Every year, from early October to the end of January, in Lagos, Nigeria, many migrants hang from their roofs. The streets of the world’s sixth most populous country are filled with people trying to sneak into Europe. Waiting in traffic jams, migrants say they suffer beatings, torture and worse in their countries of origin. In some cities, European officials even visit “arbitrary detention centres” to witness the conditions.
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The theme of the UN general assembly last week was migration. It is no surprise that the UN’s 37th conference on the “human dimension of migration” looked at migrants – or their home countries. “Amnesty International calls on host governments to tear down walls, secure borders and keep law enforcement away from migrants,” said Amnesty’s director of international operations, Claudio Cordone. He is right.
Quick guide Why are migrants streaming into Europe? Show Hide Counties along the migrant trail are struggling to cope: in Italy, a huge backlog of asylum claims means many migrants are trapped, unable to make a swift start on their new lives. In Greece, at least two people a day are being killed in clashes between the police and refugees. And in Spain, the rightwing government has shut its ports to rescue ships, turning away hundreds of migrants in what humanitarian groups described as a cold-blooded killing of refugee life. Why are people migrating? Mostly because of economic reasons. Poverty and conflict push more and more people into the arms of extremist groups such as Isis. Along the western Mediterranean coast, Libya becomes the main point of departure for those wanting to reach Europe, but the journey is incredibly dangerous. More than 100,000 people have crossed the sea from Libya to Italy this year, and hundreds of thousands more have drifted out to sea without reaching a ship. In 2016, more than 4,000 people died attempting the crossing.
One of the most shocking experiences I have experienced at the world’s first “refugee summit” was a large group of women being cajoled into wearing burkinis for photo opportunities. These women, from the Assad regime in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and other countries, are held in UN detention centres, women who have fled in fear of their lives. Burkinis are not dissimilar to the burka, a fiercely protected form of clothing that has long been recognised to be oppressive. Now, there is a visceral increase in surveillance of women’s bodies across the globe.
In Europe, meanwhile, the far-right government of the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, is attacking his judiciary in a relentless crackdown. Over there, the far-right Jobbik party is using Islamophobia to ram through populist policies. Far-right parties are quietly winning political ground in Germany and Italy. Violent and racist hate crimes in the UK have rocketed in recent years.
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Yet, again, the UN conference failed to properly address the root causes of migration, thus giving perpetrators an easy out. Most participants, whether they be politicians, aid workers or civil society groups, all sought to push governments to do more. Yet, all too often, donor governments are perceived as responding slowly and inadequately.
As the European migration crisis shows, migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Eritrea and other countries are likely to be heading to Europe for economic reasons. An inadequate economic environment of poverty and insecurity in Africa and Latin America will lead many, if not most, to try and reach Europe. Yet, as the UN conference underscored, governments lack the means to adequately protect migrants and must ultimately do more.
At first glance, migrant numbers in Europe do not indicate a large number of refugees entering Europe; in fact, the figures indicate something far worse. The 16 million migrants who have been hosted since January 2016 are often fully assimilated. By European standards, these migrants are profiled, albeit as guest workers, living, working and contributing to societies. While their numbers are relatively small, the fact remains they have made their home here and when they do want to return, they will in the end.
All that remains is to link migration to a sustainable, independent development. It is not that developing countries lack the capacity to host immigrants. It is that their systems are not built to absorb them. The best short-term measure is to abolish the child-labour laws, prevent victimisation of migrants, strengthen education and training, support the poor, improve health care and infrastructure, protect the natural environment and rebuild local communities. When they are housed, housed well and given the tools to help themselves, migrants will be much better disposed towards their host countries and the countries that are home to them