International Migrants Day is an opportunity to recognize the important contributions of the millions of people around the world who cross borders in search of a better life. However, we must also not forget the thousands, whose journeys began in desperation and hope, but ended in death.
Every day here in Geneva, the U.S. Mission and others are working with organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to set up structures that will ideally prevent migrants from taking dangerous travel risks. Yet still at least 4,868 migrants died this year worldwide while travelling to a new destination, according to UNHCR – twice as many as in 2013.
One reason fatalities have climbed is that so many people have been driven from their homes. More people are now forcibly displaced than at any time since World War II. Another factor is how and where irregular migrants are traveling. This year an estimated 348,000 attempted to make the trip by sea. And more than half of them – 60% - crossed the Mediterranean. The number who set off from Northern Africa hoping to reach Europe jumped to three times the previous record, set in 2011 during the Libyan civil war.
Again and again, the world witnessed the horrifying spectacle of migrants, packed onto rickety boats that capsized or sank. The recent shipwreck that drowned five hundred migrants near Malta, is just one example of how these voyages can end in tragedy. In that case, smugglers actually rammed the boat after migrants refused to board another, less seaworthy vessel. In all, an estimated 3,000 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean this year.
The danger is not going away. Poverty, hunger, and brutal civil wars like the one raging in Syria will continue to drive the exodus. That conflict has lasted for four years, displaced roughly half of Syria’s population, and driven an ever larger exodus to Europe. Opportunities for safe migration are limited. So the sordid business of human smuggling and trafficking is flourishing – and becoming more institutionalized and profitable. Smugglers are now even using the internet to schedule departures by sea.
There are no simple solutions. Coping with irregular migration can be politically and logistically challenging. But our priority is and must be saving lives. This is the message Assistant Secretary of State for Population Refugees and Migration, Anne Richard carried to a UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s dialogue on Protection at Sea, held in Geneva earlier this month. U.S. and other delegates also agreed on the importance of screening to identify those who need protection from violence and persecution and would be at risk if sent home.
Migrants who travel by land or air need our protection as well. They run the risk of being robbed, exploited, and enslaved as well as dying of hunger or thirst. The United States supports IOM, other international organizations and civil society to build the capacity of governments to help manage migration safely and humanely and to empower migrants to better know their rights.
In our efforts to make migration less hazardous for an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children who risked their lives to make the trip from Central America to the United States this year, we looked for new ways to protect them. We launched an in-country refugee/parole program in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras so that lawfully present parents can apply to have their children facing danger in those countries join them in the United States. We are also working with Central American governments to address the violence and hopelessness that drove so many children to risk their lives and forsake their homes.
Today on International Migrants Day we reaffirm our commitment to working with other nations to promote opportunities for safe, orderly, and legal migration and to protect migrants because they are our fellow humans, and because lives depend on it.
About the Author: Pamela Hamamoto serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva.