Around the world, millions of people are fleeing their homes to escape war and persecution, to seek refuge from environmental disasters or to find better economic opportunities for their families. But in the countries faced with accepting them, new border walls, nationalist policies and other barriers are escalating the human tragedy. Working on different continents, the two filmmakers in the “Global Mosaic” film “Migrant Journeys” go behind the headlines to tell the personal stories of young migrants who battle the odds and keep trying to come.
In Spain, Paula Palacios has directed more than a dozen films about refugees trying to reach Europe. In Mexico, cinema programmer Adriana Trujillo makes documentaries about border issues in North America.
Africa to Europe
In the past two decades, more than 20 million people have emigrated to the more affluent European countries as a sanctuary and for economic opportunities. But millions are still trapped in refugee camps along border countries, unable to gain entry. Many migrants from Africa risk their lives trying to reach Southern Europe by buying passage on small boats. Hundreds have died trying, and recently Italy and Spain created a coast guard blockade to prevent boats carrying migrants and humanitarian ships that have rescued refugees at sea, from docking at European ports.
Why do they keep coming? In the 1980s, when Spain entered the European Union, migrants started coming from across the Mediterranean to work in agriculture in coastal towns like El Ejido, a municipality of Almería province, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain, where 26,000 greenhouses sprawl over 80,000 acres. Visible from space, it has been nicknamed the “Sea of Plastic.” More than 100,000 workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, “were welcome here because they helped to expand this area and supply Europe with fruits and vegetables,” said Palacios. “But for some years now, migrants are not so welcome. Migrants find, instead of a plastic sea, a plastic wall.”
“Migrant Journeys” follows two Moroccan boys, Samir and Abubaker, who smuggled themselves into Spain hoping to start a new life and send money to their families back home. They told Palacios that they left Morocco because there were no opportunities, and although they have dreams of someday visiting America, all they want right now is a job.
Samir and Abubaker have received help from an aid organization in El Ejido that works with the government to support young migrants under age 18 with food, shelter and clothing. But after four months, they have only found work for a couple of days. If they don't find a steady job by the age of 18, they lose the special benefits provided to minors, and won't have enough money to buy food or pay rent.
The surge of VOX, an extreme right party in Spain, is working to eradicate the arrival of migrants like Samir and Abubaker. Its anti-immigration policies, which include deporting all illegal immigrants and repatriating any migrant convicted of a crime, resonated with a growing number of voters.
“Sometimes I wonder what we have done wrong,” said Palacios referring to the European governments, “because for many years we have exploited their resources in Africa, making them flee. And they were welcomed here because they helped us to develop our countries. But now we don't need them anymore. And even though we continue to exploit their countries, they're not welcome.”
In recent years, tens of thousands of migrants from Latin America have crossed the Guatemalan border into southern Mexico. Sometimes joining into caravans for safety, they continue on a long and dangerous journey north to the U.S. border.
The “Global Mosaic” team first met Victor and Abigail in October 2018 in southern Mexico after the young couple had walked and hitched more than 300 miles from El Salvador. Joining a caravan along with hundreds of families, they were headed for Tijuana – another 2,400 miles north – to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Victor and Abigail left their homes because of gang violence and the lack of opportunities but they never completed their journey. They were deported back to El Salvador by Mexican police before the caravan arrived in Tijuana.
“I’ll try again or I’ll never improve my life,” Victor tells Trujillo, “If you don’t risk, you don’t win. But let me tell you, my biggest fear is not to come back. You leave your family and everything you love.”
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Rival gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 have been at war for decades. They work like the Mafia, extorting money from local businesses, fighting for territory and killing with impunity. These gangs actually originated in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Their leaders grew powerful in the U.S. prison system and when many gang members were deported to Latin America in the 1990s they took control of major cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
A year later, Trujillo visited Victor, who was working part-time in a cemetery and living with his parents in a small town outside the capital city of San Salvador. Still afraid of gang violence in his country and still hoping to start a new life with Abigail, Victor was planning to make another journey toward the U.S. border. “I’ll try again or I’ll never improve my life,” Victor tells Trujillo, “If you don’t risk, you don’t win. But let me tell you, my biggest fear is not to come back. You leave your family and everything you love.”
President Donald Trump has announced that the U.S. can't accept any more asylum seekers or undocumented immigrants at the southern border because “our country is full.” But many economists believe the country’s immigrant population adds significant value to the economy in the long term. Foreign labor, mostly migrant workers, fill more than a quarter million jobs in the U.S. Many of those migrants are now considered “essential” workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, working long hours in fields and factories, cleaning stores and healthcare facilities. American farmers worry that there are not enough seasonal workers to bring in the harvest.
Although Mexican police and the national guard have slowed the flow of refugee families entering from Central America, the number of immigrants arrested at the U.S. border has surged again. The New York Times attributes this rise in arrests to Mexico’s economic slump and the Trump administration policy of immediately deporting migrants rather than putting them in U.S. detention centers. Most of the migrants deported are boys and men who attempt to sneak through the border because they are looking for work.
Organizations similar to the ones helping Samir and Abubaker are working around the world to assist migrants in finding a new place to call home. Provided is a short list of groups and resources you can tap to learn more about how to help people on their dangerous journey or to help them settle in once they’ve arrived at their destination.
Fundacion Cepaim: A foundation working with migrant youth in El Ejido, Spain.
Open Arms: A Spanish NGO operating ships that rescue refugees at sea.
Pueblo sin Fronteras: A North American transborder organization made up of human rights defenders of diverse nationalities.
Al Otro Lado: A social justice legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico.
Charity Navigator: Learn about the leading charities that work on immigration, refugees, and global migration.
For more information about the "Global Mosaic" series, and additional resources for viewers, visit TheGlobalMosaic.com.
Top image: Migrants cross the Guatemala - Mexico border on a raft. | Still from "Global Mosaic" film "Migrant Journeys”