Human lives are at play, let’s not leave it too late

Translation of an article by William Lacy Swing, Director General of the Internal Organization for Migration,published in Le Monde on 16.12.14.

This year, more than 5,000 immigrants have perished worldwide whilst making dangerous journeys in the hope of finding security and a better life for their family. Out of this number, more than 3,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe on overcrowded boats. This is without counting the unknown numbers of those who have drowned out at sea.
These are the kinds of everyday tragedies that unfurl before our eyes, and which we process in a kind of quasi indifference. What efforts do we deploy to hunt down these traffickers? They profit from people’s desperation to rob them of considerable sums of money, in exchange for what often turns out to be a suicidal mission on boats that aren’t meant for the open sea.
We need to be reminded of the fact that all immigrants are human beings. They are not criminals. Their only wrongdoing is their wish to escape from a hellish situation. We hear right wing extremists talking about the invasion of immigrants from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Palestine who are fleeing dictators and extreme poverty and hunger.
Yet they are not as numerous as this would make out. What are 160,000 immigrants knocking at Europe’s door, when Europe itself counts 500 million people? Compare this to Libya, a country of 4.5 million habitants, which has given asylum to one million Syrian refugees. Italy showed great generosity in establishing Mare Nostrum, a rescue operation that saved 160,000 immigrant’s lives, with Italian coastguards patrolling the Mediterranean coast day and night, seven days a week, all year long.
Unfortunately, this operation has now come to an end. Can we really blame Italy for not wanting to shoulder the cost of an operation that cost 10 million euros a month? That being said, we desperately need sea rescue operations in place. Human lives are at play here. However, we are going more in the direction of controlling measures than rescue operations. Operation Triton, managed by Frontex, the European border control organization, is restricted as to where it can go within international waters, and does not have a huge amount of ships. It has admitted it doesn’t have the capacity to carry on where Mare Nostrum left off.
I don’t dare think of the mass sacrifice of life to which we could be witness to come the summer, when the good weather returns and migrants try once again to cross the Mediterranean, without significant rescue infrastructure in place.
Let’s not delude ourselves. Immigrants know the risks that they are taking. They know that they are risking their lives. But they do it out of desperation; one must be desperate in order put one’s wife and one’s children on these boats. Remember the emotion that the tragedy of the Vietnamese boat people caused? These modern day smugglers that have cold blood running through their veins can be compared to those ignominious pirates who presided over the Chinese seas.
But this despair is reinforced by an incredible will to live and a phenomenal desire to improve their situation – an energy which I remain convinced is something that European countries, in the middle of an economic crisis, would do well to take advantage of.
There is nothing more heartbreaking than those telephone calls, emails, and photos that I received from the relatives of those on the boat of 500 migrants, where only ten survived. They asked if their children, husbands, brothers, were in that ten. Whole families perished. They were engineers, young university students, doctors…
I am not preaching in favour of uncontrolled borders. But if legal immigration options were put in place, we wouldn’t see as many people risking their lives. If ambassadors put in place ways of applying for the right to asylum in the first countries in which immigrants arrive after having fled the war in their country, we wouldn’t have, for example, as many Syrians who have drowned in the sea this year.
I think that migration shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but an opportunity. Nowadays we live in a globalized world of which immigration is a product, and will continue to develop. With an aging population in the northern hemisphere, and an extremely young one in the southern hemisphere, we can’t hide the truth from ourselves. We are going to need each other.
It won’t be easy. But to refuse this reality is to actively encourage social problems. It is a challenge to take up. Politicians need to roll up their sleeves and take on an issue that is far from being popular in times of economic crisis. But, we don’t have the choice. Let’s not leave it too late.

William Lacy Swing


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