The cycle of endangering migrant lives must end

Migrants and refugees fleeing conflict deserve safe passage and opportunities in countries that receive them

The footwear of migrants who died after their boat capsized, in Qassr Alkhyar, Libya, on February 14. Reuters/ Libyan Red Crescent
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It is no crime to want a better future for oneself and one's family. The hurdles arise when migrants, including refugees fleeing war-torn countries, who wish to improve circumstances inflicted upon them, are prevented from legally migrating to places that promise better opportunities.

But when the route to earn an honest living abroad is denied, the desperation can coerce people to embark on illegal and usually dangerous sea journeys, all in the hope of a better future. That hope is sometimes illusory and can end in tragedy, as it did for 61 of the 86 migrants who boarded a boat in the port city of Zwara in Libya this week.

Migrant deaths on the Central Mediterranean route have acquired the characteristics of a routine event, eliciting an increasingly muted response globally, instead of the outrage that is more appropriate. The International Organisation for Migration recorded 2,778 deaths on the route in the first nine months of this year, whereas for all of last year the figure was 1,680 deaths. Many – if not most – of these could have been avoided if better systems were in place.

But there is little co-ordinated action among western countries to do something at the policy level about such tragic occurrences that would put an end to smugglers endangering the lives of migrants.

In 2000, the UN designated December 18 as the International Migrants Day. A decade earlier, the UN Assembly had adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It is clear, however, that a generation later not enough is being done to protect migrants and their families.

It shouldn't have to be said that migrant lives have as much value as any other life, even as fear mongers routinely and all too successfully sketch a different narrative. This includes leaders of a handful of western countries, who too often pander to voices on the increasingly extremes in calling for a stop to “waves” of migrants. Western countries, many of them with substantial elderly populations, receive migrants and a corresponding boost to their economic growth. This year, 186,000 migrants did make it by sea to Southern Europe, many fleeing conflict, poverty and hunger, whether in African countries, Asia or parts of the Middle East.

The fear of refugees and migrants is almost always to do with economics. But migrants are often not vying for the jobs of citizens, nor do the majority of them play any role in “destabilising societies", as some politicians have taken to claiming. They are often simply making the most of opportunities by taking up the jobs that citizens are not inclined to take up themselves. Visitors to almost any rich country these days will see their presence in sectors like construction, agriculture, health, hospitality and retail.

Globally, a lot more needs to be done for migrants and refugees, including not only making their journeys safe but also integrating them fully in the societies of the receiving countries. About 2.5 per cent of the world’s population, or 184 million people – including 37 million refugees – live outside their country of nationality. A World Bank report on migration this year said: “The goal of policymakers should be to strengthen the match of migrants’ skills with the demand in destination societies, while protecting refugees and reducing the need for distressed movements.”

According to a recent OECD report on indicators of immigrants settling in, investing in integration and inclusion policies for migrants has a payoff for societies and economies, and the opposite is equally true – a lack of integration has a cost. The report suggests measures that host countries can take, such as recognising foreign qualifications and tackling discrimination that immigrants tend to face.

“These are men and women who make often-difficult choices and deserve fair and decent treatment," as the World Bank report said. Policies towards migrants and refugees must be centred on humanity and show much more compassion. We need to see better policies that eliminate the need for people to undertake the riskiest of all options: embarking on perilous sea journeys and all too often, not making it.

Published: December 18, 2023, 2:00 AM