When fire broke out last week at a Mexican detention center for migrants and asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, it seemed cosmic bad luck, a double tragedy: people forced — by political instability, criminal violence, climate change or economic hardship — to fleeing their homes, faced with a devastating fire as they tried to take refuge. At least 39 people died. The world took notice. Mexican authorities have launched a criminal investigation.
But was it really that random? Or was this double tragedy a harbinger of things to come in a world where seemingly irresolvable conflicts and climate change are already wreaking havoc across the globe?
When I saw the news reports, I immediately thought of my recent trip to southern Turkey, where I went to report on the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in February. There are over 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey who fled the Syrian civil war; I have met dozens of them in my travels around the country. When the earthquake hit, they too suffered cosmic bad luck, a double tragedy.
The earthquake was an act of God, but their situation is man-made. These Syrians cannot return to their homeland because of the brutal conflict there. But they also can’t really go anywhere else, because the Turkish government has – in exchange for 6 billion euros of the European Union — sealed the coast to prevent anyone from going to Europe.
The people who died in the Mexican detention center were held in the same way. Faced with unprecedented arrivals from South and Central America, the United States has pressured Mexico to store asylum seekers, relying on a Trump era pandemic policy which may soon effectively replace it by restarting the practice lock up families trying to cross the border without permission.
This is the morally questionable system the rich world has created for managing the tens of millions of people in the poor world who have fled their homes: Stay there, but we pay. As more and more people try to escape natural disasters, conflict or some brutal combination of the two, rich countries have shown that they will do anything to ensure that these displaced people remain as far from their shores as possible, leaving them trapped to be trapped in unbearable purgatory in so-called ‘third countries’.
It was only a matter of time before one of these tenacious nations spiraled into a crisis — an earthquake, a climate change-induced natural disaster, another war or political crisis — that destabilized the supposedly safe haven while triggering further humanitarian catastrophes.
Do the grand global commitments the world made to protect defenseless people in the aftermath of World War II mean anything? The rich world has developed a shockingly high tolerance for cruelty to keep desperate people out.
I traveled through parts of Turkey with Ahmed Kanjo. Early in the war, Ahmed had been an Aleppo, Syria-based anchor for an Arabic-language news channel. But since he fled to Turkey with his family, he has struggled to make a living practicing our shared craft. I hired him to work with me as an interpreter.
The earthquake had damaged the apartment building where he lived with his wife and four children. He sent his family to another region to stay with his brother for safety from the endless aftershocks, but returned to Gaziantep, Turkey, to work. So he slept in Gaziantep with his friend Abdul Kadir, a young man who told me he escaped from Aleppo after being beaten and harassed by the Syrian intelligence services.
One evening, Ahmed, Abdul Kadir and some of their friends sat cross-legged on the floor, drinking spiced coffee, the air thick with cigarette smoke. I thought of Ahmed’s work as a television journalist. He had shown me video clips, including one of him huddled in a trench, speaking into the camera as explosions and gunfire rang out around him. Although I don’t speak Arabic, I could tell he was a gifted presenter, cool under fire, but able to convey to the viewer the emotional and physical stakes of the battle. Ahmed told me he missed his job.
“Every conversation revolves around where you’re going,” he said. “The world thinks the Syrians in Turkey are okay. They opened a sanctuary, but it’s actually a prison.”
Ahmed and I had more in common than a profession. My roots are in Ethiopia, a country that, like Syria, is known for producing refugees. My mother escaped just as a ruthless Marxist military dictatorship was taking over. She married an American and they gave me the dark blue passport that allowed me to move freely through the world, to have the job that brought me to Turkey, to live a life of freedom. What, other than the luck of geography, separated my life story from Ahmed’s? Or any of our lives, for that matter.
During a pause in the conversation, a quiet, hoarse voice spoke.
“Do you have questions for me?”
It was Abdul Kadir’s 90-year-old grandmother, Rabia, who sat quietly listening to our conversation while resting on a sofa.
I asked her what life was like in Turkey.
“We felt safe here because there are no barrel bombs, there are no shelling, there is no war,” she said. But it was clear that the absence of fear was not enough to live.
I asked what she missed most.
Her olive oil, she said. She printed it herself, from trees in her garden.
“We left all our memories in Syria,” she told me.
This longing for home is something people who rail against migrants never think about. I think of my mother, an American citizen for decades, who occasionally tells me that she wants to build a house in her hometown in Ethiopia. In every poor country I’ve visited there are the half-finished homes of those who emigrated, brick repositories for the dream of return. Few people choose to leave home. It chooses you.
In the aftermath of World War II, the world created a system to protect people who had to flee because of war and persecution. Refugee is a legal term for someone who flees across an international border because of persecution or conflict, which technically differs from the broader category of migrants, people who move from one country to another for other reasons – for example, to survive economically or physically. These categories have always been more porous than we’d like to admit, but in a world ravaged by conflict and disaster, the difference is starting to feel quite academic.
Like many post-war commitments, our commitment to refugees has evolved over time more in theory than in practice. It is officially a shared global responsibilitybut in reality, the burden of hosting these people has fallen overwhelmingly on the poor and middle-income countries, with the rich countries largely footing the bill.
At home, rich countries create one impossibly narrow path to asylum that rules out almost anyone with a valid claim, while preserving the possibility, however slim, of a lucky few going through the eye of a needle. But in reality, the eye of the needle is almost closed. The United States and Europe recognize the existence of a category of persons called “refugees” who deserve special protection, but we make the barriers to seeking that protection almost insurmountable. Instead, we treat the people who try to prove their worthiness as criminals until proven otherwise.
The governments of rich countries may well be content with this arrangement, whereby those forced to flee their homes are provided with the basic necessities for survival at the expense of the taxpayers of the rich countries. But even this meager program, which violates the original idea of refuge, does not enjoy much support among the citizens of the wealthy world. Instead, we seem to be heading for a Hobbesian future in which we simply accept the terrible fate of certain peoples as the misfortune of geography.
It seems we have no choice but to continue down this bleak path. Migration politics have become utterly toxic. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany boldly stated faced with an influx of refugees to Europe: “We can manage it.” Germany took in more than a million people fleeing conflict and persecution, the vast majority of them from Syria. Germany succeeded. But voters across Europe rioted. The following year, Merkel and other EU leaders struck an agreement with Turkey to halt the migrant flow.
No one else stepped up. From the roughly 32 million refugees in today’s world, the United States current cap for resettlement is only 125,000. In 2022, the United States was nowhere near getting there, resettling only 25,000 refugees. The Biden administration struck doing business with Mexico after a political uproar – fueled by Republicans and their allies in the news media – welcomed the arrival of tens of thousands of Venezuelans escaping their country’s economic and political collapse.
“It is clear that there is quite a radical polarization of political views,” says David Owen, a philosopher who writes regularly about the moral and ethical dimensions of migration. “The policy space has shifted quite far to the right.”
It is hard to imagine a leader with the moral courage to do today what Merkel did in 2015. Even the seemingly “good guys” in the rich world want to seal the borders.
Canada — and its Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — has long portrayed itself as a country ready to welcome refugees and eager for skilled immigrants be fill labor force. But the truth is that faced with an influx of people illegally crossing the border into the US, Canada behaved just like any other country: At the end of March, Washington and Ottawa were closed a deal allowing Canada to turn back more people trying to cross the border from the United States. As the French say, “Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous.” Each for himself and God for all.
Here are some headlines from the weeks between when I was having coffee with Ahmed Kanjo in Gaziantep and when the detention center in Ciudad Juárez burned down: British Home Secretary happy handed over with the officials of the repressive government of Rwanda, a country with a long file human rights violations to which Britain hopes to ban asylum seekers. More than 80 migrants died in one boat that has sunk off the coast of Italy. A United Nations investigation closed that the European Union had “aided and encouraged” human rights violations by pledging the Libyan Coast Guard to patrol the Mediterranean and detain would-be migrants.
These people who craved safety and freedom, when faced with a second catastrophe, were simply left to suffer and die.