In a world where migration has become a phenomenon of our time and is due to increase, my biggest concern is how to save the lives of migrants taking dangerous routes – by sea and land – to flee violence or poverty.
Nearly 2,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015. This is double the number of deaths for the same period last year. It clearly needs to stop. Europe is doing an incredible job rescuing migrants who board unworthy vessels to cross the sea. This year alone, 150,000 migrants coming from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and from other sub-Saharan countries have reached the coasts of Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain.
If we do not do more, if we do not stop looking at this situation as a problem but rather as an opportunity, these efforts are bound to fail. Building more walls, tightening visa regimes and trying to restrict movement is simply not working. If it was, we would not have so many deaths. Not only are we witnessing the largest forced displacement in recorded history with 60 million people forced to migrate – the largest since World War II – but also the largest spread of anti-immigrant sentiment seen in decades.
We need urgently to address those issues before it is too late, to avert social instability and save lives. But how?
1. Address the drivers of involuntary migration and create more legal avenues of migration
Currently, migrants arriving in Malta or Lampedusa, for example, go to processing centers. Why would they take the risk of putting their lives in danger if they could be processed before? The ideal would be to have migrant processing centres on shore in North Africa, before they board unseaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean. Some of the migrants will qualify for refugee protection under the 1951 Convention. Some will clearly be identified as economic migrants. Some might be sent back home while others might be authorized to join their families already in Europe.
Why not increase opportunities for regular migration, or even short-term protection for migrants that need them? If migrants are not needed, employers would not be hiring migrants in irregular situations who are often exploited and abused because of irregular status. These are actions that can help solve the short-term issue. But nothing will really change until we recognize that the whole situation has altered incredibly and that Europe, which has been a continent of origin of migrants for centuries, has become a continent of destination for the last four decades.
2. Go back to the basics, to the historically positive nature of migration
Migration has been historically positive. Migrants bring new ideas and high motivation. They contribute to the economy of their host countries and even more to the economy of their countries of origin by sending remittances to their families. They don’t take others’ jobs; they often create employment. They send back home $450 billion every year to put food on the table, for the education of their children, for the people who are sick, and for the elderly. This amount represents two to three times the annual amount of global Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
We also need better systems to manage migration so that people migrate under safer and better conditions, thereby allowing them to contribute optimally to the development of the communities where they belong. I understand the fears, those coming from the global economic downturn of 2008, from the loss of jobs, from the post 9/11 syndrome, from losing personal and national identities because of globalization. These fears are real. They exist. We cannot deny them. But we must deal with them.
3. Dispel the stereotypes
There is nothing on the record that shows that migrants have more criminal tendencies or records than nationals. It is even usually the opposite. There is nothing on the record that migrants bring in diseases. These perceptions need to be changed. Yes, it is going to take time and will be a long process. But it has to be done.
Countries that are not traditional destinations for migrants are going to have to learn to manage an extremely growing economic, social, religious and ethnic diversity. People are going to arrive who don’t look or speak exactly as we do, but who might be brought to share the same values if they are properly welcomed and integrated.
Governments must take the lead in this long but crucial process. They must implement public education and create information progammes. They must take action, before it is too late. It takes political courage. Unfortunately, right now it is in short supply.
Author: William Lacy Swing, Director-General, International Organization for Migration (IOM), Geneva
Image: Migrants wait on the Greek side of the border to enter Macedonia near Gevgelija, Macedonia, en route to northern Europe, July 20, 2015. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski