Illegal migration drama to continue in 2017

Sunday 25/12/2016
Refugees and migrants try to cross a river on their way to Macedonia from a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, in March 2016. (AFP)

Beirut - As wars, poverty and per­secution swell the ranks of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people, 2016 is proving to be the deadliest year for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterra­nean to Europe.

By early December, more than 4,700 people were known to have died trying to make the perilous sea journey while 352,471 people reached European shores, the In­ternational Organisation of Migra­tion (IOM) said.

Although far fewer migrants reached Europe in 2016 compared to the record number of 1,011,712 in 2015, the toll among them was higher than last year’s estimated 3,771 deaths.

This was due to several factors, including tightened border con­trols and a controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey, under which Turkey re­ceives up to $6.8 billion in aid and enters renewed EU membership talks in return for curbing crossings from its territory and taking back migrants who reached Greece.

“Conditions have changed. It has become much more difficult for il­legal migrants to resort to (land) migration routes. So they sought al­ternative but riskier (sea) routes via North Africa like Libya and Egypt,” said Fawzi al-Zioud, head of the IOM office in Lebanon.

He argued that with Europe building walls and fences to keep people out, migrants have shift­ed to attempting the sea journey through the central Mediterranean, risking their lives on the most dan­gerous route to Europe.

“These are what we call push factors,” Zioud said. “Turkey’s de­cision to impose entry visas for Syrians, the drop in humanitar­ian assistance for refugees in host countries like Lebanon and the dif­ficulty for refugees to find jobs to sustain themselves and their fami­lies are also some of these (push) factors that, while reducing the number of migrants, pushed many to undertake the high-risk sea jour­ney to Europe.

“Restrictions on their movement increased the risks taken by mi­grants, which explain the increase in the number of deaths among them.”

Nearly all arrivals (93.8%) in 2016 reached Europe by sea, arriving on Italian territory. The rest entered Europe by land through Bulgaria, Greece and Spain. In the Mediter­ranean, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Eritrea accounted for 68% of all arrivals, IOM said.

While risks of illegal migration have risen, IOM said it hopes peo­ple would be encouraged to turn to the legal framework for temporary resettlement in a third country.

“Legal migration benefits both sides of the spectrum: The host countries, which would get skilled and young labour, as well as the countries of origin of the migrants through the remittances they would send home,” Zioud said, not­ing that IOM has helped relocate some 30,000 refugees — mostly Syrians — from Lebanon in 2016 and 20,000 in 2015.

About 7,500 migrants from shel­ters in Greece and Italy had been relocated by mid-November, ac­counting for 2.1% of new arrivals in 2016. The figure is well below the 106,000 asylum seekers the Euro­pean Union said it would relocate in 2015-17. After one year of imple­mentation, relocation efforts under the scheme have managed to move 7.1% of the target number.

The situation highlights the ur­gent need for states to increase pathways for admission of refu­gees, such as resettlement, private sponsorship, family reunification and student scholarship schemes among others, so they do not have to resort to dangerous journey and the use of smugglers and human traffickers who exploit them and place them in higher risks, Zioud said.

“There is more awareness now among refugees about the cost, risks and abuse they are subjected to when they resort to traffickers and illegal migration. IOM is stead­ily informing refugees about migra­tion procedures as part of our legal resettlement programmes, in ad­dition to providing cultural orien­tation, so that the migrants would know what to expect in their coun­tries of resettlement,” the IOM offi­cial added.

While many refugees still try to reach Europe, others are choosing to return home.

“There is a clear trend of in­creased Assisted Voluntary Returns (AVR) provided for migrants choos­ing to leave their current host coun­tries and return to their countries of origin,” IOM said. The organisation helped repatriate some 76,621 mi­grants in 2016, outstripping returns for 2015, which were estimated at nearly 56,000. Returns to the MENA region amounted to 8.2% of the total.

The migration of people fleeing conflict, violence and poverty is ex­pected to continue in 2017, unless real change occurs in their coun­tries. “It all depends on political solutions and relative security and stability that would encourage peo­ple to stay or return to their coun­tries of origin. It applies to migrants from Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. The factors that push to migration would then be reduced,” Zioud said.

“Ensuring the appropriate envi­ronment for the people to remain in their countries, including decent income, proper education to com­pensate for the loss incurred during conflicts, and social and economic stabilisation projects, is crucial to reducing migration… If this hap­pens, the numbers will drop dra­matically,” he added.

Until then, a staggering record of 65.3 million people has been dis­placed globally at the end of 2015, including 21.3 million refugees, of whom 4.9 million are from Syria.