The Missing

A Day of Rescue and Mourning for Three Continents
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(Photo: Massimo Sestini, via


Monday was the day an unprecedented 6,500 people were plucked from the sea, just off the coast of the richest economy in the world, just kilometers away from some of the world's most violent conflict zones, just within sailing distance of many of the historic epicenters of human civilization: Rome and Turkey to the North and Egypt and the Levant to the South, along with countless other kingdoms that had once formed the cradle of humanity. But on Monday, the waters surrounding those cradles swallowed their young. After another violent and deadly weekend of migration across the Mediterranean, the International l authorities reported that so far this year, about 2,726 have died during the passage--a rise of about 50 percent over the same period last year. All told, several thousand have drowned and disappeared in the migrant surge into Europe over the past few years.

The gigantic graveyard that now stretches between Africa and Europe has come to symbolize a deeper violence engulfing the whole region. More than 280,000 migrants have arrived this year, through the various land and sea routes to Europe, including the Greek-Turkish border which was recently sealed off through a deal with the Turkish government. The largest share comes from Syria, followed by Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others from various African countries. All predictable place names, and predictable outcomes: corpses piling up, detention camps crowding, and huge crowds of confused, traumatized refugees, including many families with young children and children traveling alone, traveling in a grim march snaking through the continent, and facing barbed wire fences, brutal security officers, and hostile glances and racial abuse at every turn.

But one of the less predictable aspects of this crisis has been a steady outpouring of empathy and humanitarian impulse that ordinary citizens across Europe has showed over the past two years. Amid all the pain and ambivalent emotions that are evoked by images of people laughing and crying as they are pulled up from the water into rescue boats, we're still reminded that every migrant journey starts from a place of hope.

On the same day that thousands were rescued from the turbulent Mediterranean waves, across the Atlantic near the Arizona desert, the same bittersweey reflections surfaced at the Colibri Center for Human Rights, a group (named for the Mexican hummingbird) that campaigns to end migrant deaths on the US Mexico Border. Reyna Araibi commemorated the International Day of Remembrance for the disappeared, and connected its principle to the borders about 2700 people have died on the trencherous path across the land where some want to build an even higher wall. On this day, Araibi writes:

I think of the courage and tenacity demonstrated by all those who embarked on a perilous journey across borders. I think of those who were lost along the way and how, like the hummingbird, they became messengers for a powerful truth:migration is an expression of love, an act as old as humanity that should never be criminalized or fatally punished....

As I witness another colibrí take flight outside our window, I wonder what message this small yet powerful creature has for me — for us. I know it’s telling us something and I believe it is this:  remembering and honoring the missing is not for one special day or one organization; it is a universal and continuous duty we have as human beings. People do not simply disappear. We never give up on those we love. 

(Calais migrant camp, via

In England, which has lately hardened its borders in an anti-immigrant populist backlash, politicians have stridently opposed any meaningful expansion of migration, including that of asylum seekers, but one migrant has been embraced by thousands. Baaba Maal, the Senegalese singer, reflected on the European refugee crisis ahead of his appearance at the Southbank Centre's Africa Utopia festival in London, a city that has over the centuries been built on wave after wave of cultural migration. It was a fitting topic for his album, "Traveller," which is infused with themes of migration and sojourning. But the kind of migration he sees washing up on southern Europe's borders, Maal told the BBC, were a bridge too far in the increasingly desperate but deeply human quest to seek refuge through travel.

These people they just go, because there is nothing for them there... maybe they're never going to come back, they're going to face a lot of difficulties, but they don't care about that... I don't want [that]... all these lives that we lose. And all these young lives--some elements of them could have come to feed the energy that can help Africa to grow up.

That's the hard edge of migration we don't often hear about; even in the best circumstances, when people find new lives across borders, they may be forced to leave behind pockmarked home communities, emptied of youth and left to drown in crises that only the most fortunate and able can escape. New diaspora communities can be powerful boons to their home countries, of course, but the social landscape is forever fractured, which often brings tragedy despite the rewards of having an anchor of one's community outside the country. 

And in the worst circumstances, when a live ends en route, before the destination is reached, and after a migrant has left everthing behind back home, the real weight of the crisis hits, dissolving into a tiny ripple across an ocean too filled with sadness to weep for just one more tragedy.

Hummingbirds fly, drowned bodies sink. The rest of us are floating somewhere in between, adrift, some of us already lost, as our moral compass points us in two divergent directions. 


A Message from Favianna Rodriguez

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