The Geopolitics of Migratory Horror


Jacques Ramírez

Aug, 2022
To Roma

Being born is that small geographic accident over which the individual holds no power. However, determines the amenities or obstacles we face in moving around the world. Our lives are determined by different emotional topographies, as the current world is by a set of mobilities, which are radically different for the inhabitants of the global North and South.

It is not the same being born in Tamaulipas (Mexico) than it is to do so in Toulouse (France) and, nevertheless, many hegemonic theoretical frameworks addressing international migrations, are clearly Eurocentric and produced in the “First World”. They have been exported to realities in which they do not fit (for example, the Andean or Mesoamerican ones), since they can’t contribute to understanding their complexity. We were told for long that this is an “era of migrations” [1][1] Castles, Stephen & Mark, Millar (2004). La era de la migración. Movimientos internacionales de población en el mundo moderno [The Age of Migration. International population movements in the modern world]. México: U. Zacatecas-Porrúa-INM., due to the increase of South-North migrant flows, all while the American Continent was the destination of millions of forced and voluntary migrants centuries ago. As the Argentinean anthropologist Alejandro Grimson remarked “to consider that the increase of South-North migration implies that we live in a time of unprecedented migration in the history of humanity entails considering the novelty that this reception implies for the Europeans as something that should be assumed by the entire world” [2][2] Grimson, Alejandro (2011). Doce equívocos sobre las migraciones [Twelve misconceptions about migration], Revista Nueva Sociedad, N.º 233, May – June. Available at: It means, once more, renouncing or forgetting the history of our continent.

Another example of how the global South assimilates foreign concepts and paradigms in relation to the migrant phenomenon is the narrative according to which the main problem with migration is people traffickers—the “coyotes” or “polleros”, as they are called in different parts of Latin America. Multiple programs against people trafficking have been created to fight them. They aspire to procure flows that are “regular, ordered and safe”. They, however, usually fail to consider the reasons why thousands of people resort to these networks in the first place. Likewise, causal analyses usually lose sight of migration policies demanding visas for all the “southerners” heading North, as well as of the historical inequalities between countries of origin and destination.

Photo_ Irene López_ CC BY 2.0
Part of the geopolitics of migration is determined by this: either the Global South wellcomes the narratives and theoretical frameworks of the North, already transformed into recipes of prefabricated migration policies; or the North imposes its perspective by forcing them to sign clauses of readmission clauses or of border control externalisation: All within the framework of bilateral or multilateral conventions of “cooperation for development”.

The infamous return plans, whose main objective is that migrants (mainly undocumented ones), “voluntarily” leave the place where they live, is an example of the above-mentioned. The case of remittances is even more obvious. When multilateral organisations discovered the juicy amounts of money coming from migrants, they started to toy with the idea that it must be used for the so-called “co-development”. In other words, this meant that the State, with the support of those international organisations and their NGO networks, had a say in how migrants could use the money they sent to their families so that they did not waste it. The equation in their eyes became: “migration plus remittances equal development”, and they intend to make us believe “we all win”—a so-called win-win situation.

In the case of my country, Ecuador, it’s those money transfers from migrants that literally saved the dollarized economy at the peak of the neoliberal phase, between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the new century. Now that the neoliberal agenda is back almost 25 years later, thanks to the government of a banker, the money sent by migrant workers has once more become crucial for thousands of families in overcoming the economic crisis. And it was precisely those multilateral organisations mentioned above who had predicted that in the pandemic and post-pandemic world remittances would decrease [3][3] “World Bank forecasts largest drop in remittances in recent history”. 22/4/2020. Available at: It is clear that they do not understand the meaning of solidarity.

The global South is a recipient of foreign concepts or paradigms in relation to the migratory phenomenon.

It is for reasons like this, that one of the pending tasks for the Global South regarding migrations is the production of our own knowledge. The need to move from a standardised production process of sorts to the capacity of creating our own frameworks. To “break the mould”, as the Peruvian Professor Jorge Durand [4][4] Durand, Jorge (2014). Coordenadas metodológicas. De cómo armar el rompecabezas [Methodological coordinates. How to put the puzzle together]. In La etnografía y el trabajo de campo en las ciencias sociales [Ethnography and fieldwork in social sciences]. UNAM: México. would put it.

To coin our own thought, we must start by debating, questioning and reinterpreting imported theoretical frameworks, understanding migrations and the issues they entail from a critical standpoint. That is, taking into account that these days, most of our communities are immersed in globalisation. This implies that, as they become deterritorialised and reterritorialised, they develop different types of settlements at local, national and international levels. This would allow us to frame the concept of community as a geographical space socially experienced by its members. Together they form a “moving archipelago”, and this metaphor allows us to understand human mobility as a strategy and a way of life in itself.

After this necessary introduction, and given the lack of analytical tools produced from and for the Global South, let’s reflect retrospectively on some of the migration-related facts that led us to the present situation. A world in which, on a daily basis, we witness the increase in migrants’ rights violations (especially youngsters and unaccompanied minors travelling through different geographies, oftentimes clandestinely). In other words, let’s set our eyes on the tightening of control, repression and neo-securitisation in the approach to migrations, which has led to the geopolitics of horror.

Background: Europe’s “read sea”, with no right to disembarking

Images of the migration horror are recurring all over the world, more and more intensely throughout the last decade. In 2015, while thousands of Syrians tried to reach the borders of Europe while escaping war, the sight of little Aylan, lying in the sand of a Turkish beach went around the world. At the same time, hundreds of refugees tried to reach the United Kingdom via the English Channel, through the 28 kilometres of fences that form the Eurotunnel. David Cameron, who was the British Prime Minister at the time, referred to migrants as a “swarm” [5][5] See: “Para Cameron, los migrantes son ‘enjambre’” [For Cameron, migrants are “swarming”], Página 12, 31/7/2015. Available at:, and both London and Paris immediately tightened border controls.

Nowadays, the situation has not changed much, as South-North flows remain predominant at a world level and the North Africa-Europe corridor is still one of the most crowded. Since the end of the so-called “Arab Spring” (especially since the European Union stopped supporting Gaddafi’s Libya, which worked as a plug-State), there has been a progressive increase in the arrivals of small boats and cayucos to the European shores. Thousand of migrants in transit began to shipwreck in the Mediterranean, which little by little has become metaphorically red, dyed with the blood of so many deaths. It is estimated that between 2013 and 2017, more than 17,000 people died in the Mediterranean, most of them coming from Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, Mali or The Gambia [6][6] The number of dead people from 2014 to March of 2023 is of 26,191.. And it is worth mentioning that many of these countries are at war.

At the same time that the European Union (EU) reinforced surveillance on its coasts (mainly in Italy, Greece and Malta) and declared war against people traffickers, controls were tightened in transit hot spots for “border crossers”. This happened in places like the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla in the Strait of Gibraltar; or at Kapitan Andreevo, the border crossing that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. It was here that the EU decided to kickstart the operations of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in 2016. This migration control system updated the pre-existing Frontex program and started with 1,500 operatives whose sole mission was to control the entry of migrants. All the while in Syria the massacre continued, pushing thousands to seek refuge in the EU. The Immigration Commissioner of the Union at that time, Dimitris Avramopoulos, pointed out at the inauguration of the agency that “from [then] on, the external border of a Member State of the European Union [was] the external border of all the Member States, both legally and operationally” [7][7] See: “La UE pone en marcha un cuerpo unificado de vigilancia de fronteras” [EU launches unified border surveillance body], 6/10/2016, agencia EFE. Available at:

We must understand the concept of community as a geographical space experienced socially by its members. An active archipelago of sorts, that makes human mobility a strategy and a way of life in itself.

While the images of boats full of migrants multiplied in the Mediterranean, another drama barged brutally, far away. This time, the setting was the Andaman Sea, and the protagonists were migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh; most from the Rohingya ethnic group, and trying to reach Indonesia in boats adrift, abandoned by their crew. Rohingyas are a Muslim minority not recognised as citizens by the predominantly Buddhist government of Myanmar. Not only did that government force them to leave, but it was Thailand and Malaysia that did not allow them to land on their coast, becoming accomplices in the horror: some of the survivors said that there were fights on board due to the lack of food and that they resulted in people being killed or thrown into the sea.

Denationalisation and securitization: two reminders

The American Continent has also recently the been setting of multiple stories of the death and violence shaping migratory horror. Mexico, as the main transit country in the biggest migratory corridor in the world, as well as the so-called North Triangle (an incorHonduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) are hot spots for the drama that millions of “border crossers” go through in their attempt to reach not the “American Dream”, but family reunification.

Since 2014, thousands of unaccompanied migrant minors and youth have tried to reach the United States, going through a true nightmare on the way, oftentimes dying in the attempt. Only in 2016 (including the sea branch of the Gulf of Mexico), around 60,000 unaccompanied minors went through this route, most of them in need of international protection [8][8] US Customs and Border Protection, 2016. The United States faced that “humanitarian crisis” by having border patrols capture them and lock them up in detention centres, subsequently deporting the vast majority of them to their countries of origin.

It was a while ago that the world learned of the infamous freight train referred to as “The Beast”. Thousands rode it while attempting to reach the US as stowaways, dangerously journeying on the machine’s wagons. Ironically enough, Central American migrants recently had to face another “beast” upon arrival in the US: former President Donald Trump, who never hid his intentions to enlarge the wall separating the United States from Latin America (not only from Mexico), to deport 2-3 million migrants [9][9] It is worth mentioning that during Obama’s government, approximately 2.9 million people were deported., limit the number of refugees that can access the country, and incarcerate those with a criminal record (including those that committed traffic violations or that infringed immigration laws). Even worse, he too pledged to track the parents of unaccompanied migrant minors using the children to find them and accuse them of being criminally liable in contributing to human trafficking. That is, the Trump Administration went a step further in the implementation of migratory horror policies, not only criminally prosecuting migrants for entering the country illegally, but also considering the parents of unaccompanied minors as part of a “network of coyotes”. Under this “zero tolerance” policy for immigration, we witnessed the detention of thousands of migrant minors, cruelly separated from their parents and held in the “iceboxes” (the name given to immigration detention centres).

Trump’s immigration discourse was probably the most openly racist and xenophobic ever maintained by a president. He referred to migrants as “hordes of invaders”, “criminals” or “rapists”. He even stated, “America needs Norwegian migrants instead of those from shithole countries full of black people”. However, the reaction to this level of verbal violence was the appearance of the so-called “migrant caravans”, which challenged his power. The arrival of Covid-19 in 2020 allowed the Trump Administration to further reinforce its horror policies by tightening border controls in accordance with Title 42 of the Immigration Act, which allows for the expulsion of migrants on public health grounds.

Another blatant example of migratory horror during the last decade is the denationalisation of Dominicans of Haitian origin carried out in 2015 by a verdict of the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic. This resolution denied nationality to four generations of Haitian-origin Dominicans. All of a sudden, thousands of people, most of them sugar harvest labourers, became stateless and were forced to migrate, not only to the other side of the island but also to Brazil, Chile and other South American destinations [10][10] Desnacionalización y apatridia en República Dominicana, informe de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) [Denationalisation and Statelessness in the Dominican Republic, report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights], 31/12/2015. Available at: That same year, at the end of August, hundreds of Colombian migrants that had lived in Venezuela since the 1990s (one of the countries in the region that has historically welcomed the highest numbers of migrants) were arbitrarily deported due to absurd law that equated them with smugglers and paramilitary fighters.

One year later, the “migratory landscape” of the region changed radically with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who walked their way through the coastal countries of the South Pacific. Governments of countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile quickly went from a pro-humanitarian discourse to one in which migrants posed a meta-threat of social, economic, political and security dimensions.

Photo_ Irene López_ CC BY 2.0
To the South, Macri’s Argentina and Bolsonaro’s Brazil were paradigmatic examples of the policies of exacerbation of immigration control. They instated anti-immigration policies that linked the (in)security problems of the region to migration activities, securitising human mobility, tightening border controls, violating the rights of migrants and exacerbating xenophobia [11][11] Ospina, María del Pilar y Ramírez, Jacques (2021). Disputa política y decisiones gubernamentales sobre migración. El giro a la derecha en Argentina, Brasil y Ecuador. [Political contestation and governmental decisions on migration. The shift to the right in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador]. Revista Izquierdas N.º 50. Available at:

This brief review of some of the most atrocious records that led us to the geopolitics of migratory horror we are experiencing, speaks about a drift in the world-system, the role of the States and the ruling classes, and the supremacy of security and control approaches at a world level. All of those terrible images we have witnessed throughout the world compel us to articulate two essential reminders.

One, is that building walls, and fences, imposing visa systems, closing borders, militarising them or externalising their control are not solutions to the immigration drama. According to a study by the University of Quebec, more than 70 countries in the contemporary world have built walls or fences on their borders to prevent the entry of migrants, again, equating migration to national security threats, such as terrorism. The country that has built more walls is Israel, with a total of six on its borders with Egypt, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon.

At this stage, it is worth remembering the words of the former president of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma: “The walls between peoples do not protect, but confront; the walls between peoples do not unite, but divide; the walls between peoples do not respect, but attack; the walls between the peoples do not free, but suffocate; the walls between the peoples do not equalise, but discriminate; the walls stimulate fear and promote confrontation and racism” [12][12] Discurso en la Conferencia Mundial de Pueblos en Tiquipaya (Cochabamba, Bolivia) [Speech at the World People’s Conference in Tiquipaya]. 20/6/2017..

The second essential reminder is that all these migrants or border-crossers, who are mainly young people, were forced to leave their country due to war, poverty, urban violence, family violence, religious or political prosecution and environmental disasters. If those who leave their country of origin for any of these reasons were correctly considered forced migrants, the cynical migration hierarchy (and its “economic migrants” or “refugees” raking), which became apparent with the migration crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, would be over.

Considering the relevance that cognitive capital holds in the current capitalist framework, a very different standard applies when it comes to skilled migration.

These forced migrants, mainly those who come from the so-called peripheral or underdeveloped countries, constitute an industrial reserve army of sorts that, as Delgado Wise [13][13] Delgado Wise, R. (2022). Intercambio desigual en la era de los monopolios generalizados [Unequal exchange in the era of pervasive monopolies]. Revista de Estudios globales. Análisis histórico y cambio social, May-June, 1(2). remarks, is one of the new ways of asymmetrical exchange. As the Mexican thinker reminds us, we must maintain sight of the fact that the working class is increasingly compelled to move around in conditions of growing vulnerability, in face of lack of work and subsistence options in their places of origin. Notwithstanding this, considering the relevance that cognitive capital holds in the current capitalist framework, a very different standard applies when it comes to skilled migration. This configures a new dynamic in the international division of labour that is necessary to understand structurally to be able to deliberate on the rights of migrants.

From “humane control” to the deterritorialisation of rights: universal citizens vs. global consumers

It has been proved that the treatment of migration in “First World” countries hides immense hypocrisy and the instrumentalisation of people. People that are deprived of their rights and not granted citizenship, but who are required great work efforts in ways that sometimes constitute new forms of slavery, in the 21st century. At this level, the security approach reinforces the perversity of the neoliberal model regarding the workforce: they indeed look for workers, not people.

The debate between the security and rights-based approaches is very complex since even the most relentless defenders of securitisation approaches talk about human rights. Argentinian sociologist Eduardo Domenech calls those “control approach with a human face” [14][14] Domenech, Eduardo, 2013. Las migraciones son como el agua: Hacia la instauración de políticas de “control con rostro humano”. La gobernabilidad migratoria en la Argentina [Migrations are like water: Towards the establishment of policies of “control with a human face”. Migration governance in Argentina]. Polis. Vol. 12 (35). Available at: These visions, now widespread, camouflage behind a deceiving human rights narrative an approach which cares about migrants’ rights the least.

Not only must we consider that many countries decorate their migration policies with the “human rights” label (as not doing so would be politically incorrect), but also that a real rights-based perspective is not the panacea in itself. The hegemonic perspective of human rights, which comes from the liberal Anglo-Saxon thought and is based on the natural rights to life, liberty and property, formulated by Locke in the 17th century (translated over time into guarantees of legal security and freedom for political participation) [15][15] Some may say that the catalogue of rights is broader, as proposed by Rawls (which includes subsistence rights or some social rights) or Walzer’s communitarian vision that tries to go beyond ontological individualism, or Kymlicka’s multicultural vision. For an in-depth analysis of the issue, see: Estévez, Ariadna, 2008. Migración, globalización y derechos humanos. Construyendo la ciudadanía universal. [Migration, globalisation and human rights. Building universal citizenship]. Mexico City: UNAM-CISAN. is just not enough on its own to deal with the current problem of migration in a way that puts migrants at the centre.

In the first place, the liberal view commonly used in politics and academia that defines human rights as inherent to human beings on the grounds of their own reason and subsequent morals is timeless and lacks a sociocultural context. And secondly, as Mexican scholar Ariadna Estévez explains, it does not allow us to see the human rights of migrants from the perspective of those who demand them; that is, from the need of those who require to manage and demand their own rights.

This implies that the hegemonic understanding of migration, even when it gives itself the name of “human rights”, lacks the necessary decolonised and socio-political view of actual human rights in a context marked by globalisation, inequalities and migration like, as pinted by philosopher Enrique Dussel [16][16] Dussel, Enrique (2018). El “giro descolonizador” desde el pueblo y hacia la segunda emancipación, [The “decolonising turn” from the people and towards the second emancipation]. Buenos Aires, CLACSO. Available at: In other words, the hegemonic view of migration still places migrants in a passive position of victims tied to the structures (“subjected subjects”), even though reality shows that migrants have increasingly become actors capable of putting globalisation and statehood into question, and which have “heretical behaviours”, as the Algerian Abdelmalek Sayad [17][17] Sayad, Abdemalek (1984). Estado, nación e inmigración. El orden nacional ante el desafío de la migración [State, nation and immigration. The national order in the face of the challenge of migration]. Available at:ón-e-inmigración.pdf would say.

Thus, the sociological category of “migrant subjects”, with the passivity it implies, has become obsolete. Whereas some academic literature still places the State and institutions as “actors” and migrants as “subjects”, recent events show migrants are now de facto political actors, with increasing visibility and more recursive repertoires of action. They have begun to interpellate and interact with states of origin, transit and destination, even from the standpoint of their undocumented status.

Migrants are de facto political actors, with increasing visibility and more recursive repertoires of action. They have begun to interpellate and interact with states of origin, transit and destination, even from the standpoint of their undocumented status.

It is enough to remember the great marches of Latin migrants in the United States in 2005 or the protests of 2012 (also in the US), of the self-identified as “undocumented and fearless”. In Spain, a protest led by Ecuadorian migrants in 2001, demanding “papers for all”, bursted as precarious working conditions and neo-slavery conditions became public. This latest example could be considered a precedent for the recent march “Regularización Ya!”, which managed to bring over 700.000 signatures to the Spanish Congress of Deputies for a massive regularisation of migrants. Another example of this qualitative jump in the mobilisation of the migrant community is the migrant caravans of Central Americans and Mexicans that have decided to walk their way through, migrating in broad daylight and without coyotes, thanks to collective care and the protection of their own numbers. [18][18] Torre Cantalapieda, Eduardo (2021). Caravanas. Sus protagonistas ante las políticas migratorias [Caravans. Its protagonists in the face of migration policies]. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

All these practices and others have been nicknamed “migrant fights” in defence of their rights, constitute, as we previously stated, repertories of migratory actions that challenge national sovereignty, the international regime of border control and State Thought.

These fights demonstrate that the category of “subject” has become analytically outdated, just as its connotations of inferiority, otherness and non-citizenship. Plus, as the Ecuadorian anthropologist Andrés Guerrero once put it, the category of “subject” has been historically applied to justify subordination and exploitation, as it occurred in the 19th century with indigenous and black people. [19][19] Guerrero, Andrés (1991). La semántica de la dominación: el concertaje de indios [The semantics of domination: the concertage of Indians]. Quito: Ediciones Libri Mundi.

Thus, it has been the exploitative elites who wanted to see “migrant subjects”, whereas, in truth, they are active and moving social actors who fight for their own future, demanding rights, guarantees, participation and treatment as fellow citizens born in another place.

In line with this determination and as a theoretical and political proposal born from the roots of the Global South, is the principle of universal citizenship. And one of its benchmarks was the South American citizenship project promoted by the UNASUR. [20][20] Ramírez, Jacques (2016). Hacia el Sur. La construcción de la ciudadanía suramericana y la movilidad intrarregional [Towards the South. The construction of South American citizenship and intra-regional mobility]. Quito: CELAG.

Aligned with the Andean-origin paradigms of The Plentiful Life or Good Living, the universal citizenship constitutes a decolonised legal-political proposal that seeks to deterritorialise rights. That is, to overcome the classic vision that grants rights and obligations only to those individuals recognised as members of a certain polis; recognising, on the contrary, rights and obligations based on the principle of ius domicile in the place where any citizen of the world lives.

The principle of universal citizenship seeks to reach another principle: that of global justice, understood as the recognition of how historical asymmetries and inequalities between countries are factors that explain a significant part of global migration. Thus, a principle that challenges the prevailing neoliberal model: whereas capitalism tries to create global consumers, this paradigm seeks to consider all of humanity, including migrants, as universal citizens.

The principle of universal citizenship, which would attribute the capacity to grant rights to migrant citizens to the States and supra-state instances, would displace the current geopolitics of migratory horror towards a paradigm of reception, protection, integration and good living, just as proposed in the World People’s Conference for a World without Borders Toward Universal Citizenship.

The geopolitics of migration is inextricably tied with the fact that, in our globalised society, human mobility is placed within the world-system as a problem/consequence of the capitalist model we live under. It is essential to deproblematise migrations from a multidisciplinary, multidimensional and intersectional approach, understanding it from the perspective of different spaces of dialogue, and focusing on the migrants themselves. Only like that we will develop strategies to build our own concepts and paradigms.