As scores of Afghan people desperately attempt to flee their country, it seems completely unfathomable that countries with a hand in the rapidly unfolding humanitarian disaster would deny requests for asylum. Yet, this is the present reality, one that is shaped by decades of restrictive, punitive and dehumanizing systems of migration, asylum and immigration imposed by the global North on the global South.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can enact a more humane and compassionate response to migration by accepting responsibility for and recognizing the traumas inflicted by past and present-day policies, and by learning from approaches elsewhere.
Migrant reception activities on the shores of southern Italy for instance, specifically Sicily — the first point of entry for many people seeking asylum in Europe — where I have been working as an anthropologist since 2014 and the central topic of my recent book, lend insight into what another system might look like.
Prior to the pandemic (some procedures have since been altered due to COVID-19), migrants disembarking in Sicily were received by trained first responders and officials who initiated their petitions for international protection. From temporary reception facilities, new arrivals were transferred to more permanent forms of housing staffed with bilingual social workers and structurally competent health professionals. Or minors may have been placed with a family in a setting of “accoglienza famigliare” (familial reception). Migrants staying at reception centers were encouraged to leave throughout the day to attend school, or to find employment. Even in instances when asylum was not granted, migrants were rarely, if ever, deported.
In the U.S., improving initial reception procedures would require that we end inhumane practices currently in place. For instance, we would not crowd 1,000 or more migrant youth and children into a convention center. We would not separate families and force individuals to sleep on cement floors in cold cells. We would not provide substandard food, or deprive people of basic medical care and other essential amenities. (While the Biden administration ordered that FEMA deliver on “food, water, and basic medical care,” years of watchdog reports on U.S. immigrant detention centers tell a very different story). A better system would also support freedom of movement and show more generosity in granting asylum, instead of deporting 99 percent of asylum-seekers.
Today in the city of Palermo, Italy, migrants benefit from access to a wide array of Italian language courses and vocational training programs, and local organizations and businesses are explicit about their pro-integration projects that also uphold the self-determination and dignity of people of migrant background. In addition, access to Italy’s national health system, including clinics specializing in migrant medicine, is a universal right.
Here in the U.S., a better system of migrant reception, asylum and immigration would facilitate the social and economic integration of recently arrived migrants and ensure universal access to healthcare. We would create and remove any financial barriers to educational and vocational training opportunities, rather than sentencing migrants to racialized exploitation in labor markets or to social death. And our hospitals and clinics would not serve as sites of state apprehensions where foreign-born individuals fear coming into contact with authorities. Rather, we would make certain that all — especially during a pandemic —are unafraid to seek the care that they need.
To be sure, Italy and the European Union (E.U.) boast a long list of egregious human rights abuses when it comes to migration. As yet another boat transporting migrants capsizes off the coast of Libya, E.U. leaders offer minimal sympathy and remain complicit with the region’s most notorious status as the “world’s deadliest border.”
Still, the U.S. could begin to enact an alternative system by no longer labeling and sensationalizing migration as a “crisis.” A more productive direction would be to address, as renowned activist Harsha Walia writes, “[the] actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change.” When officials declare a “state of emergency” on such matters — as border state officials have done in recent months, including the governor of my home state of Arizona — the possibility for trauma only becomes amplified by deferring the need for a more coordinated, humane and compassionate system.
Making strides toward humanizing our response to migration and our immigration system would suggest that we aspire to become a much better society than we are at this time, one that does not intentionally perpetuate inequality. It would mean reckoning with our nation’s history of genocidal settler colonialism; disavowing racial capitalism, the prison-industrial complex, and white nationalism; and issuing reparations. While we have a long way to go in dismantling the current system, our collective liberation depends on it.
Megan A. Carney is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and has done extensive fieldwork on migration both in the U.S. and Europe. “Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean” is her most recent book. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.