Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Sympathy for the Migrant

GENEVA – The tragic fate of the several hundred Africans who drowned near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October made international headlines, leading to a rare moment of compassion and reflection about the dangers facing many migrants. But the only exceptional aspect of this disaster was the magnitude of the death toll. For Lampedusa’s residents, shipwrecks involving refugees and migrants are a common occurrence: a week later, a boat carrying Syrian and Palestinian refugees capsized off the shores of the island, leaving more than 30 people dead.

The year 2013 demonstrated, as if any further demonstration were needed, that these catastrophes are not restricted to European shores or to the Mediterranean Sea. In November, nearly 30 Haitians perished when their boat ran aground on its way to the United States – the third case in the northern Caribbean since October. Along the Mexico-US border, the deployment of sophisticated border controls leads people to starve while attempting passage in the desert’s remotest stretches. In the Asia-Pacific region, hundreds of migrants and refugees have drowned this year in the Bay of Bengal or while trying to reach Australia.

Wealthy states and regions face the dilemma of designing border controls that reflect not only the needs and demands of their populations, but also their responsibility to those seeking to enter their territory. None of this is new: ever since national frontiers were invented, people have been crossing them, whether formally or under the radar. Whether they have done so in search of economic opportunities or to escape violence or environmental disasters, host countries have reacted with a mix of welcome and wariness.

States that tighten their borders encourage desperate people, exploited by cynical smugglers and traffickers, to take greater risks to cross them. As the International Organization for Migration stated shortly after the Lampedusa tragedy, implementation of enhanced border controls “did not have sufficient impact or decrease the number of arrivals to the South of Europe in the long run. On the contrary, migrants started to explore alternative and mostly dangerous routes with a frequent rate of deaths at sea.”

Of course, not all migrants are refugees or require protection. In fact, migrants on the same boat may have very different motives – what policymakers call “mixed migration.” But, faced with a complex picture, states have tended to address the flow of migrants they deem undesirable by saying, in effect, “out of sight, out of mind.” This is especially true when domestic anti-immigrant sentiment spikes, typically during economic downturns like the one that many regions currently are experiencing.

A single-minded focus on sealing borders – a particularly worrying trend in states’ approach to migration controls today – tends to regard migrants as unwanted trespassers even before their status can be determined, their rights upheld, or their contributions acknowledged. It may also discourage people from helping the vulnerable: there are reports in the Mediterranean of private vessels avoiding migrant boats in distress for fear of being reprimanded by European border patrols.

We must recognize the desperation of those who attempt these journeys. From friends or from the media, they know what awaits them. They are aware of the risks and have heard the horror stories. Seeing their options for passage narrowing, they put themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers, often at enormous expense. They are crammed onto precarious ships that cannot bear the load. They travel at night, when neither border police nor rescue operations can see them.

Equally important, governments should view migration as a profoundly binding dimension of the human experience. Through migration, human beings share an understanding of sorrow, hope, and compassion. Indeed, this understanding has inspired some of the international community’s greatest feats of solidarity, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines a person’s right to find safe havens across borders.

The continuing rise in migrant deaths in transit poses a conundrum: as these migrants are pushed toward trafficking and smuggling networks, they are dragged further into the grey areas of the international community’s response. For example, the European Union’s border police do not have clear search-and-rescue guidelines for migrant ships in distress. Member states are divided on how to address this, and recent discussions in Brussels have only begun to make some progress.

As 2014 begins, the world needs clearer lines of responsibility for averting further tragedies. As an international community, we owe migrants and refugees greater compassion. Otherwise, we will continue to wake, every so often, to find a graveyard on our shores.

Read more from "2013: Reversing Gears" here, or on Kindle and iBooks.

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  1. CommentedBeth Spencer

    The policing of the Moroccan border, at the periphery of Fortress Europe, driven and funded by the panicked nationalism across Europe is shameful. Abuses are out of sight and out of mind for the most part - and since MSF withdrew from Melilla migrant encampments, barely monitored.

    There are also reasons to enable travel beyond compassion for individual migrants. Migrants who are unable to travel freely become stuck in countries which may only be the best of options because of the investment in a high risk journey which has taken them there. Given freer movement, many migrants would not remain permanently in destination countries, and flows of knowledge, skills and resources would be opened up. In the long term, borders controlled by an elite are among the greatest barriers to reducing global inequality.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Kofi Annan's plea will fall on deaf ears. Although European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called the plight of migrants crossing the Mediterranean shocking, the Task Force set up to work out a comprehensive strategy to deal with the "urgent and complex situation" will just be a paper tiger. Due to red tape it will take years for the EU to have the "38 concrete actions" and the "financial support of up to €50 million" approved.
    Efforts like to work with countries of origin in the Middle East and Africa in addressing the causes of migrant flows at their source, to increase security patrols, and to come up with a comprehensive migrant resettlement policy might sound appealing at best but unrealistic at worst.
    The countries through which the illegal migrants travel through are hopelessly mired with corruption. Officials are often involved in human trafficking themselves and shove the passengers into vessels of questionable seaworthiness. They are left stranded in small, overcrowded vessels without radios, signal beacons, or navigational lights.
    Even if the EU could agree to an integrated immigration policy, the government of each member state often has its own agenda. While Italy and the broader EU face tough challenges in preventing more deaths in the Mediterranean, they also face opposition at home in deciding how to deal with the influx of people who do make it to shore.

  3. CommentedKojo Jantuah

    I've had first-hand experience of migration with people who ended up attempting to cross to Lampedusa and other areas. I survived the Sahara desert crossing from Gao in Mali across the Sahara desert to Tamanrasset, thereafter from Djanet to Ghat in Libya and then to Benghazi.

    However, I'm one of the few who went across one of the world's deadly migration routes to enter Europe legally, because I acquired a visa in Tripoli at the then Embassy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and entered East Berlin before the wall came down.

    In my view, this human tragedy must be taken seriously. People die every day trying to cross the Sahara desert firstly and secondly fail in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean as we have already been told by H.E. Kofi Annan. Although, there's I believe an innate human need to undertake adventure to find oneself, broaden one's mind through travel and better one's chances in life which was the case in my situation, the risk involved with this route on the balance and cumulatively, is bordering on a humanitarian catastrophe. It must therefore be given serious attention by the world's established institutions that work in that regard.


    I don't advise anyone to travel down that route either from South to North or from North to South unless the trip is organised by experts and supported with the requisite resources and done legally across borders. However, the current situation in the sub Saharan region is dire due to the recent political instability in Libya that spilled over into Mali. A lot of work needs to be done to reclaim the rich personal experience, archaeological and other heritage such as what one can describe as one of the world's oldest open air museum - 6000 year old Petroglyphs that trekking in the Sahara desert if done properly can offer mankind.


    If political stability is brought to that region, and the world heritage is regulated by governments in partnership with UNESCO for example, those people smugglers could earn an income as guides of the rich heritage rather than earning an income from swindling and smuggling naive and desperate migrants who have varied reasons for undertaking their journey at the home country. The causes for taking such desperate decisions is another matter for global discussion and resolution. I have a background in Studying Law and Diplomacy in Britain after the Sahara experience and now work to promote Reconciliation and Development globally in order to foster a peaceful global environment that prevents this potential humanitarian disaster from continuing. www.identitypathfinder.com

  4. CommentedDaryl stevens

    With the utmost respect for Mr Annan, who was a stellar representative of the best that the UN has to offer, in the form of a popular person and face to the organization, the issue, at hand is complicated. While topics associated are convulauted on all ends of the matter; a grave misunderstanding of options available to illegal immigrants in the developed world, a grave misuse of soveriegn power in the developing world, and no individual responsibility for socio-economic matters at the individual level by the peoples of the world.

    With development comes lessor birth rates. With higher standards of living, in freer societies, with some sense of collective sense for each others well-being due to higher standards of living, people make individual choices that maintain some level of higher standards of living and service provision by the sovereign. that is, they have less children. Despite the hypothetical postulations of Hollywood screen-writers, and their anti-societal, anti-government posturing, and simple moralistic pandering, there is no simple, moral, ethical, just or fair choice in these matters.

    I used to work with refugees and asylees, the most privileged class of immigrant. and they get far less than what many people in advanced countries would imagine; religious communities are the drivers of their resettlement, and main supporters of the process, despite the fact that many refugees do not share a relevant faith (Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians serving Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist refugees).

    Now, the issue of migration will rise. But this rises as Developing Countries still pander to Popular Nationalisms, while notions of the Social, or Imperialism, or Colonialism, still offer excuses, decades after decolonization. While Hollywood, Social Critics and Authoritarian Rulers, press thwese dated, quasi-Marxist perspectives, as the world moves to subsequent eras where the utility of these excuses grows thinner and thinner into irrelevant abstraction while the world is faced with a global community relying on the same old excuses, and global common problems cycle to greater and greater challenges, philosophical and moral dichotomies tantalize the minds of the superficially minded. Black and white thinking prevails.

    Take Australia, sounds great that it should take more refugees, but Australia is at its limits concerning domestic sources of water, is buidling desalinization plants, but desalination plants use extraordinary amounts of energy, put large amounts of salinity back into oceans, killing the aquatic ecosystem, natural habitats, fish stocks, etc....

    Take Italy. High amount of debt. Aging Population. Unsustainable social benefits, and legacy costs.

    Take the US. Higher levels of unemployment. Up to 105 of the current population in illegal immigrants at present. Challenged State Fiscal sustainability, where education is paid for. Illegals can go to school.

    Now is the time to hold the developing world repsonsibility for its development challenges, and stop using superficial ethical and moral posturing. further, humans need to understand, that they themselves are responsible at the personal level as well. I hope for Africa's development. ut if the common man and woman do not understand that their choices will entrench African poverty and advance grave ecological challenges if they do not make better choices as to family size, than scarce can we blame Europe or other advanced nations from attempting to stem the tide of illegal immigration.

    Further, much harder lines need to be taken agaisnt trans-national criminal organizations that engage in human trafficking. There are grave challenges to global stability. Much less moral posturing need be considered, and far more grave punishments need be advanced to challenging those who would, for their mere personal profit, add to the grave problems associated with more mundane human choices (family size, commitment to education, stewardship of environment, etc). It is time that we understood that some actors do not deserve the same protections as those of us with the integrity and character to assume equality in or dealings with others. We should not err on the side of superficiality in the consideration of solutions to the grave challenges facing our collective humanity. More terminal conclusions need be on the table to solve the problems, exacerbated by those of lessen character and intent. We should err on the side of good versus evil, in more pragmatic ways, terms, and consider more exacting methods for putting an end to those groups and things that inhibit the common development of humanity on a safer trajectory.

    Migration, as a problem will rise. As Annan noes in his last sentence, the world needs clearer lines of responsibility, states and individuals.

  5. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    Who is this "we"? I can"t say how much I dispise wet handed African politicians' phrases about what "we" need to do. Why doesn't Kofi address the alleged shortcomings in his own nation Ghana where people are supposed to "flee" from. Hypocrisy, that is. You are not a mensch when you don't take a stand in your own community where it matters.

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