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.”