The world needs a new strategy to tackle the migration crisis

Inequality: how do we assess it? Sometimes it’s about someone not having enough to eat. In this snowy season in the northern hemisphere, it’s also about not having enough heat – and dying as a result.

As European and world leaders approach the World Economic Forum in Davos, they should reflect on the growing number of helpless migrants who have frozen to death in the current cold weather.

We have learned of victims from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, with the possibility of many more to be found in a grim archipelago of makeshift settlements – car parks, warehouses and other places migrants gather, from Bulgaria to the English Channel.

For the past three years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN’s migration agency, has been compiling data on migrant and refugees deaths for its Missing Migrants Project. We have calculated 18,501 deaths and migrants missing, most of them drowned in the Mediterranean and other deadly spots.

Nearly 7,500 of those worldwide fatalities were recorded last year, a total that is certain to rise as the last pieces of 2016 data are processed.

Migrants are rescued from a boat by members of an NGO in the Mediterranean, about 20km north of Ra’s Tajura, Libya, last week.
Photograph: Olmo Calvo/AP

This is an astounding statistic: roughly 17 men, women and children perishing every day for the last 1,096 days, or nearly one every hour.

Of course there are days no migrant dies – and other days when hundreds do. Nonetheless, it’s time to stop counting and start changing, beginning with the way we manage migration worldwide. Because to do otherwise is to ignore the world’s true plague of inequality – between the masses that have enough to eat and heat and the ones that do not.

Mass migration to Europe isn’t going to end – not for decades. Economists forecast that with Europe’s birth rate falling and its native-born population rapidly ageing, the continent’s available labour force is contracting. In fact, Europe faces a worker shortage measured in the millions until at least 2050.

And with Africa’s population expected to double during that same period (and African economies unlikely to create jobs fast enough to absorb the emerging talent), there is simply no way two opposites – ageing Europe and youthful Africa – won’t attract. Nonetheless, Europe’s citizens need to feel their borders are secure.

Right now, they don’t, so we must do better. We can start by abetting regular migration, which experience has shown has the direct impact of reducing irregular migration.

We can assist those fleeing conflict with temporary protective status that offers asylum-seekers safety, but not permanently. We can accept young workers with short-term employment visas, while at the same time offer higher-skilled migrants student visas, which pay long-term dividends to issuers both by filling current labour gaps while generating higher incomes for migrant families for years to come.

This second part is crucial. The more regular migrants can earn, the more irregular migrants can stay at home.

This shared-wealth model has worked for centuries, starting with the Irish, Scandinavian and Mediterranean migration waves that left Europe in the 1800s, when the possibility of thousands earning livelihoods abroad let millions remain behind. It happened again after 1989, when Poles, Romanians and citizens of other post-communist regimes flocked (not always with legal work papers) to jobs abroad that kept their people housed and fed – and their infant democracies from collapsing into chaos.

Today, too much of the world sees a solution in blocking migration, despite clear evidence that restrictive migration policies mainly enrich smugglers. It costs migrants anywhere from €500 to €2,500 to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, sums many times greater than whatever expenses criminal organisation face to stuff their victims into the unworthy crafts that last year took thousands of lives.

Do we really want that?

Europe seeks a comprehensive migration plan, which has eluded policymakers for years. Individual countries have made great strides, such as Germany’s initiative to screen asylum-eligible Syrians in Turkey before attempting dangerous Mediterranean crossings. The EU is now working with IOM across 14 African countries to save lives by spreading information about the lethal perils awaiting some of the world’s poorest migrants in their dash across the Sahara, well before those same migrants attempt sea crossings.

The captains of industry gathering with heads of state in snowy Davos might reflect on how they can bring the enormous resources of the private sector the issue of migration.

In a globalised world, top corporations have the freedom to hire the best and brightest, but they’re a minority. Too many employers – households, small businesses, farmers – must cope with increasing border restrictions, which ultimately push up the cost of imported labour. That only serves to enrich smuggling gangs.

We need to put these criminals out of business by taking away demand for their services. We can emphasise family reunification – putting the burden of integrating new arrivals with those best equipped to handle that task: their relatives already established here. We can let industries desperate for lower-skilled labour – agriculture, cleaning services, nursing homes among them – bid to pay the transit and licensing fees European states may set to bring documented workers here.

Migrants would gladly pay these fees to come legally. We know this because we see how much they’re already willing to pay to come here without them.

Last year, almost 7,500 paid with their lives.

William Lacy Swing is director general of the International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva.

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