They fled discrimination and violence in hopes of a better future for their families. They embarked upon an arduous trek for an unfamiliar land and an unknown fate. They took an enormous chance because their opportunities at home were so limited, their safety so precarious, their freedoms so constrained.
These words describe my family 100 years ago. They also describe millions of today’s migrants. But despite these similarities, their journeys and destinies look very different.
As Jews fled Eastern Europe and Russia at the turn of the 20th century, my family came to the United States, alongside countless others, seeking social and economic advancement. They were fortunate to enter before restrictive legislation curbed immigration—restrictions that remained in place into the Holocaust. As immigrants often do, they worked hard, built businesses, supported their families, and contributed to the nation, in spite of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Different faces. Same people.
Today, there are over 240 million international migrants across the globe, or roughly 3% of the global population—a percentage that has remained constant since the ‘60s. Like my ancestors, they have left home for their own unique reasons—including armed conflict, poverty, political repression, famine, and the devastating effects of climate change. A large number are trying to reach Europe or the United States. Along the way, they confront unimaginable challenges, including extortion, police abuse, squalid living conditions, and the pain that comes with being separated from their families. They also take incredible risks, including crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overloaded rubber rafts, many of which are lost at sea.
But instead of protecting migrants, countries are adopting increasingly inhumane policies to keep them out.
When I hear about the perilous lengths migrants are forced to go to, I think of my family. What if we were immigrating now? What if we needed to escape? What if we had darker skin? Who would assist us? Would we even survive?
I asked myself these questions a few years ago, when I travelled to Morocco with a research team to document the treatment of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The communities I interviewed were living perilously in informal encampments, seeking to reach Spain through northeastern Morocco. They described police raids during which security forces beat, abused, and stole from them. They spoke of friends and loved ones being rounded up and forcibly expelled, even when they had credible claims for asylum and would face persecution back home. And they shared how, despite Spanish, European, and international laws barring such action, Spanish security forces had used excessive force to forcibly return them to Morocco when they attempted to enter Europe.
I remember thinking, “To whom can these people turn?” And I remember realizing that often, there is only one answer: the grassroots groups working on the ground to protect them.
Protecting migrants is dangerous work
The Fund for Global Human Rights supports these frontline activists as they come to the aid of migrants when their rights have been violated. An example is Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders), an organization that works to shed light on the exploitation, abuse, and trafficking of migrants—especially women and children—at the Morocco-Spain border. With networks that span Northern Africa and Europe, these activists file charges on behalf of migrants in court, locate the bodies of migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Spain, and when needed, help bring families closure when their loved one has died along the way.
But coming to the defense of some of the world’s most vulnerable people comes at a cost. Over the years, the staff of Caminando Fronteras have experienced violence, arrest, and even death threats. The latest chapter of this persecution is taking place today, as Helena Maleno, co-founder of Caminando Fronteras, appears before a Moroccan court to answer to trumped-up charges.
In what can only be described as twisted irony, Helena’s life-saving work to ensure search and rescue agencies locate overloaded boats of migrants before they sink is being framed as human trafficking. Over 350 human rights organizations including the Fund have signed a statement denouncing the harassment against her. Even Spanish celebrities, including Javier Bardem, have come to her defense, noting her attempts to protect humanity, not degrade it.
I’m proud to work for an organization that supports groups like Caminando Fronteras and activists like Helena. But I also can’t help but think about the human talent squandered by the inhumane policies that allow men, women, and children to die in boats, or in the desert, or on highways, while trying to seek a better life. My immigrant family, like so many others, was given a chance, and thrived. Imagine how many others could do the same, if the world simply saw them as human and respected their rights.