FROMLINE: Judith Myers

Newswise – In the four years after the height of the border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was increased from 17 feet to 30 feet, the number of migrant drowning deaths in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego increased by 3,200%, according to a new study to published in JAMA. Co-authors Anna Lussier, MD, Ph.D. student at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and Peter Lindholm, M.D., Ph.D., Gurnee Endowed Chair in Hyperbaric and Diving Medicine Research and visiting professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, presented the Hypothesized that the change in wall height may have led to an increase in sea and sea migration attempts, resulting in more frequent drownings.

The study relied largely on publicly available data from the Missing Migrants Project (MMP), an initiative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that coordinates the UN network on migration and collects data on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who die in the process Migration trips.

Researchers analyzed MMP data over two four-year periods: 2016-2019, before the 30-foot-tall wall was completed, and 2020-2023, after construction was completed. They categorized deaths by the body of water in which they occurred: the San Diego region of the Pacific Ocean; Channels; and other bodies of water such as lakes, streams or drainage ditches. These were compared to drowning rates in the Rio Grande, where the wall is largely missing.

Compared to before-and-after rates, the number of drownings in the San Diego region of the Pacific Ocean increased from 1 in the four years before the wall height change to 33 in the four years after, a net increase of 3,200%. In canals this number increased from 49 to 64, an increase of 30.6%, and in other waters from 15 to 35, an increase of 133.3%. Along the Rio Grande, these numbers remained relatively stable in both periods, with 97 drownings before 2020 and 96 drownings after, a net decrease of 1.03%.

Lindholm explains: “If you look at the numbers, you can see that it is about the same in the Rio Grande and a little more in the ditches and canals, but not extraordinarily more. We don’t have absolute data on how many people have emigrated, but if the number of drownings were correlated with the rate of migration, you would probably see a similar increase in all places.”

The impetus for the paper came when Lussier discovered a gap in information about migrant drowning deaths. She and Lindholm had been studying the occupational health of people who work in maritime environments in San Diego, such as lifeguards, who are exposed to pollution and marine pollution. “The lifeguards showed us a presentation about migrant rescues they were conducting due to potential human smuggling,” said Lussier, who is also a doctoral student at UC San Diego’s Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science, whose doctoral studies focus on global health issues . “Their stories weren’t appearing in the news, and the numbers seemed strange to me.”

To fill the information gap, Lussier searched government records for data on maritime migration and migrant deaths by drowning. The data she sought was not readily available and was often missing critical factors, such as the baseline number of people attempting to migrate – what Lussier calls “the missing denominator.” Lussier ultimately settled on the MMP, which records the date and coordinates of each drowning, as well as the number of drowned people. This allowed her and Lindholm to create a snapshot of migrant drowning deaths before and after the wall was expanded.

Maritime migration is a growing public health problem, and both Lussier and Lindholm believe their unusual collaboration, combining global public health with marine and underwater medicine, provides them with a unique perspective that will allow them to make innovative contributions to contribute to this area.

They are currently working on a more detailed view of their before and after picture, breaking down the numbers to see their meaning in more detail. “Drowning,” for example, is a bit of a gray area, Lindholm said. “Drowning is the endpoint of death in water, but we are trying to determine the actual cause of death: hypothermia? Hypoxia? Swimming-induced pulmonary edema?”

Lussier says they want to expand their data set to include multiple regions and other factors that may be involved, such as weather and water temperature. “For example, do more people drown at a certain time of year? Can other sources give us information about the missing denominator of how many people tried to migrate? Basically, we have this one data point and now we want to understand what happens beyond that simple number change.”

One of their ultimate goals is to better understand the medical consequences of migrants who survive drowning, such as infections from contaminated water, lung injuries and even mental health effects. The scientists also hope to provide data that can support decision-making for policymakers and EMS systems, as well as those who provide medical care to migrants surviving ocean migrations.

Link to the full study:

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Disclosure: The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose. There were no other co-authors of this work and this work was completed without material or financial support.

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