Posted by Leandra Barrett – PhD student in Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU
Recent news stories, which are as tragic as they are familiar, highlight the ways anti-asylum and anti-migration policies have been implemented worldwide. Such policies, including the United States’ own “Prevention through Deterrence,” have deadly consequences. In North America, migrants experience deadly exposure on both ends, at both international land-borders: migrants have trekked through blizzards and experienced life-threatening frostbite at the U.S.-Canadian border, and between September 2017 and June 2018, migrant deaths have risen more than 50% at the US-Mexico border.
This ever-changing landscape of immigration policy and enforcement was at the front of my mind as I visited the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’s “Día Mundial Del Refugiado” in Mexico City (the UNHCR is known here by it’s Spanish acronym, ACNUR). Held in the shadow of the city’s historic Monumento a la Revolución, the event engaged the public through a fair featuring many Mexico City-based organizations supporting refugees and asylum seekers, live coverage of the world cup, an art collaborative exhibit featuring work from refugees around the world, and games.
A migrant flow visualization within the fair’s art exhibit underscored a fact well-known among migration scholars, but less so among the public: despite at-times hyperbolic rhetoric by leaders in the Global North, the vast majority of displaced persons remain in the Global South, as brilliantly and incomparably visualized by this similar, interactive online map.
In this global context, Mexico has taken in an increasing proportion of refugees and asylum seekers. The Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) saw applications for refugee status rise 150% in the months after President Trump’s election, resulting in a 325% total increase in asylum applications between 2015 and 2017. Through preliminary fieldwork in Mexico City, I have seen the scope of the global refugee crisis as it’s playing out here. While is evident that asylum seekers arrive from nearby countries including El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, Mexico has also seen applications from countries as far as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Iran, Somalia and Yemen.
Geographer Reece Jones argues in Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (2016) that “movement is a problem for all states in the global system (67).” With the support of the Tinker Field Research Grant, I’ve observed how the hardening border in Canada and the US is both prompting an increasing number of migrants to lodge asylum claims in Mexico, and simultaneously has prompted the Mexican state to increase it’s own anti-migrant enforcement practices. As Jones argues, “wealthy Western states are not the only ones restricting movement at borders through walls, security agents, and mutual agreements with neighboring states. Instead, states as diverse as Israel, India, Bangladesh, and Australia are engaging in similar practices, with similarly devastating consequences for people who want to move” (48).
This raises an important question for me as I embark on the second half of my research trip; while I had known that more asylum seekers were arriving in Mexico, I remain curious how the fortification of US and Canadian borders has prompted Mexico to increase its’ own border enforcement. In exploring migrant-support institutions in Mexico, it has become clear that asylum seekers face a similar uphill battle to normalize status here as they would elsewhere in North America. As Geographer Megan Ybarra shows, Mexico has detention facilities at it’s southern border; though in conversations with migrants here, they emphasize that the facilities are less brutal, and exists on a significantly smaller scale than those in the United States. At the same time, migrants experience a more perilous existence outside those facilities, both at the hands of corrupt police and organized crime groups. Recently, journalist Daniel Alvarenga showed “how the US is supporting Mexico’s efforts to control immigration from Central America” through this fantastic piece of video journalism. Another questions I’ve been musing, but haven’t had space to fully explore, is how the UN, despite offering extensive support to migrants, reinforces the international nation-state system, thus producing even more refugees; in other words, what is a refugee in a state-less, borderless world?