BY: William Lacy Swing

People have always been on the move.

Migration is not a catastrophe, nor is it an invasion. Often, it is not even an emergency. Throughout human history it has mostly been, simply, one thing: inevitable. Migration is history’s oldest and most effective anti-poverty measure, a natural human response to challenges and a facilitator of greater opportunities.

At least 244 million people today live outside the borders of their homelands (UNDESA). People move to improve their lives, whether that means access to a better food supply, access to more sustainable employment, education opportunities or to save their own lives and the lives of their family. 

Sadly, unprecedented levels of migration have led growing anti-migrant sentiment globally. Migrants embody the essence of multiculturalism, as they are the bridges between countries of origin, transit and destination. It is time that all actors – including States, civil society, the media, international organizations and the private sector, migrants and communities – effectively and factually communicate about migration.

Political leaders and the media have an important role to play in combatting xenophobic narratives on migration that leads to limited perceptions of migrants and to reshaping public discourse and political response. For example, note that the Secretary-General’s Report for the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants, In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, does not speak about “illegal migration” but rather of “irregular migration”. These two terms are often conflated. Political leadership should be enhanced in order to combat the currently toxic migration discourse. The beauty of diversity should be embraced.

Anti-migrant sentiment has also brought with it another negative and false stereotype: the criminalization of migrants. Too many are too willing to criminalize human ambition, a parents’ desire to rescue their family from danger, a families need to be reunited, a young person’s drive to make their way out of extreme poverty and so on. When we criminalize these simple human responses to poverty, conflict and ambition, we condemn members of our own family to unspeakable punishment.

In 2013 – at Lampedusa, Italy – I watched as 366 corpses were prepared for burial, the victims of unscrupulous criminals in Libya who were willing to stuff migrants into unsafe vessels bound for Europe. A year later the tragedy has only worsened, with more horrific incidents of drownings. Often the passengers themselves realize how unsafe the crafts are and refuse to board. Often they are battered into submission, tortured and then forced out to sea.

At the International Organization for Migration, we have heard of nearly identical crimes taking place off the coasts of Bangladesh and Thailand, and recently have chronicled the rising tide of death on routes connecting the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula. And believe me, the tragic loss of life is not limited to this migration routes.

As the headlines of the last few years show us, migrants unable to find safe, legal means of travel often turn to some of the planet’s most vicious criminal gangs for relief, which often leads to recklessness, even murder.

Safe, legal and orderly migration should be the only reality that we accept. It is time to stand up and protect the rights of refugees and migrants. We can no longer allow them to fall prey of criminal gangs and inhumane migration policies.

This is why the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September in New York is as historic an opportunity, as it is perfectly timed. World leaders, organizations working in migration, community leaders, private sector and many more partners are coming together for the first time ever with the hope of agreeing on a better response to large movements of both refugees and migrants.

I will have the privilege to take part in the UN Summit, bringing with me the voices, stories and hope of the millions of migrants and refugees IOM has had the honour to work with over the past 65 years. During the UN Summit, I will sign an agreement making IOM part of the UN system. This shows us the raising the profile of migrant issues in such an august body - setting mankind on a path towards change.

We must rediscover our compassion, and use the UN Summit to take positive action. The challenge of addressing large movements of refugees and migrants is not beyond our reach, if the international community shares responsibility. For the UN Summit and any other endeavors taken on from that point to be beneficial, we must work together to acknowledge and address the many factors that compel people to move. Demography is one of the biggest. For the most part, migration is a byproduct of the quadrupling of the human population over a single century and the effects that this causes to economies, the environment and fragile states. We also see that rising global consumption feeds rising international labour demand, which offers citizens of poorer countries the prospect of rising family incomes by migrating.

When we speak of migrants, we are speaking of people.  And our responses to migrants must place people at the centre. Honoring the dignity of the migrant should be seen as honoring human dignity. And destiny. This is a reaffirmation of our commitments in the new Sustainable Development Agenda, where we collectively agreed to “leave no one behind”. We may not all look or speak the same but strip away the veneers of nationality, religion, language and race, and we are all human beings – each with the same basic dreams and  hopes for the well-being of our families and communities.

Certainly countries have a right, indeed an obligation, to control their borders. And, yes, economic downturns make migrants easy scapegoats for unemployment or depressed wages. It is not difficult to understand why indifference to migrants’ hardships has led to hostility, fear and resistance to their arrival.  But it is no longer acceptable to let fear dictate how we act.

The UN Summit will set in motion a much longer process focused on migration. It provides an opportunity to work toward a global compact on safe, regular and orderly migration that upholds the human rights of migrants and their families, irrespective of migration status, enhances their wellbeing, and promotes inclusive growth and sustainable development in societies of origin, transit and destination. Increasingly, although to varying degrees, all countries are all three simultaneously. To promote these efforts, IOM will announce commitments at the UN Summit in various areas like global climate, risk and adaptation, protection and assistance for migrants in vulnerable situations, migrant health, countering-xenophobia and more. IOM looks forward to partnering with other members of the UN family, Governments, communities (migrant, diaspora, local, etc.) and other partners to carry out our mandate of providing direct assistance and protection to migrants in need, as well as, to internally displaced persons all over the world.

We must and can work together to ensure safety and dignity for all, leave no one behind, and celebrate the richness and vibrancy that migrants and migration brings.


William Lacy Swing is the Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)