See the World Through Migrants' Eyes

28 May 2015
  • Mr. William Lacy Swing | Director General, The International Organization for Migration

Bangkok Post Op-Ed by IOM Director General William Lacy Swing

For two weeks, four faces have been staring hard into our collective conscience. Christophe Archambault's disturbing picture of four migrants adrift on the Indian Ocean has been unavoidable, gracing the cover of newspapers, magazines, websites, and appearing on prime-time TV day after day.

Three stare directly at us: they know we see them. One looks downwards and beyond, fixed on some point far away where there is still hope. Behind them, in softer focus, yet more emaciated faces; their tattered clothing and unkempt hair testament to the weeks they have spent at sea.

And then, for four days, nothing. We could not unsee these people; the image seared itself into the public sphere. Finally, on May 20, they reappeared. Without any nautical knowledge, they had somehow crossed the Malacca Strait and were brought ashore in rural Aceh province, Indonesia.

International Organisation for Migration (IOM) workers in Indonesia were shocked by their condition, saying they had "gone beyond suffering". That really says something. Staff of the organisation I lead there lived through the horror of the 2004 tsunami; they know suffering and they do not speak of it lightly.

It is with profound relief that I can write that no one who came on shore from that boat has died. They are sleeping in hot, crowded tents, without any privacy or creature comforts, but they are alive, they are getting treatment. They have survived.

Had the smugglers that lured them from their homes in Bangladesh and Myanmar not abandoned them they would have found themselves in squalid jungle encampments rather than docksides and fields in Indonesia.

They might have been beaten, starved, abused, and — if their families had refused to ransom them — killed and dumped in unmarked graves. As it was, at least 10 are reported to have died at sea, with thousands more still missing.

The Thai government's clampdown has toppled one pillar of this grotesque smuggling infrastructure, but the edifice still stands and the smugglers will seek new ways to exploit desperate people.

The drama still playing out on the waters of the Indian Ocean, and in accommodation centres in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, echoes a global tragedy. It recalls the desperation of the asylum seekers and economic migrants, driven by poverty or persecution into flimsy boats on the Mediterranean, scaling border fences in Africa, or packed into fake compartments on trucks in Mexico, Ukraine and Turkey.

Their plight reinforces two key planks of IOM's philosophy.

This is the age of migration. Migration cannot be stopped, cannot be contained. It is a phenomenon, brought to life by the dreams — and the nightmares — of the impoverished and the terrified.

Moreover, economies need migrants: they contribute more to development than official overseas development aid. When it is well managed, migration is always a force for good.

Their movement, be it in dribs and drabs, or in a sudden rush that captures every headline, must be managed. Borders must be protected; states must be in control of who remains on their territory. But this must be underpinned by humanitarian border management. There must be a place for those in distress or in dire need of protection.

Equally, the scourge of people trafficking and human smuggling must be stopped. While there are subtleties in terminology, there is no difference in the motivation of the criminal gangs that strip every last vestige of dignity from their victims.

The source, transit and destination countries have to cooperate to protect the vulnerable and prosecute the smugglers, who are nothing more than peddlers of misery and death.

This week I will be in Bangkok at the invitation of the Thai government to meet many governments and organisations concerned about the trade in human misery.

We all know the issues, and we all know that without a robust plan in place, chaos will again ensue.

My profound hope is for agreement on a way forward in which the entire international community mobilises to tackle the root causes of population movement, and makes migration a voluntary and positive experience for all concerned.

This week, we must see the world through migrants' eyes.


Article first published in Bangkok Post

Rohingya migrants sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14. © AFP/Christophe Archambault 2015