The World Keeps Turning: Nothing left to lose

  • Allen Woods FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/21/2023 11:00:54 AM
Modified: 1/21/2023 11:00:27 AM

The images are tragic for anyone with a bit of empathy: three women and three children, including a 1-year-old baby, die in a desperate attempt to flee a homeland filled with violence and instability. The country they had hoped to reach did not want them and would have struggled to provide services for them if they had arrived.

Is this a story from America’s southern border where illegal immigration has been a flashpoint for decades? No, the women and children were attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea after fleeing Syria. They made it to Turkey, but a flimsy wooden boat didn’t survive a voyage to Italy. The United Nations estimates that about 25,000 people from Africa and the Middle East have died since 2014 trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Even with strong government opposition and attempts to prosecute those rescuing people at sea, over 70,000 refugees landed in Italy in 2022, with 14,000 of them entering European Union countries. Germany, France, Spain, and other previously welcoming EU nations have been struggling with waves of people from the least-developed countries (people living on an adjusted average of less than $4 per day, according to the World Bank) hoping to become a part of societies where people average over $110 per day.

I don’t like the theatrics of dumping human beings without resources in northern Democratic states, but I also agree that southern border states should not be the only ones responsible for assisting and processing immigrants from Central and South America. When I see images or hear stories of harrowing journeys toward the U.S., I can only imagine the desperation of men, women and children that drives them to risk their lives. But many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas provide little chance for them to meet their basic needs: food and clean water, shelter, clothing, health care, and often, safety from attack by political or opportunistic criminals.

As we order people to remain in Mexico until they can get an asylum hearing, one of the cities they are pushed toward, Ciudad Juarez just across from El Paso, experienced an attack on its prison in which drug cartel members arrived in armored vehicles with automatic weapons and succeeded in freeing one of their leaders. The death toll was 17, including 10 guards. Expecting people stay in a society where the government itself is either the greatest danger, or unable to protect them goes against our human survival instincts.

Is there an answer to the worldwide problem of refugees and migration? Canada finds itself with a labor shortage for both skilled and unskilled jobs (a complaint often heard in the U.S.) and has plans to welcome almost two million immigrants from 2022-2025. Their belief is that immigrants are willing and able to work as members of a new society, something that has been repeatedly proven in the U.S. for decades, and that more workers are necessary for the healthy growth of their economy. Many EU countries also allow workers from poorer countries to work in richer countries, which they believe reduces the number of illegal immigrants because there are fewer jobs. (The Biden administration recently announced plans to accept 360,000 asylum-seekers in the next year.)

But the larger problem is a world population that is still starkly divided between the haves and have-nots. The motivation to flee a dangerous and desperately poor society is made even greater in the internet age, in which people all over the world are bombarded with, or at least occasionally exposed, to the glittering images of movie and music stars, Hollywood fables, conspicuous consumption, and the get-rich-quick schemes of crypto traders and media influencers.

The world has no unified immigration system, and those of individual countries are obviously broken or dysfunctional. But regardless of the laws and attempted preventions of extra-legal migration, we shouldn’t blame the immigrants themselves. I believe that nearly all of us would react the same way if we were faced with an environment without hope for meeting our basic needs, if we constantly feared for our safety, our health, our food and shelter. People who are desperate will risk everything to save themselves and their children. Just look at those massed at our southern border or those in makeshift boats on the Mediterranean. They are doing their best to survive their birth, and the birth of their children, into unlucky circumstances. Their strength comes from believing they have nothing left to lose.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at


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