In October, barely three weeks after the tragic death of over three hundred African migrants in a shipwreck off the Italian Island of Lampedusa, the BBC World Service presented an additional news story on the death of more migrants, only this time from the scorching sun of the Sahara desert. According to the BBC World Service, bodies of over 80 migrants from Niger Republic, majority of whom were children and women, were discovered scattered across different locations along the Sahara desert, presumably en route to Algeria. The news story stated that the migrants died from thirst when the vehicle they were travelling in broke down as they tried to cross into Algeria.
As shocking as the deaths from these two particular terrible incidences might be, one can imagine that these events represent only a fraction of the total number of people who die each month while trying to escape into other countries in search of a better life and security. Thousands of migrant women, men and children die each year in harrowing circumstances across the world. According to a BBC report, humanitarian agencies estimate nearly 20,000 migrants have perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe over the past 20 years. Many of these individuals were never accounted for because they were lost to the seas. Other migrants succumb to the hot desert sun, or even lose their lives to attacks by wild animals. Recently, I listened to some of the traumatic accounts from rescue workers in the Lampedusa and Sahara desert tragedies on BBC. There were two particular stories that have continued to stay with me and that I simply cannot get the images off my mind. One rescue worker vividly described how he pulled the body of a woman out of the water with the umbilical cord of her newly-born baby still attached to her body. Both mother and baby were later buried next to each other. A similar story was also told by one of the journalists who visited the scene in the Sahara desert. There again was the body of a mother who died holding on tight to her little child.
Stories like these must prompt nations of the world to re-assess their immigration policies, and also encourage individuals to re-evaluate their opinions of immigrants. Often, stories of migrants are reduced to statistics. But these individuals are not just numbers, rather these are people, individuals with names, identities, and dignity. Migrants are not simply out to take advantage of the countries of their destination, as many believe. These children, women and men also come with so much potential that could contribute to the economic, social and political advancement of the recipient countries. On October 3 and 4 of this year, a High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development took place at the United Nations in New York. The purpose of the High-level Dialogue was to identify concrete measures to strengthen coherence and cooperation at all levels, with a perspective focused on enhancing the benefits of international migration for migrants and countries alike and its important link to development, while reducing its negative impacts.” In his speech at the High-Level Dialogue, Mr. Wu Hongbo, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, stated that “migration, when governed fairly, can make a very important contribution to social and economic development both in the countries of origin and in the countries of destination.”
Migration is not a new phenomenon. Many communities around the world have stories and historic accounts of how their ancestors moved from certain parts of the world to the areas they are situated today for reasons ranging from war, persecution, drought, or in search of better pastoral lands for their animals or fertile farmlands. However, because of the current global trends not limited to intra-state conflicts, poverty, natural disasters, religious/political/ethnic persecution—the incidence of transnational migration has continued to rise. The new figure released in 2013 by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs shows that the number of migrants has reached a record high of 232 million people. According to the report, 3.2 percent of the world’s population in 2013 lives abroad worldwide, compared with 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990.
As a result of this continuous increase, migrants world-wide consistently face violence, discrimination, exploitation, marginalization and other forms of human rights violation. Human traffickers take advantage of the stringent immigration policies, as some migrants fall victim to ruthless human smugglers to whom they sometimes pay large sums of money with the hope of gaining entry into the countries. Many of these individuals who undertake this route often do not make it to their destination because the smugglers abandon them en route to the destination at the sight of immigration authorities. Even for those that eventually make it to their destination, the prospect of falling into the hands of human traffickers or being exploited as cheap or slave laborers still looms high. Some of the migrants are so desperate to escape from their situation that they are willing to take on unimaginable risks.
It is therefore, incumbent on the international community to act to protect and safeguard the lives of millions of women, children and men world-wide who must leave their countries in search of better life, safety or security. On the other hand, the countries concerned must seriously address those issues which lead to the mass migration of their citizens. According to Ms Navi Pilay, an expert from the UN human rights office in Geneva, “as human mobility becomes more complex, the journeys taken by many migrants more perilous, and the situation in which they live and work more precarious, the need to base policy responses to migration on human rights standards becomes ever more important.” Pope Francis in his message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees also notes that, “the reality of migration, given its new dimension in our age of globalization, needs to be approached and managed in a new, equitable and effective manner; more than anything, this calls for international cooperation and a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion.”