“They eat from us.”

Those bitter words, spoken by a deported African migrant to Oxford anthropologist Ruben Andersson, could have been spoken by migrants all over the world about any of us who participate in what is known as “the border security industrial complex.”

In his 2014 book, Illegality, Inc., Andersson describes the massive, multi-billion dollar web of agencies, industries, organizations, groups and people that’s been spun in recent decades around the refugees and economic migrants trying to escape from Africa and Asia to Europe.

This interconnected web includes national and multi-national agencies engaged in migrant detection and exclusion; the defense, security, and technology industries working to build walls, fences, electronic sensors, and other border-control devices; the judicial, detention and deportation systems; the NGOs, nonprofits and individuals attempting rescue and resettlement; the news media and academic researchers; and, at the center, the refugees and migrants themselves, attended by smugglers and others who feed off them directly.

Some 60 million people worldwide are displaced today, the most since World War Two. Yet as Andersson points out, the vast majority, some 86 percent, remain in poor countries. Those who try to make it to Europe, Australia or the United States face a gauntlet of barriers.

An estimated 60,000 migrants and refugees have died worldwide since 2000, many by drowning in the Mediterranean and other seas. On the U.S.-Mexico border, the Border Patrol recorded 6,915 deaths of presumed migrants between 1998 and 2016.

Border as proving ground

A white surveillance tower built by Israeli security company Elbit Systems stands guard above a wooded hilltop in Nogales, Arizona. It’s not much taller than the trees, and from a distance you can barely see it. Even up close, it’s silent and unobtrusive. It looks like a radio tower.

The tower, one of 52 “integrative, fixed” Elbit-built towers along the Arizona-Sonora border, is designed to identify undocumented entrants while remaining essentially invisible to the rest of us. It’s a fitting symbol for the border security industry.

It’s also fitting because this industry was largely pioneered by Israelis and Americans. Israel, needless to say, has had border security issues since its founding, and the U.S.’s long, sparsely-populated border with Mexico has been a proving ground for new technologies, like drones and sensors, used in low-intensity warfare as well as detection of drug smugglers and migrants, since at least the 1980s.

In his 2014 book Border Patrol Nation, Todd Miller describes the border security industrial complex from a U.S. perspective. He writes that, in addition to all the technology and manpower focused on our own borders, the U.S. works to project border security efforts across other countries. We help Mexico, for example, detect and detain Central and South Americans, Chinese, Haitians, Syrians, Iraqis, and others from all over the world who come there in hopes of entering the U.S. If Mexico can stop refugees and migrants before they get to American soil – better yet, before they even enter Mexico – their rights are greatly limited.

According to Australian researcher Lee Ann Weber, the U.S. also pioneered the use of patrol boats to keep undocumented Haitians out of U.S. territorial waters. Since 2013, that practice has been employed by Australia to keep migrants away from its mainland. Australia places all migrants in detention centers on nearby islands, a model praised by Trump but condemned by human rights groups.

European and Canadian approaches

The European Union has also struggled to find ways to limit migration without appearing too heartless. In 2016, the EU paid Turkey almost $8 billion to build refugee camps and stop the flow of migrants through that country, and gave Greece authority to turn back any who made it there. The number of migrants who reached Europe through Turkey and Greece fell from 163,000 in the first eight months of 2016 to 14,000 over the same period this year.

Migrants continue to come through Libya, however, a major transit point for Africans. Some estimates say 220,000 could land in Italy, which has borne the brunt of the influx, by the end of the year. The United Nations reports more than 2,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea so far in 2017.

European leaders are now hoping to make a deal with Libya like they made with Turkey and Greece. The EU is looking to follow Italy, which has taken a tough stance against migrants. Among other measures, the EU wants Libya to refuse to allow rescue boats operated by NGOs to dock at Libyan ports unless strict requirements are met.

Canada, like the U.S. a huge nation isolated by oceans, has been able to deal with refugees more humanely — at least so far. This summer some 4,000 migrants and refugees living in the U.S., primarily Haitians fearful of deportation under Trump, began showing up at a remote border outpost 20 miles north of Plattsburg, New York, to request asylum. Canada has allowed them in and put up a tent city. But deportations are on the rise there too.

We are the ones fighting migration

With wealthy countries spending massive resources to detect, detain and deport relatively few people back to their home countries, the question may be asked if it’s worth it. Apparently it is, and for the deterrent effect alone. Deportees serve as object lessons to others who might be tempted to risk everything for a chance at a decent life.

“We are the ones who are really fighting migration,” observed the deportee interviewed by Andersson.

Those of us who eat from the migrants must keep fighting for their decent treatment, and for them to benefit somehow from the billions spent preventing them from reaching our shores.

–August 30, 2017