Lampedusa disaster a sombre backdrop to UN migration summit

International migrant numbers have risen from 175 million in 2000 to 232 million this year

Victims of the  disaster lie  in a hangar of  Lampedusa airport. Photograph: Reuters

Victims of the disaster lie in a hangar of Lampedusa airport. Photograph: Reuters


The deaths of hundreds of African migrants in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa could not have served as a more pressing backdrop to a United Nations summit on migration in New York.

Opening only the second high-level meeting on migration at the world’s representative body, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told delegates from more than 150 countries that they “need look no further” than the morning headlines to “see the great importance of this dialogue”.

As the body count rose in Italy, Ban said: “We must do more to protect the human rights of all migrants.”

The number of international migrants has risen from 175 million in 2000 to 232 million this year, yet a cohesive global structure to eradicate the problem players involved in migration – smugglers and traffickers, unethical recruiters and abusive employers – is still being designed. The issue of refugees and humanitarian crises caused by conflicts such as the war in Syria have attracted greater attention.

“Migration issues tend not to get the same scrutiny and priority, even though hundreds of thousands of people are migrants and transiting, and you have these situations like this [in Italy] where they are in jeopardy,” said Anne Richard, US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

At the forefront of this push to put a long-overdue architecture in place to deal with the plight of migrants worldwide is Ireland’s former EU commissioner and attorney general Peter Sutherland.

The Irishman, chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former chairman of oil giant BP, was appointed special representative of the UN secretary general for international migration and development in 2006 at the request of then UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

Global forum
Sutherland was instrumental in organising the first high-level meeting on migration and development in 2006, which led to the creation of the Global Forum on Migration and Development. That organisation has served as a platform for informal dialogue and co-operation on these issues outside the UN.

This has helped to move the issue of migration beyond simply finding reactive solutions for the mass movement of migrants and the funding of their repatriation to their home countries.

In his address, Ban praised the Dubliner’s championing of migration issues, saying his “advocacy and leadership have advanced the debate and improved our collective handling of the issue.”

Progress has been slow, as a number of countries, including the United States, have dragged their heels on the issue. The George W Bush administration argued that migration was a sovereign matter, not to be decided on an international stage in an organisation like the United Nations.

In contrast, the Obama administration has been a leading advocate of migration issues.

Ban yesterday named the US and the Philippines as leaders in an initiative to create rules and responsibilities for migrants in crisis situations in the countries they travel from, through and to.

Pointing to the growth of anti-immigrant parties in Europe, Sutherland said some governments were still reluctant to take on the thorny issue of migration beyond their borders.

“It is evident by the lack of engagement rather than direct confrontation,” he said. “People are afraid to talk publicly about it until they are driven to it. It is a dangerous subject everywhere.”

The Italian tragedy pointed to the urgency of tackling problems with migration, not just relating to natural disasters and conflicts, but in areas such as remittance so migrants are not charged extortionate fees for sending $550 billion that is estimated will be transferred between countries this year.

“It is a sign that there is a need for a coherent debate on migration and development,” Tobias Billström, the minister for migration in Sweden who chairs the Global Forum for Migration and Development, said.

Migration initiatives
Mr Sutherland said the aim of the migration initiatives was to create conditions where countries were more constructive about regular migration and more supportive of accepting back irregular migrants “that the pay-off between the two can create a more stable environment for migrants”.

Billström, who wants Sutherland to compile a report for the UN on the next steps to be taken in migration reform, said politicians needed to stop talking about migration as a “constant threat” concerning security issues and seeing the economic benefits of legal and well-managed migration.

“We have to stop thinking about migration as a one-way thing; it’s a two-way thing,” he said.