EU must establish common 'safe' and 'regular' migration paths

From The Parliament Magazine

By Bernd Hemingway, IOM Regional Director for the EU, EEA and NATO

This article was first published in The Parliament Magazine.

The sea is just warming up, and already the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching the EU's Mediterranean borders is set to surpass totals for all of 2013.

With over 3000 arrivals in Sicily last weekend, the number of people who have made it to Italy by sea from North Africa since the beginning of the year is over 40,000.

On top of this, over 13,000 people have reached Greece, and over 2000 have crossed from Morocco to Melilla, Spain.

Extremely vulnerable groups such as women - many of them pregnant - and children are risking these passages. At least 2750 unaccompanied children have landed in Italy this year.

Emotive language colours the landscape with visions of surges, hordes and invasions, and this has been amplified in the various national debates surrounding the EU elections. But we must understand that for most the situation is desperate, and work from there.

The complex flows of people across the Mediterranean are a result of conflict, poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.

"Enhancing border controls in transit countries or along the Mediterranean coasts and other restrictive measures have not decreased the number of arrivals in southern Europe"

These factors continue to drive people to reach new shores and the chance for a better life despite the natural and human threats they face along the way.

Those crossing the Sahara face death by thirst and starvation; and those attempting the Mediterranean crossing on unseaworthy boats at the mercy of smugglers face the prospect of stormy seas and drowning.

We have seen that enhancing border controls in transit countries or along the Mediterranean coasts and other restrictive measures have not decreased the number of arrivals in southern Europe. On the contrary, migrants have started to explore alternative, more dangerous routes which benefit smuggling and trafficking networks.

Those crossing through Libya, now the main country of transit to the EU, face arrest, horrific detention conditions and abuse at the hands of militias where rape, torture, and even death are realities. In such circumstances, a would-be migrant's only reasonable option is to attempt the crossing to the EU where the promise of safety offers a minimum of relief.

Yet they arrive at a time when considerable anti-migrant sentiment and myth-making produces more noise than signal, and this has reached fever pitch in Europe where countries face major challenges in the integration of migrants already living here.

The situation in the Mediterranean is not a crisis of more migrants reaching Europe and overburdening the continent, but an emergency of more migrants needing protection, aid and safe, legal channels, especially for those not covered by existing protection systems who fall into irregular or vulnerable situations.

"Cooperation and dialogue with countries of origin and transit is essential"

Mindful of the sovereign rights and national security concerns which accompany our actions, the international organisation for migration (IOM) feels it is our collective responsibility - states, institutions and organisations alike - to respond to these challenges in a humane, effective and sustainable way.

The first priority is to save lives. Last year, IOM estimated that 2360 migrants died crossing borders in 2013, with over 700 of these in the Mediterranean alone. Numbers of deaths are down dramatically this year. Italy's Mare Nostrum operation has been a great success. Rescue at sea operations should be further supported.

Second, cooperation and dialogue with countries of origin and transit is essential. Mobility partnerships with neighbourhood countries are a big step in this direction.

More can be done by rolling out innovative actions along the migratory routes: information drives and counselling on the dangers of smuggling and trafficking, alternatives to irregular migration, options for legal migration or voluntarily return and protection measures for those entitled to it.

Third, because some EU countries are undoubtedly under heavy pressure due to the large number or arrivals and asylum requests they receive, we believe the concept of 'responsibility sharing' needs to move from principal to action at all levels of international cooperation.

Family reunification, relocation within the EU, and resettlement from third countries are efficient means to share responsibility and provide safe avenues for those seeking international protection within the EU.

Finally, only a balanced, comprehensive and common migration policy - one which enhances safe, regular migration paths while reducing irregular migration and its negative effects - can secure the EU's long term internal security priorities and contribute to its competitiveness and growth.

To get there, it will be even more important after the EU elections - which have brought to Brussels a movement of those sceptical of immigration - to work together to ensure that a balanced, fact-based discourse on migration policy prevails.