We must uphold the rights of migrants driven from their homes by desperation

Opinion: Migration is as old as humanity, but we need to start thinking about it in new ways

Migration can be summed up by a series of D words: demographics, disasters, demand, disparities and dreams. This year there’s a new D: desperation.

The world watched in horror in October when some 360 African migrants lost their lives within sight of land while attempting to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Untold hundreds have perished on the journey from Indonesia to Australia, or off the coast of Thailand. Migrants from Central America are raped, robbed, beaten and killed as they try to enter the USA from Mexico. African migrants die of thirst in the vast desert reaches – their bones the only testimony to a failed journey.

Why do people risk their lives and the lives of their families, over and over, when the best that awaits them is a frosty welcome?

The answer is simple: desperation. They fear staying in a land where they face persecution, or where their family starves. That desperation makes the risk of death a gamble worth taking.


Migrants face death, danger and disappointment in search of their dreams. They may be materially poor, and lack hope, they may take on massive debts from corrupt recruitment agencies or traffickers and smugglers in the hope of getting to a safe place, for a new start. They are often forced to the most dangerous places – the shoreline, the mountain slope, the riverside – and migrate because their shacks are washed away by climate extremes.

At the International Organisation for Migration we believe 2013 may have been the worst on record for migrant deaths. We will never know the true total, as many, especially Africans, died anonymously in deserts, oceans or other accidents. However, our figures show at least 2,360 migrants died this year, chasing a new life. That’s over six a day; one every four hours.

People on the move
We live in an era of unprecedented human mobility. Natural disasters and conflict are adding to levels of migration: some 5,000 people a day left the Central Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan last month. A further 200,000 have fled fighting in the Central African Republic in December alone.

For the poorest, most desperate migrants, borders have been shut over the years as countries respond to political drumbeats of alarm and move to curtail immigration. The paradox is that when one in seven people are migrants (and more than 232 million people live outside their birth country of birth), we are seeing a harsh response to migration.

The few developed countries prepared to increase immigration generally want only highly skilled, knowledge workers. The result is tightened border surveillance and reduced opportunities for migrants. This, combined with political and economic upheaval, drives people into the hands of people smugglers whose trade is the fastest-growing sector in the organised crime world, worth $35 billion a year.

Migration is as old as humanity but we need to start thinking about it in new ways. On this international day, we focus on wellbeing and safety of migrants and call for strengthening policies and the development of new ones to protect the human rights of those who leave home to seek better opportunities. We will assist our member states and other partners to develop and implement policies. IOM calls for policies to provide for the human rights of those who leave home. We are ready to assist our member states to develop those policies.

Nations must help
We need measures that will enable employers in countries with labour shortages to access people desperate to work, and we need to ensure these people are not exploited or exposed to gender-based violence. We must work in a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach in the best interests of countries, communities and people, in particular migrants.

We are not naive. Managing migration is complicated and we may need hybrid scenarios.

In 2016 there will be a World Humanitarian Summit: our organisation will be asking how the global humanitarian community can ensure that political upheaval, economic stress and natural calamities do not always lead to a second round of challenges whereby desperate migrants, abandoned to their fate, are forced to take desperate measures.

William Swing held important US ambassadorial posts in Africa. He is director general of the International Organisation for Migration, whose website is migrantsday.iom.int/