Even as a high-level dialogue among states and governments on the issue of international migration began at the United Nations Headquarters in New York last Thursday, October 3, the media were reporting that more than 100 African migrants had perished (now believed to be more than 300) when their boat capsized and sank in the Mediterranean off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
These men and women (reports are that the boat was carrying 500 people) had most likely paid their life savings or had borrowed money to pay the person who was going to smuggle them into Europe. There, like the thousands before them, they would suffer the ignominy of being illegal immigrants: hiding from the authorities and being subjected to abuse and being taken advantage of by persons who know their status among other things.
That they endured these atrocities meted out to them, often without complaining gives an indication of the conditions under which they lived in their homelands. Poverty has long been a reason for migration. It is possibly the number one reason for the massive south to north migration that has taken millions of people from the developing to the developed world.
Among Caribbean people, England was originally the destination of choice. Annual immigration figures from the Caribbean to the UK that averaged 8,500 in the early 1900s, jumped to over 15,000 in the 1950s and in excess of 170,000 by the 1960s. Louise Bennett’s poem, Colonisation in Reverse (1966) presented an accurate commentary of the then situation: “By de hundreds and de thousands… by de ship-loads and de plane-loads//Jamaica is England boun”; and it only described what was occurring in Jamaica. Bennett went on to relate, in her unique style, that while some Jamaicans had plans to get jobs and work hard, others were planning on collecting “de dole” (welfare assistance) and not doing much.
The subsequent burden on welfare and other services and the rise in crime led to the implementation of immigration laws not just in England but other parts of Europe and in North America. There was a clear need to stem the tide. But then the employment and enforcement of laws have never really served as deterrents to the determined, have they? If they had, the world’s prisons would be going out of business rather than being so overfilled. Migration, legal and illegal continues.
Poverty, conflicts, political oppression and discrimination among other adverse conditions have also seen a new category of migrant emerge – the refugee. And while persons in the above listed situations were originally taken at face value, the sheer numbers seeking asylum also forced the attachment of certain conditions to this being granted.
The UN high-level dialogue which lasted two days was the second one convened on this issue. The first was seven years ago. Since then it has been recognised that there is need for a concerted effort going forward. In addition, global statistics have signalled huge changes in migratory patterns. Today, almost half of all international migrants are women (48 per cent); one of every ten migrants is under the age of 15; most international migrants are of working age (20 to 64 years) and account for 74 per cent of the total.
The simple truth is that more people are ‘living abroad’ than ever before and the source and destination countries have widened. And while migration from south to north (or developing to developed countries) is still higher, south to south migration (developing to developing countries) has been growing exponentially. An example of this exists right here in Guyana where Brazilians, Chinese, Nigerian and other migrants are pouring in daily, both through the legal and so-called backtrack routes.
At the end of their dialogue, the UN leaders adopted a 34-point declaration that called for, among other things, cheaper, faster and safer transfers of remittances in both source and recipient countries, in recognition of the fact that this money represented an important source of private capital. They also called for an end to xenophobia and racism and the recognition that young migrants while vulnerable have the potential to build “social, economic and cultural bridges of cooperation and understanding across societies.”
The declaration also urged that international migration “be addressed in a coherent, comprehensive and balanced manner, integrating development with due regard for social, economic and environmental dimensions and respecting human rights.” In truth, given the touchiness of the issue of sovereignty in today’s world the declaration probably stands as much chance of approval as John Lennon’s 1971 song for world peace ‘Imagine’. But then the possibility of a lack of acceptance and approval never did stop any of us from dreaming, did it?