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International Migrants Day

Written by Eva Svoboda

Images of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean continue to appear in the news, most notably since the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa. While these images may perhaps affect us more given they depict a situation on European shores, other regions such as the Americas and Australia face similar challenges. A closer look at those trying to enter Europe however shows that they are not only migrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers in what the UNHCR calls mixed migration.

In October 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Syrian refugees were the largest nationality group attempting to reach Italy via the sea route. With no end in sight to the conflict in Syria and instability in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, we will see more attempts to reach Europe. Many of them will be unsuccessful. According to UN figures, 1,500 persons drowned in the Mediterranean in 2011 making it the deadliest year so far. In 2013, Malta and Italy received 30,000 migrants which is twice the number for the previous year. According to the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex) the eastern Mediterranean route remains the preferred option where over 37,000 persons attempted to cross into Greece in 2012 followed by the central Mediterranean way with Lampedusa as the destination.

Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers use the same means and channels to reach their overseas destination. While the legal framework is different for migrants and refugees, both face the same threats: we tend to forget that many people have survived discrimination, detention and lack of access to healthcare and education before they embark on what they hope will be a final journey to safety.

Humanitarian and development organisations, both international and national, are active in alleviating some of the suffering experienced by those fleeing conflict, deprivation or a desperate lack of opportunity. We might assume that little time goes by between a person deciding to leave their country and their arrival in a safe place. But in most cases years are spent on the road, staying in transit countries trying to scrape together the necessary funds for the next leg of the journey. Remaining invisible also means being vulnerable to exploitation with no means to seek help from official sources. In some countries, organisations providing assistance are also at risk as their work is tolerated yet rarely officially sanctioned.

We should not forget, either, that migrants leave families behind. How many families are left with no news of where their loved ones ended up? Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers often either lose or deliberately throw away their identification documents, making identification extremely difficult if not impossible in the case of death. In the case of deaths at sea, some bodies are never found.

Can states prevent the suffering that lies behind these waves of migration? HPG is researching the reasons why the protection of civilians falls short of normative and policy frameworks. While states bear the primary responsibility under International Humanitarian Law during armed conflict, it does not stop there. Some of the suffering experienced by those fleeing their homes is preventable, and states could do more, both from a legal and a moral perspective. Assistance to migrants at sea falls short of legal obligations, and more could be done in ensuring adherence to international conventions. Asylum procedures could also be improved. It is not enough to call upon Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open, while European countries remain unwilling to open their own. Beyond the region, only Sweden has granted permanent residence to Syrian refugees, including the right to reunite families. No country can carry the burden alone: solidarity, not just in terms of financial assistance, could go a long way.