The latest disturbing images along the modern immigrant journey arrive from the French-Italian border. Five migrants from the Ivory Coast, in flip-flops and soaked t-shirts, were rescued last week in 80 centimeters of snow, as they tried to pass from Italy into France. "We didn't know it would be so cold," one of the rescued men told authorities.

Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera reports that a growing number of migrants are following the northern route — dubbed the "Alps Express" — toward job opportunities that are better than in Italy, where they've landed by sea from North Africa.

Indeed, hardly a week goes by without some heartbreaking story of would-be migrants who never make it to the Italian coast, drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean. In 2017, some 3,100 deaths have been registered, according to the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration. Little wonder that some now refer to the Mediterranean as the “sea of death.”

In the face of these dramatic stories, we are told that migrants either leave for political (and security) reasons, or to seek economic opportunity. But in every calculation of an immigrant, there is also a psychological explanation.

Briancon, France is the destination for migrants crossing from Italy — Photo: David Curran

“Unlike what it sometimes said about migrations, they are often aware of the risks they’re taking, be it dying trying to cross the sea or the difficulties awaiting them once they reach their destination,” Swiss researcher Simon Mastrangelo told the Lausanne-based newspaper Le Temps. For his doctoral dissertation, the 27-year-old academic interviewed migrants from various African countries to explore the psychological motivations of what Tunisians call harraga — border burners. “They often told me: Better to die eaten by the fish than eaten by maggots,” Mastrangelo explained.

While acknowledging that the “dysfunctions in their countries” play a large role in their wanting to emigrate, the young researcher noted that “emancipation, dignity and masculinity also come into play.”

Harga (irregular emigration) can also be glamorized as the lesser of two evils, especially compared to a life of treading water or the delusion of jihad,” he told Le Temps. “There’s great frustration among these young people, and it’s partly due to the presence of tourists in their countries, which epitomizes the inequality of access to international mobility. And their faith in God and destiny (mektub) catalyze their risk-taking enterprise.”

Mastrangelo’s study also focused on what happens to those who are sent back to their countries of origin, and concluded that even deportation is an inefficient deterrent. “Failure and return to the homeland are often experienced as a form of humiliation, and it can lead to them developing traumatic memories,” he explained. “In most cases, the individuals that were deported back harbor the will to take revenge, meaning leaving again.”


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