The scenes of death and misery that are occurring with increasing frequency in the waters of the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia have focused renewed attention on one of mankind’s oldest activities: migration. It is time to accept the reality that, like the waves on the seas that many of the migrants traverse, the ebb and flow of human movement cannot be stopped. That is why the international community must manage migration with understanding and compassion.
Today, some 250 million migrants live and work around the world, and in the coming months and years many more will certainly join them.
We must put in place policies to manage the flows of people in ways that benefit migrants’ countries of origin, transit, and destination. And of course, we must ensure the well-being of the migrants themselves. This calls for action on four fronts.
For starters, leaders of destination countries – whether in Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia, or Oceania – should not turn their back on the desperate and wretched. For many elected officials, migration poses a complex political dilemma: how to reconcile their citizens’ demands with the interests of migrants. They must find the courage to make the case for a humane migration policy.
But, all too often, migrants are used as scapegoats. To be sure, immigrants must agree to adapt to the cultures and customs of the countries in which they settle. But the public in destination countries, for their part, must acknowledge the critical role that the new arrivals can play in the economy. Migrants fill critical skill gaps, perform jobs that others cannot or will not do, and replace a country’s workforce as it grows older or shrinks. According to the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research, Germany alone will need an estimated 32 million immigrants by 2035 to maintain an adequate balance between its working-age and non-working-age population.
Second, we need to ensure that migrants who choose to send money back to their countries of origin can do so as easily and inexpensively as possible. In 2014, remittances by migrants to developing countries amounted to an estimated $436 billion – a sum that dwarfs the annual total that the international community spends on official development aid.
Unfortunately, however, financial intermediaries take an average of 9% of the precious earnings that migrants send home. Reducing the intermediaries’ share would boost the income of migrants’ families back home, increase economic opportunity in these countries, help reduce poverty, and, by extension, contribute to global stability.
Third, we must provide immigration systems with the resources needed to process asylum claims quickly, fairly, and openly, so that refugees are protected and safely resettled. European countries, for example, need to devise mechanisms to share the flow of incoming migrants. The developed world sometimes wrongly feels that it is being asked to care for a disproportionate number of people seeking a better life. In reality, 70% of refugees seek protection in developing countries. Lebanon, for example, has a total population of 4.5 million people. By the end of this year, it will likely harbor close to two million refugees, driven from their homes by violent conflict in neighboring Syria and elsewhere.
Those migrating today are doing so for the same reasons that once spurred millions of Europeans to leave their countries. They are fleeing poverty, war, or oppression, or are searching for a better life in a new land. Moreover, many of today’s migrants, like those flooding into Lebanon (and Jordan) have legal claims to asylum under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the subsequent 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. When potential refugees are blocked by offshore barriers, detained for excessive periods in unsatisfactory conditions, or refused entry because of restrictive legal interpretations, the protection of international law is lost.
Finally, interdiction efforts should focus on traffickers, not on those whom they exploit. We must be careful not to drive migration further underground or offer additional opportunities to the criminal gangs that prey on the desperation of migrants to make obscene profits.
This is not a call for unrestrained migration.
But it is important that we accept the fact that efforts to block migration are bound to fail, with disastrous consequences for human lives – whether they are lost on sinking boats in the Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea or threatened by xenophobic violence in South Africa, India, or elsewhere.
Building higher fences cannot be the answer. Migration will continue until we lift the poorest and most vulnerable out of the conditions they are currently fleeing. In the early 1980s, I worked at the United Nations Refugee Agency, and I recall how Europe’s political leaders, intellectuals, and academics rallied to the cause of the boat people fleeing Vietnam. The world has a moral duty to come together in the same way today.
This Op-ed was written for Project Syndicate and was published on June 13.