Similarities between the U.S./Mexican and European borders

Negar Tayyar
Oct 2 · 9 min read
© JR. The French artist JR launched an international picnic, with hundreds of people sharing meals across the U.S./Mexican border fence in Tecate, Mexico, and Tecate, California. This photo depicts a section of the wall that was turned into a cross-border table with the eyes of a “Dreamer” spanning the divide. Dreamers are the undocumented children in the U.S. who fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Since our inception in early 2016, we have been focusing our grantmaking along the route from the Middle East to Europe. Additionally, we have been providing field-building grants to other parts of the world, e.g., U.S., Ecuador, Chad, Malaysia, and Tanzania. The latter refers to grants supporting innovative and creative grassroots organizations working to shift the refugee response to a more dignified and holistic level. In the interim, we have begun exploring other migratory routes across the globe, including the Venezuelan movement as well as the flow-through Central America to the U.S. Southwest border. In early 2019, we started funding work in Colombia. More recently we commenced our first grant partnerships along the U.S./Mexican border in Tijuana, providing funding to grassroots organizations responding to people on the move. In this fifth edition of our newsletter, we reflect on the similarities we are observing between people on the move in the Americas and Europe, affirming the importance of locally rooted and globally held civic initiatives.

Similarities between both migration contexts

Proper framing is critical. We are observing important similarities between the U.S./Mexican and European borders. In both contexts, it is critical to emphasize that it is not a refugee crisis (a crisis caused by refugees). Rather, what we are seeing is a ‘refugee response crisis’ (crisis caused by an insufficient response). Proper language is vital, and erroneously framing the human flow as a refugee crisis has been distorting the picture.

The key refugee host countries are in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin/Central America.

Together, the U.S. and Europe have absorbed less than 2% of the 94.8 million people displaced in 2019. This total number of people displaced around the world so far in this year alone includes 70.8 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people, and 24 million displaced by weather-related disasters. In both U.S. and European contexts, we see a narrative that disproportionally focusses on fear, scarcity and overburdened capacities. In 2015, the peak year for Europe, around one million people entered the continent by sea seeking sanctuary, which was just 0.13% of its entire population.

© UNHCR, here.

In 2018, the U.S. apprehended 521,090 people at the Southwest border. This number of people crossing the border is lower than the volume recorded during the 1990s and 2000s. In recent years, the majority are women, children (including 11,507 unaccompanied minors in May 2019 alone), and families (84,542 in May 2019, compared to 23,116 in October 2018). It is vital to look at both the actual numbers of people who have been granted protection in the U.S. and the proportion relative to the country’s population. In 2018, the U.S. granted asylum to 26,568 asylum seekers and received 22,500 resettled refugees. In total, the U.S. accepted 49,068 people, which is 0.014% of its population.

While the news disproportionally focuses on the arrivals in Europe and the U.S., the majority of the people fleeing persecution or climate-related poverty are predominantly hosted by their neighboring countries (see graph below). The latest UNHCR data shows that 85% of people on the move are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, which puts a strain on the host communities. Four out of five refugees settled in countries neighboring their home countries. On the migration route across the Middle East to Europe, the primary refugee hosting countries are Turkey and Lebanon. This neighbor-as-host dynamic similarly applies to the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis. Of the 4 million Venezuelans on the move, 3.1 million people (78%) are settled in neighboring Latin America and Caribbean countries; the leading host being Colombia with 1.3 million Venezuelans on the move followed by Peru with 768,000 people.

The U.S. and Europe are hardening their traditional borders while effectively externalizing their border costs, increasing the risk for people on the move.

In lieu of responding with humane policies providing reasonable migrant/refugee protections, the E.U. and the U.S are have instead concentrated on hardening their borders with harsh deterrence policies and physical reinforcement of their borders. In an effort to lower the number of new arrivals in Europe, in March 2016 the E.U. began effectively externalizing a portion of its border protection by initiating and entering an agreement with Turkey. According to this agreement, asylum seekers arriving in Greece are to be returned to Turkey to seek protection, in order to control the crossing of people on the move from Turkey to Europe (via the Greek islands).

In the three years since the agreement’s inception, only 2% of people were returned to Turkey (2,441 of 145,582 Greece-arrivals in total), the balance of whom remain in legal limbo, trapped on the Greek islands and prevented from reaching the European mainland. With neither the E.U. or Turkey incentivized to rectify the situation for political reasons, the result has been chronically overcrowded and inhumane living conditions on the Greek islands. Seeing the drop in numbers of migrants/refugees entering Europe via Greece, the E.U. pursued a similar approach through its agreement with Libya.

In both cases, internationally recognized human rights organization such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the steps as neither Libya nor Turkey are safe third countries for people on the move. In May 2019, 25 humanitarian, human rights, and volunteer organizations called upon European leaders to take action to end the humanitarian and human rights crisis at Europe’s borders.

Deterring people from arriving at Europe’s shores via Libya has also led to increased deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. A recent study by International Political Studies (ISPI), an Italian think tank, highlights that one in eight people on the move setting out from Libya to Italy in the first four months of 2019 died. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that overall one in 17 refugees dies on their attempt to cross the Mediterranean (in 2016 it used to be one in 43 people). Since early 2019, the Mediterranean Sea border to Europe (512 deaths in 2019) and the U.S./ Mexico border (110 deaths in 2019) have become the deadliest borders globally.

In similar fashion to the E.U., the U.S. also has a safe third country agreement with Canada, which means that people on the move coming through Canada will be turned away if they seek asylum in the U.S. and vice versa. The U.S. is currently exploring a similar agreement with Mexico and Guatemala. Such an arrangement would translate into people having to seek protection in Guatemala or Mexico.

Photo credit: Help Refugees

Like Turkey and Libya, neither Guatemala nor Mexico are classified as safe third countries for people on the move by human rights groups. Human Rights First mentions that the U.S. State Department itself acknowledges that rape, femicide, violence against women, trafficking in persons, violent attacks against women, trafficking in persons, violent attacks against LGBTQ+ persons, and gang-recruitment of displaced children are causing severe human rights challenges for people in Guatemala. The bottom line is that efforts by the U.S. and E.U. to push their border issues “upstream” to countries with weaker protections and fewer resources and capacities poses severe human rights violations and increases the risk for people who have no choice but to cross via dangerous routes. Also, safe third country agreements are often not followed in practice, and even when they are, they typically have little or no positive impact on the efficiency of asylum proceedings.

Criminalizing compassion and basic support.

Compounding the policy problems described above, humanitarian actions by everyday people in the U.S. and European are being increasingly criminalized, e.g., volunteer maritime rescuers in Europe, and volunteers providing water for desert crossings of the U.S./Mexican border. Countries across Europe and the U.S. are now criminalizing acts that in their view ‘facilitate illegal immigration,’ but in reality, are saving people’s lives. Those charged have been targeted for providing food, shelter, transport, or other support to people without legal documents.

OpenDemocracy recently compiled a list of more than 250 Europeans across 14 countries who have been arrested (twice as many as in 2017), charged, or investigated under a range of laws over the last years for supporting migrants. The majority of the cases have been recorded in seven countries: Italy, Greece, France, the U.K. Germany, Denmark, and Spain.

Similar developments are happening at the U.S./Mexican border. Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths, a faith-based volunteer organization providing humanitarian support for people on the move, was on trial until last week. Scott was charged with feeding and providing access to shelter for two people on the move without documents. Last week the jury, fortunately, refused to convict Scott.

Photo credit: Courage, by Paul Choy.

Reasons for optimism

From 2018 to 2019, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) recorded an increase of 13.6 million newly displaced people. Currently, there are 37,000 new displacements every day, and 1.7 million people claimed asylum in the last 12 months. These figures include approximately 138,600 unaccompanied and separated children on the move. Forced displacement due to conflict or climate change is the new normal and will only increase as we move into the future together, as one human family. Despite the overwhelming numbers and the grim political context across migration contexts, our local partners are demonstrating the power of direct assistance. We are continuously witnessing locally rooted and globally aware efforts upholding solidarity and providing holistic support ranging from shelter to legal aid. These efforts are proving that there are multiple humane, holistic and sustainable ways to creatively engage with an influx of newcomers while adding value to the local contexts. While some governments continue to react in fear and harden their borders, a significant number of their citizens are instead “choosing love” and are dedicating their time, effort, and resources toward serving people on the move.

Two examples of courageous and committed locally held and globally aware initiatives:

In Lebanon, one of the Middle East’s critical refugee-hosting countries, Women Now for Development, is running a safe space for women and children on the move and locals in the region, bordering Syria. We have been supporting Women Now, since 2017 via Help Refugees, for their critical work in the Beqaa Valley, which is home to 341,475 Syrian refugees (36,5% of all Syrians in Lebanon). The majority of the refugee community are women between 18 and 59 years and their children. Founded in 2012, Women Now provides both psychosocial support and a range of other activities, and has become the largest Syrian women’s organization. Founder Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer and journalist, used the proceeds from the PEN award she received for her book ‘A Women in the Crossfire’ to establish the organization.

On the Greek islands, GWBF works with multiple innovative and nimble grassroots organizations through our partner Help Refugees (read more about the holistic grassroots ecosystem in Greece here). One of the key organizations that evolved in the response to the refugee influx on the island of Lesvos in 2015 is Better Days, a Greek-Swiss organization. Better Days initiated several creative and crucial projects to foster positive and leaning environments for people on the move, bringing humanity and compassion to the refugee experience. Through their program Gekko Kids, Better Days is providing the only educational-lab on Lesvos offering alternative education to unaccompanied or separated minors on the move.

Photo credit: Help Refugees

We welcome your support and interest!

Please view this as an invitation to join us! If you wish to support the fund or the organizations highlighted here directly, we would be more than happy to share more and connect you with these rays of hope!

If you know of further examples of inspiring programs and initiatives upholding the holistic wellbeing of people on the move, please do share them with us. We have embarked on an ongoing learning journey and welcome your ideas and support.

Please visit our website here:

Director of The Global Whole Being Fund (GWBF) / Passionate about transforming the refugee response

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