Voices: I’ve reported on refugee crises in Iraq, Turkey and Greece. Here’s what you’re missing about the San Antonio deaths

·5 min read
Mexico US Migrant Deaths (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Mexico US Migrant Deaths (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

On Monday evening, just before pm, police in San Antonio, Texas responded to a call alerting them to an abandoned truck on a desolate road some 150 miles from the Mexican border. The caller, a worker in a nearby building, said he heard cries for help coming from inside the vehicle.

When police arrived, they found a scene of horror.

"The floor of the trailer, it was completely covered in bodies. Completely covered in bodies," Police Chief William McManus said. "There were at least 10-plus bodies outside the trailer, because when we arrived we were trying to find people who were still alive. So we had to move bodies out of the trailer onto the ground."

Dozens were already dead — they had been cooked alive in extreme heat before the driver abandoned the vehicle. Others were barely holding on to life.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters that the few survivors were “hot to the touch” when they were found. "We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there. None of us come to work imagining that," he added.

When the final toll came a few days later, 53 people were dead. Authorities called it the deadliest human smuggling incident in US history.

But this historic tragedy did not invoke a commensurate response, politically or otherwise. Four days later, the story has largely disappeared from the headlines. There was no period of national soul-searching, as there have been after tragedies of a similar scale. Even considering the high number of other significant news stories such as the end of Roe v Wade and the January 6 committee, the reaction was muted. Unfortunately, this response — or lack thereof — is not unusual.

In my time spent as a foreign correspondent, I have covered migrant and refugee crises all over the world. I have spent time in hastily built structures for Syrians in Lebanon, sprawling city-like camps in Turkey and the Greek Islands, and temporary displacement camps in northern Iraq. I travelled along the European migrant trail twice and spent time in on a migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea. In all of those places, death stalks migrants and refugees. Their lives are perilous, their status insecure, and their existence subject to the political environment of the day.

I’ve learned in the years reporting on migration that despite the regular drumbeat of tragedy and death that befalls people in search of a better life, we consistently learn the wrong lessons, and often make things much worse.

Just hours after police first arrived at the scene of the tragedy in San Antonio — before all the victims had been counted, before the last of them had passed away — Texas governor Greg Abbott released a statement blaming a supposed “open border” for the deaths. “These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law,” he wrote on Twitter.

Abbott’s knee-jerk response is a common response to migrant deaths around the world. When tragedies befall people on their journey to a better life, the solution of governments is often to make their journey even harder. But the truth is this: when safe and legal routes for migrants and refugees to seek asylum are closed, more people die. Those people do not stop fleeing war, political instability or extreme poverty; rather, they are forced to take more dangerous routes.

It is a story that has been told in the thousands of deaths from drowning in the Mediterrenean Sea and in the English Channel, after restrictions were imposed on both routes for people trying to claim asylum. We saw it too in the increased violence faced by migrants who travelled through Europe by land when the borders were closed, and the migrant trail went underground.

And it is happening here in the US today. While it is true that record numbers of people are entering the US illegally, it has never been harder for someone to legally and safely claim asylum in the US. This, in turn, has caused more death. As Jack Herrera writes in Texas Monthly, the border “is more closed today than it’s been in almost all of modern American history.”

Title 42, a decades-old clause in a law that allows the government to block entry to individuals during public health emergencies, was rarely used until Donald Trump put it to action in March 2020. Doing so allowed him to rapidly expel migrants and asylum applicants, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as justification. The Biden administration has deported more than one million people using the policy, while simultaneously trying to have it removed, only to be blocked by the courts.

Coming at a time when a record number of people were crossing the border in response to increased instability across Latin America, these strict policies made it harder for people to seek asylum in the US legally — so many turned to dangerous and illegal crossings. The result? A “historic crisis in migrant death,” as Herrera describes it.

The numbers are there for all to see. At least 650 migrants died crossing the US-Mexico border in 2021, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency that monitors migration. That’s the highest death toll since records began in 1998.

Migrant advocacy groups warn this year will be even worse. Even before the tragedy in San Antonio, the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, warned of a “historically high number of migrants dying in the Rio Grande and on US soil this year, mainly of drownings, dehydration, and falls from tall segments of the border wall.”

There is a grim parallel in the mindset of a Republican Party that advocates for ever more forceful border controls at the same time that it succeeds in banning abortions in many states. Both are rooted in the flawed notion that more restrictions mean greater control, namely fewer migrants and fewer abortions. The reality is that migrants will not stop trying to reach America, and women will not stop seeking abortions — it is just that more will die doing so.