilitation of the irregularly entry of people into a country for profit. Migrants are smuggled across borders with the financial or material gain. In establishing an Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants, UNODC seeks to gather information, collect, analyze and disseminate data to enhance the knowledge on this crime and inform evidence-based policy and law enforcement responses.
The UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants gathers data on key areas including migrants’ plans and preparations for the journey – particularly in relation to contact with smugglers, key smuggling routes and experiences on the journey, profiles of migrant smugglers and networks of organized crime, prices for smuggling services and mode of payment, and the types of abuses suffered in the context of smuggling.
Building on data collected in Nigeria and other countries in West and North Africa as well as in Europe, the Observatory has already published findings on smuggling of migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route. Upcoming findings will cover the use of migrant smugglers by Nigerians on the move.
Moreover, UNODC is partnering with the Mixed Migration Centre to collect data in transit and destination countries in West and North Africa to gain specific data on Nigerian use of smugglers in the region. MMC has produced a snapshot of emerging findings based on this research partnership.
Risking it all crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous trek no one should tackle
Stitching hope: Empowering women in South Sudan towards self-reliance
Observatory on smuggling of migrants
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