The dream of a better life is a common driving force among thousands of migrants who set out each year on perilous journeys in small boats to cross the seas hoping to make it safely to countries in the West.
This year, the number of men, women and children escaping circumstances in their home countries, whether in Africa, Asia or parts of the Middle East, has been on the rise – as is the number of people who have perished in such attempts. The new head of the UN migration agency, Amy Pope, rightly said this week, that there is a risk of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea becoming normalised.
Almost 3,000 migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, seeking European shores. Last year, the number of people recorded as dead or disappeared in trying to migrate by sea was 1,680. Viewed through a longer time period, since 2014, about 22,000 people have been recorded as dead or gone missing in this way.
"If we're really going to stop people crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats and dying as they do so," Ms Pope said, "we need to approach the situation far more comprehensively." She has stressed the need to partner with private companies so that the issue of migration can be better managed.
The hope of every migrating family or individual is usually to start afresh, leaving behind conflict, poverty, hunger or climate disasters. They can achieve this by working legally and contributing to the societies they adopt as their second homes – as many successfully do. Legal routes to assimilate migrants are a challenge in many countries. But if systems are in place, this can be overcome and yield positive results – for the migrants as well as the countries that open their borders to them.
Often, the indignity, lack of compassion and even racial prejudice meted out to countless refugees is not new. Ms Pope's reminder to the international community is thus especially pertinent: that migrants can be good for economies, especially in wealthy countries with ageing populations and low birth rates.
A report by the World Bank titled World Development Report 2023: Migrants, Refugees, and Societies corroborates as much. The Bank's senior managing director Axel van Trotsenburg said earlier this year: “Migration can be a powerful force for prosperity and development.”
This is a reasonable counter to the often-heard argument that migrants are a strain on the resources of the world's most advanced nations, particularly as they rebound from the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine.
By no means is it easy for migrants to leave behind familiar yet troubled homelands and risk their lives over days, even weeks, crossing inhospitable oceans. But people continue to gamble their lives on these journeys, despite the possibility of being forcibly sent back from EU borders, as nearly 10,000 migrants were between May and August this year.
The issue of migration is unlikely to recede until long-term political solutions are found in countries from which people are fleeing. In the past nine months, about 186,000 people reached southern Europe by sea, landing in Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta. Factoring in that reality, it is imperative that the EU member states such as Italy and Germany resolve differences with one another on how to approach the challenge and formulate solutions that are both humane and practicable.
Apart from the compassionate need to do so, sensible migration policy, as research shows, can benefit European economies. Politicians need to stress this message more effectively to the electorate so that migrants and refugees from all countries are accorded the welcome and respect that befits our fellow human beings.