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Dying to Get In: Global Migration

What is driving global migration and what can be done to make it safer?

October 11, 2005

What is driving global migration and what can be done to make it safer?

The pay is ridiculously low, benefits are non-existent, health care is next to nothing — and opportunities for career advancement are limited. Faced with such circumstances, what would you do? For millions of people, the answer is to migrate, the sooner the better and by any means possible.

Increasing numbers of young men and women in nearly every corner of the world are heading to wealthier countries. They are migrating, or planning to migrate, in hopes of obtaining better lives for themselves and their families. Many have documents permitting them legal entry, but increasing numbers do not.

Those lacking papers come by sea, air and land, often risking their lives simply to get in. Many of those who try hard enough make it in, but unfortunately, some drown, suffocate, die of thirst or get shot.

Everyone has the right to leave — and return to — his or her country. This right was recognized internationally over a half-century ago with the adoption of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, while everyone has the right to leave and return to their own country, they do not have the right to enter another country. This apparent contradiction is precisely the predicament that increasing numbers of would-be migrants are facing.

In brief, the supply of potential migrants wishing to leave their homelands greatly exceeds the demand for migrants set by the receiving countries.

Today, the number of migrants — or those living outside their country of birth — is close to 200 million. At the same time, the flows of migrants taking place annually are more complex and difficult to assess than the stocks of migrants at particular points in time.

However, for the period between 1990 and 2000, the average net flow of all migrants, both legal and illegal, from the less developed regions to the more developed regions of the world is estimated at 2.3 million per year — with about half of this flow entering the United States.

It is currently estimated that no less than one million — and perhaps closer to two million — unauthorized migrants are entering annually into the more developed regions.

The reason for these moves is that living conditions in a good part of the developing world, particularly among the least developed countries, are difficult and harsh — especially for women and those residing in rural areas.

Housing, when available, is substandard, educational opportunities are limited, health care services are basic at best and many families struggle simply to get by at subsistence levels.

In addition, political instability and armed conflict are increasing among many of least developed countries. As a result, personal security and safety are lacking or inadequate for large segments of their populations.

Under these circumstances, one wonders why more young men and women are not migrating to wealthier nations.

Many migrants send back monies to support their families who have been left behind. These remittances, now estimated at more than $150 billion per year, well exceed official development assistance.

For 2003, some of the largest remittances were to India ($17 billion), Mexico ($15 billion), and the Philippines ($8 billion). And the largest sources of worker remittances were from the United States ($34 billion), Saudi Arabia ($15 billion) and Germany ($10 billion).

In many receiving countries, the private and public sectors often look to immigration to address labor shortages and, in a growing number of instances, this immigration is intended to counter the consequences of declining and ageing populations.

Many employers, for example, seek highly skilled professionals, scientists and technicians for their firms, colleges, hospitals and organizations. In addition, there are many who seek unskilled workers to perform those “5-D” jobs — domestic, difficult, dirty, dull or dangerous — that native populations generally avoid.

So where do we stand at this juncture? As is made painfully clear by the images broadcast from Morocco, increasing numbers of young men and women appear willing to risk life and limb to gain entry into wealthier countries.

Many similar tragedies are also happening along the Mexican-U.S. border, where the number of deaths has increased sharply this year. As of September 30, 2005, some 464 migrants had died trying to cross into the United States in the 2005 fiscal year — a 43% increase compared to fiscal 2004.

In order to reduce further human loss and suffering from these clandestine migratory flows, urgent actions by sending, transit and receiving countries are required.

Such actions should include high-level intergovernmental negotiations to coordinate actions internationally. Better coordination also needs to be a goal between government agencies at all levels in individual countries.

In addition, we need greater clarity of policies and programs as well as greater and more consistent enforcement of laws and explicit accountability. Lastly, governments need to be prepared to hold a more open dialogue with the public on the issue of immigration, which has given risen to fears and outright xenophobia in many countries.

The failure to address the immigration issue decisively and in a timely manner will inevitably lead to more people “dying to get in” — whether in North Africa, on the U.S.-Mexican border or elsewhere in the world.