White House Reaction to European Migration Perpetuates Migrant Suffering in US and EU

Story by Reyna Araibi, Outreach Coordinator, Colibri Center for Human Rights

We are witnessing a human rights crisis as Europe goes through its largest migration influx since World War II. Between January and August, more than 350,000 people have fled their home countries to seek safety and opportunity in Europe. Many of these migrants are from Syria and neighboring countries devastated by civil wars and the violent spread of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Migrating to safety has been extremely dangerous for thousands of people. In 2015, more than 2,600 individuals have died crossing the Mediterranean en route to countries like Italy and Greece. Each day brings another report of deaths—100 people confirmed dead in a boat off the Libyan coast, 71 people found after suffocating in a truck in Austria, and many more thousands whose stories never make international headlines. Those who reach Europe face growing anti-immigrant violence and border security forces designed to keep each new group of migrants at bay.

As a human rights advocate working with migration on the US-Mexico border, I have watched the situation in Europe unfold with anger and sadness, but also with a sense of deep familiarity. There are parallels in the reasons people migrate and the tenacity with which they fight for a better future. But sadly, there are also similarities in the kinds of xenophobic and reactionary rhetoric that are forcing migrants into danger.

News media and photos have made the pain of migrants nearly palpable to communities around the world. With this coverage, many people have called on European leaders to protect human rights. Recently, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest echoed these calls in saying, “Europe should crack down on traffickers who are exploiting migrants and ensure that migrants’ human rights are protected.”

The statement by the White House is not only hypocritical but also harmful. It ignores the nearly two decade-old human rights crisis on the US-Mexico border and perpetuates two harmful beliefs that blind us to the real problems at hand in both these contexts.

First, the White House mimics many American politicians in using traffickers as scapegoats for all the dangers that migrants face. Human smuggling is a clear policy issue, but it does not begin to address the full scope of violence suffered by people migrating to the US and Europe. Rather, scapegoating denies state culpability in the deaths of migrants and diverts attention away from the reality that most violence suffered during migration is structural—a direct consequence of policy designed, executed, and enforced by the state. The White House, and indeed much of the American commentary on this issue, has funneled the blame to traffickers rather than more accurately focusing on continued policies that put people in the dangerous position of needing a smuggler to migrate.

The White House’s statement also committed the same error that many American officials do when discussing human rights—it frames human rights, and human rights violations, as a problem that only exists outside of the context of the U.S. This relieves us of any responsibility to uphold those same values within our borders. While the White House advocates the protection of migrants’ human rights in Europe, it disregards the human rights violations that occur daily on the US-Mexico border as thousands of migrants die and disappear in the remote and harsh border terrain.

Thus, before we can begin to comment on the migration situation in Europe, or anywhere else, we must look inward at our own refusal to adequately, consistently, and humanely address the suffering on the US-Mexico border. Activists in both the US and European contexts are fighting for a future where migration is no longer an act shrouded in danger, where international policies are designed to protect lives, not risk them, and where we can justifiably stand for human rights without the stink of hypocrisy. We cannot create this future if hubs of government power like the White House refuse to openly acknowledge our own failure to protect the human rights of migrants.

For more from the Colibri Center for Human Rights, click here.