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Saving our drowning humanity

Jun 13,2016 - Last updated at Jun 13,2016

In the last week of May, at least 1,050 migrants and asylum seekers died in the Mediterranean Sea, victims of the international community’s unwillingness to address the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people.

More than 2,800 migrants died at sea so far this year — up nearly 40 per cent from the same period in 2015.

Almost all those deaths could have been prevented. 

With every life that is extinguished, we are losing a bit of our humanity.

Clearly, the international response to the refugee crisis has done little to mitigate it.

The surge of people risking their lives to cross from North Africa has confirmed that, regardless of targeted arrangements like that between the European Union and Turkey, flows of people across the Mediterranean are set to continue.

That should come as no surprise.

The migrants from North Africa who have reached the shores of Italy fled war in Iraq and Syria, forced conscription in Eritrea, permanent conflict in Afghanistan and criminal violence in other parts of Africa.

Some may not technically be refugees, as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. But nearly all of them are fleeing dire situations caused by interstate conflict, internal strife, natural disasters and economic collapse.

Whatever their legal status, they deserve dignity and protection from abuse — and for every effort to be made to ensure their safety.

It is time to accept the facts: walls, fences and patrolling warships cannot stop the flight of desperate people.

What they do is aggravate the dangers migrants face on their journey and benefit the smugglers who prey on them; last year alone, human traffickers earned $5-6 billion from migrants crossing into Europe.

With nearly 60 million people displaced worldwide, international cooperation and, above all, political leadership is urgently required to make migration safer.

To put a stop to the needless deaths, the international community must step up orderly resettlement programmes and provide safe routes for asylum seekers.

The global annual target for the resettlement of refugees is 100,000 — far short of what is needed.

And, even so, EU member states and other developed countries have failed to fulfil even that limited obligation. Much more must be done.

The situation in the Mediterranean region is challenging, but not hopeless.

The EU has a population of more than 500 million and great wealth; it will not be undone by taking care of a million — or even a few million — asylum seekers.

It cannot turn its back on migrants left stranded for months in unsuitable facilities in Greece and Italy, while their children are denied the right to an education.

Rather than pandering to fear-mongering xenophobes, the EU’s leaders must speak out and correct erroneous perceptions about migrants.

They must not only clearly declare that the developed world has an obligation to protect the world’s refugees; they must also explain why aiding refugees, if done well, can help build healthier communities and stronger economies.

In a recent report, the economist Philippe Legrain demonstrated how countries that invest in newcomers’ successful and rapid integration into the workforce can, within five years, reap economic benefits that are twice as large as the initial outlay.

Accomplishing this requires a comprehensive strategy that enables migrants to use their skills to become productive members of society as they rebuild their lives.

Germany seems to understand this, having recently committed to spending more than $100 billion to integrate refugees over the next five years.

It also recently adopted an integration law designed to provide language skills, prevent the formation of ghettos, and ease access to the job market for recent arrivals.

It is important to remember that many migrants who are not officially refugees can sometimes be at risk in their home countries. Next week, the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative — a successful example of mini-multilateralism, led by the United States and the Philippines — will unveil new guidelines to help states improve their ability to protect migrants (regardless of their status) before, during and after the emergence of a crisis.

Similarly, at the G-7’s summit in Japan in May, the leaders of the world’s major advanced economies pledged to “increase global assistance to meet immediate and long-term needs of refugees and other displaced persons as well as their host communities”.

Funds must be made available to help host and transit countries house, educate and employ migrants in distress.

Human beings have always crossed borders, and as the world becomes ever more globalised, they will continue to do so. Demagogues claim that opening the door to migrants transforms host nations beyond recognition; in fact, the impact of migration is strongly positive.

Migrants rejuvenate aging societies and create much-needed economic activity.

Turning Europe into a fortress, undermining freedom of movement across the continent, tightening borders and ignoring legal — as well as moral — obligations to protect the vulnerable is a failing strategy.

It undermines the EU’s hard-won gains and poses heavy costs to the world economy.

Action is needed now. Summer is just beginning. Unless the international community provides a clear alternative, more migrants can be expected to crowd onto rickety vessels and risk their lives to reach Europe.

For the sake of their humanity and ours, it is time to stop the carnage.



The writer, United Nations Special representative of the secretary-general for international migration, is former director general of the World Trade Organisation, EU commissioner for competition, and attorney general of Ireland. ©Project Syndicate, 2016.

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