The tragic drowning in the Mediterranean Sea of scores of African migrants is a painful reminder of the terrible humanitarian challenges caused by the developed world’s strict immigration policies and the vast, cynical trade in human trafficking that preys on those hoping to outwit the system. At a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing crises in the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union’s approach to immigration seems heartless and out-of-date. Pope Francis called this week’s tragedy a “disgrace” and pleaded for concerted political action to prevent further tragedies, but the sheer scale of the problem, and the political passions that the immigration debate stirs up in most European countries looks set to delay reforms for some time.
Six years ago the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that people trafficking affects the economies of nearly every country in the world. It reported that victims were moved from 127 countries and exploited in 137 countries. Most of the victims were between 18 and 24, and many were reasonably educated. But the circumstances of their entry into the developed world often sealed their fates. Four out of ten victims of human trafficking are subsequently exploited by the criminal undergrounds in their new homes, and doomed to work in sweatshops or prostitution rings. The UN also estimates that 95% of those who are smuggled are subject to physical or sexual violence.
According to the UN Global Initiative to fight Human Trafficking, some 2.5 million people are in forced labour at any given time. (The UN statistic, based on a 2007 finding by the International Labour Office, probably underestimates the real figure considerably.) These figures include at least 1.2 million children. Globally, the trade generates annual profits in excess of US$30 billion with at least 10 per cent of the trafficking taking place in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The reach and complexity of the trafficking networks is evident in the human cargo of the ship that capsized on Thursday morning. Its passengers, who had boarded in Misrata, Libya were mainly refugees from domestic turmoil in Somalia and Eritrea. In recent years trafficking in the Sinai desert has become so lucrative that the Bedouin gangs that control the trade have forsaken their nomadic lifestyles and built permanent homes at strategic points along the trafficking route. The outsize profits to be gained from stuffing boats with hundreds of desperate migrants directly contributed to the recent tragedy. The small craft —carrying an estimated 500 passengers —capsized after a blanket lit to signal the boat’s position caused a larger fire. In the panic that followed, passengers rushed to one side of the boat and tipped it over.
Part of the reason why so many traffickers target Europe is the absence within the EU of a coordinated approach to immigration reform. Instead, most states have improvised their own measures. Greece, for example, recently built an 8-mile long fence to prevent Turkish immigrants crossing its border. In the West Bank, Israel is constructing a “separation” fence that will eventually encircle more 430 miles of its hotly-disputed national boundary. Immigration policy remains an incendiary question in the UK and Ireland, but while everyone agrees that the exploitation of powerless immigrants is reprehensible, there has never been a consensus as to how best to tackle the growing crisis. In fairness to Europe, the situation is no better elsewhere. Immigration reform in the United States may have become slightly more achievable since the GOP woke up to its lack of Latino support, but the current standoff over affordable health care makes bipartisan cooperation on similar grand initiatives, like immigration reform, unlikely.
As a country with thousands of citizens who have been “backtracked” to North America, and elsewhere, Guyana has no choice but to take human trafficking seriously. Quite apart from the appalling human costs of the trade there are also serious national security interests at stake. Increasingly, drug trafficking and human trafficking have become interconnected businesses for extremely violent transnational criminal enterprises in the Americas. So while the plight of the African migrants drowned near the island of Lampedusa may seem remote to some of us, the truth is that in a globalized world the economic forces that drove these poor people to seek refuge in such perilous circumstances, and the unconscionable actions of the criminal networks that exploited them, are in fact disturbingly familiar.