Migration across the Mediterranean in context

Migration across the Mediterranean in context

Migration across the Mediterranean in context
Every single year, hundreds of thousands of people, desperate to leave their homes, whether escaping war, oppression, or poverty, are caught between greedy and unscrupulous smugglers and the lack of legal routes for them to emigrate. (File/AFP)
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The chilling news earlier this week about the drowning of 27 migrants in the English Channel after their boat sank near the French port city of Calais was another cruel reminder of the deadly consequences of the failure of the global immigration regime.

Every single year, hundreds of thousands of people, desperate to leave their homes, whether escaping war, oppression, or poverty, are caught between greedy and unscrupulous smugglers and the lack of legal routes for them to emigrate despite the objective need for immigrants by more economically developed countries.

Yet through no fault of their own, no group is as maligned as migrants. There doesn’t seem to be space for a rational and considered public discourse on the benefits of migration, as much as on the challenges it poses, without releasing the xenophobic genie from the bottle. It would be naive to think that any discussion on migration from low-income parts of the world to more affluent countries will be based on facts and free of inherent biases and prejudices against foreigners, especially those from different ethnic groups — but we should at least try.

International migration is, after all, a complex phenomenon that involves a multiplicity of economic, social and security elements.

What is indisputable is that both the US and Europe for objective reasons have a pressing need for economic migrants, as they face slow population growth. Most European countries would have experienced population decline had it not been for immigration. Research over the years reveals a strong correlation between population growth and economic growth in high-income countries, and the opposite in low-income countries. Consequently, immigration which is regulated and considers both sides’ interests could be a win-win situation, as long as social and at times also security issues are dealt with. In the US, for instance, the population is currently showing the slowest increase since the 1930s depression and is even projected to diminish in the next few decades. EU countries are experiencing a slight decline, part of which has to do with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is mainly due to birth rates. For instance, the fertility rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is 4.6 per woman, in the Sahel it is 5.7, while it is only 1.53 and 1.64 per woman in the EU and the US respectively.

It is the combination of falling birth rates and aging populations that is creating an urgent need for a managed migration system, in the face of the prospect of economic decline. Managed migration would aim to create a match between the demand for labor in high-income countries and the availability of it in low-income ones; such an approach will relieve pressure at both ends.

Migration is too often mistakenly treated as a monolithic phenomenon, when what must be addressed are the different reasons that drive people to leave their homes and look for a new start in another country despite the pitfalls and life-endangering situations that can sometimes result

Yossi Mekelberg

Migration is too often mistakenly treated as a monolithic phenomenon, when what must be addressed are the different reasons that drive people to leave their homes and look for a new start in another country despite the pitfalls and life-endangering situations that can sometimes result. Lack of differentiation between legal and illegal immigrants, economic migrants and asylum seekers, skilled and unskilled migrants, all of them lumped together and facing hostile rhetoric which reflects overt and latent xenophobia, makes it almost impossible to provide constructive solutions.

After all, both in the EU and the US, it is projected that by the middle of the century there will be a severe shortage of labor in factories, hospitals and care homes, and in the construction, transportation, hospitality and agricultural sectors. There also won’t be enough Europeans or Americans to overcome a widening gap between those who are of working age and paying taxes, and retired people who these taxes support. Instead, legal obstacles for migration are becoming stricter and more resources are being used to prevent immigrants from reaching the EU or the US; for instance the EU has been changing the procedures for entering the Schengen Area to make it more difficult for less desirable arrivals and asylum seekers.

It cannot be denied that immigration also poses challenges to societies, and for some the diversity it brings represents a threat to their familiar way of life. Hence the need for a considered, thoughtful and sympathetic conversation about migration. Maybe the tragic and cruel circumstances in which innocent people lost their lives several days ago, as they were trapped between their desperation to find a decent life, gangs of criminal smugglers and governments more interested in appeasing vitriolic populist hatred that on most occasions they fueled themselves, will inject some reason and humanity into the migration issue. Or perhaps the discussion will be led by cynical politicians such as Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko, who is trying to destabilize the EU by calling on it to take in 2,000 migrants currently detained at his country’s border with Poland. However, in the meantime, thousands of people are losing their lives every year crossing the Mediterranean, taking the Atlantic, the English Channel or other routes on the way to what they see as their salvation.

There is no one stroke of policy that can solve the migration crisis, especially when the populist approach is also being exacerbated by both the current pandemic and the extreme weather events resulting from climate change. Yet, the situation requires a global response that reboots and upgrades the current approach to immigration. First is the need to reduce people’s motivations to immigrate by taking a proactive and holistic approach to economic and social development in low-income countries and engaging in conflict resolution initiatives where wars are forcing people to flee their homes. Cutting foreign aid, as the EU and the UK have been doing, is bound to achieve the opposite. Second, there is a need for a mapping of high-income countries for the demand for migrant-work, leading to the creation of legal and facilitating mechanisms for an efficient and humane immigration process. Third, the issue of refugees and asylum seekers should be addressed separately from those who are migrating in search of work abroad, as it is a humanitarian issue whereby most countries are obliged to provide protection to people who are facing threats to their lives and liberties. And fourth, when these policies are activated, a war should be declared against human trafficking.

And, yes, one more thing — as important as all the other measures, we need to change the way we perceive migrants, and instead of seeing them as a threat, welcome them into our societies and ensure that they feel at home and fully integrated without trying to force them to lose their identity. Not only for their sake, but as much for our sake.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.  Twitter: @YMekelberg
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