Commentary

There is need for better policies to protect the lives of migrants

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By William Lacy Swing

Posted  Thursday, December 19   2013 at  14:14
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For several years I have been saying that migration can be summed up by a series of D words: Demographics, Disasters, Demand, Disparities and Dreams. This year I am adding a new D: Desperation.

The world watched in horror in October when some 360 African migrants lost their lives within sight of land while attempting to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Untold hundreds have perished on the journey from Indonesia to Australia, or off the coast of Thailand. Migrants from Central America are raped, robbed, beaten and killed as they try to enter the USA from Mexico. African migrants die of thirst in the vast desert reaches – their bones the only testimony to their failed journey.

Why do people risk their lives and the lives of their families, over and over, every hour of every day when the best that awaits them is a frosty welcome?

The answer is simple: Desperation. They fear staying in a land where they face persecution, or where their family starves. That desperation makes the risk of death a gamble they believe worth taking.

Migrants face death, danger and disappointment in search of their dreams. They may be materially poor, and lack hope; they may take on massive debts from corrupt recruitment agencies or traffickers and smugglers in the hope of getting to a safe place, for a new start. They are often forced by economics and lack of land to the most dangerous places – the shoreline, the mountain slope, the riverside – and migrate because their shacks are washed away by climate extremes.

We believe that 2013 may have been the worst on record for migrant deaths. We will never know the true total, as many migrants died anonymously in deserts, in oceans or other accidents. However, our figures show that at least 2,360 migrants died this year, chasing the dream of a new life. That’s over six a day; one every four hours.

We live in an era of unprecedented human mobility, with more people on the move than any other time in recorded history. Natural disasters and conflict are adding to levels of migration: some 5,000 people a day left the Central Philippines following typhoon Haiyan last month. A further 100,000 fled fighting in the Central African Republic in December alone.

For the poorest, most desperate migrants, borders have been shut over the years as countries respond to political drumbeats of alarm and move to curtail immigration. The paradox is that at a time when one in seven people around the world are migrants in one form or another (and more than 232 million people live outside their country of birth), we are seeing a harsh response to migration in the developed world.

The few developed countries that are prepared to increase immigration levels generally want only highly-skilled, knowledge workers. The result is tightened border surveillance and reduced opportunities for would-be migrants. This, combined with political and economic upheaval, drives people into the hands of people smugglers whose unscrupulous trade is the fastest-growing sector in the organized crime world, estimated to be worth $35 billion a year.

Migration is as old as humanity but we need to start thinking about it in new, smarter ways. On this International Day we focus on well-being and safety of migrants, IOM calls for strengthening of existing policies or develop new ones to protect human rights of those who leave home to seek better opportunities. We are ready to assist our member states and other partners in the development and implementation of those policies.

We need measures that will enable employers in countries with labor shortages to access people desperate to work, and we need to ensure that these people are not exploited or exposed to gender based violence. We must work in a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach in the best interests of countries, communities and people, in particular migrants themselves.

I am not naïve. Managing migration is complicated and we may need hybrid scenarios. Short-term migration visas, seasonal visas, portable social welfare – all these things are being pioneered in different parts of the world and I believe they are moves in the right direction.

In 2016 there will be a World Humanitarian Summit: IOM will be asking how the global humanitarian community can ensure that political upheaval, economic stress and natural calamities do not always lead to a second round of challenges whereby desperate migrants, abandoned to their fate, are forced to take desperate measures.

William Lacy Swing

Director General, International Organisation for Migration.