Food insecurity is a legitimate basis for seeking asylum

Food insecurity is a legitimate basis for seeking asylum
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In debates about whether to give asylum to the thousands of migrants at the southern border of the U.S., one crucial issue has been blatantly overlooked: food insecurity.

Imagine you and your children have been chronically hungry for days, weeks or possibly months. You have no resources to purchase food. Your government does not distribute food aid.  For a variety of reasons, you’re no longer able to meet your family’s nutritional needs. Meanwhile, you’re barely able to register your children’s suffering because you’ve given them every last morsel, forsaking your own needs in the process.

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What would you do to stop your family from starving?

Food insecurity is a form of violence which stems from an uneven distribution of resources both across and within societies. When asylum-seekers talk about violence in their home countries, they’ve often experienced food-specific violence, such as gangs giving or withholding food as collateral or punishment, or paramilitary groups setting fire to crops. These are explicit threats to human life. 

While we often hear of poverty and violence as underpinning people’s decisions to migrate, it is seldom recognized how these terms — when invoked by migrants themselves — actually index a set of more immediate material needs. As I have documented in my research on transnational migration of Mexican and Central American women into the U.S., food insecurity in their home countries helps to explain their experiences of displacement and the necessity to migrate.  

If you’re wondering why more asylum-seekers do not explicitly name these experiences of chronic food insecurity or hunger when coming into contact with immigration officials or the media, you only need to understand the power of shame in silencing certain narratives.

The ability to feed oneself and others within a household or family indexes biological, moral and social obligations. We feel shame in failing to feed those to whom are obligated. Obstructions to feeding can have significantly uneven consequences for men and women.

In many societies, feeding is one of the many caring labors relegated to women. Arguing that the right to feed is a woman’s right, anthropologist Penny Van Esterik asserts that denying this right is tantamount to torture. Not recognizing food insecurity as grounds for asylum has done harm especially to women; denying asylum to this population reproduces gender-based violence.

In its most recent “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that more than 821 million people are experiencing chronic food deprivation. For the millions of people displaced from their countries of origin today, we should be more cognizant of how food insecurity might explain their displacement.

The Migration Policy Institute recently reported on the rise of famine migration. It is likely that a changing global climate will worsen these conditions, with droughts, floods and extreme weather events causing more and more food shortages. We need to be better prepared as to how we will respond humanely and expeditiously to accommodate the world’s food impoverished refugees.

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Some may argue that asylum should be a fixed category restricted to those with legitimate fears of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. But governments have not seriously revisited international asylum law since 1951, in the aftermath of World War II. Countless policy experts and scholars have underscored how dramatic differences in today’s population of global displaced persons require us to revise these global accords and overhaul what’s included in the category of “asylum.” 

We should show compassion for those fleeing the very painful experiences of food insecurity and hunger. Rather than allowing those displaced by these life-threatening conditions to shoulder the blame, we need to adopt more humane asylum policies that recognize new threats and assume responsibility at the collective level. 

Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She is the author of “The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders” and director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.