International Migrants Day

International Migrants Day 2018

On International Migrants Day a Call for Dignity, Respect for Migrant Choices

​By António Vitorino, Director General International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Migration is the great issue of our era. Migration With Dignity (#WithDignity) is the theme of 2018’s International Migrants Day, which we observe on Tuesday (18 December). 

Dignity is at the core of our mission. Treating all migrants with dignity is the fundamental requirement we face before anything else we attempt on migration—a troubling issue coming at a troubling time for the world community—because our future depends on it. So, too, does our present. 

I am newly arrived at the International Organization for Migration, recently chosen to lead one of the international community’s oldest and most effective organizations. Yet migration is as old as humankind. Which means that IOM, at a mere 67 years of age, is a relative newcomer. 

We are today a species on the move; hundreds of millions of us are, in the broadest sense, migrants. There remains much to do. And learn. But dignity comes first. Foremost, the dignity to choose. 

Migration is a force for dignity because it allows people to choose to save themselves, protect themselves, educate themselves, or free themselves. It lets millions choose participation over isolation, action over idleness, hope over fear and prosperity over poverty. 

We must dignify those choices by paying them respect. We respect them by treating those who make such choices with dignity. 

We also have the choice. To answer migrants’ hopes with our acceptance; to answer their ambition with opportunities. To welcome rather than repudiate their arrival.  

We must also respect and listen to those who have become frightened of the changes that migration brings to their lives. Whether their fears are warranted or not, they are authentic and deserve to be addressed with dignity.  

Unless we give all citizens the assurance their choices, too, are respected, we risk losing a real opportunity for progress. Migration embodies choices we make together—either by responding to our new neighbours (or potential new neighbours) with a sense of community, or not. 

The adoption earlier this month (10 December) in Marrakech of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) by an overwhelming majority of UN Member States takes us one step towards dignity for all, and towards a more balanced discourse and widespread cooperation on migration. 

The GCM strikes a delicate balance between the sovereignty of nations and the security, and dignity, we demand for every individual. 

As we turn now to celebrate the United Nations’ annual International Migrants Day we’ll do well to remind ourselves of that balance, and how the two sides do not compete with each other. They complement. 

The Compact stresses all states need well-managed migration, and that no one state can achieve this on its own. Cooperation at all levels is fundamental to addressing migration. 

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 18 December as International Migrants Day in 2000. That same year, in its annual World Migration Report, IOM stated that more than 150 million international migrants celebrated the turn of the millennium outside their countries of birth. 

Eighteen years on, the trend of men, women and children on the move has continued upward. Eighteen years on, we’ve seen the number of international migrants grow to an estimated 258 million people. Another 40 million people are currently internally displaced by conflict, and every year millions of others (18.8 million in 2017) are forced from their homes by climate-related disasters and natural hazards. 

For many people, the mere act of migration exposes them to great dangers. 

IOM’s data show that close to 3,400 migrants and refugees have already lost their lives worldwide in 2018. Most died trying to reach Europe by sea; many others perished attempting to cross deserts or pass through dense forests seeking safety far from official border crossings. These numbers, compiled daily by IOM staff, shame us. 

IOM reaffirms that migration is a driving force for progress and development not just for those on the move, but also for transit countries and especially, receiving communities in destination countries. 

We renew our call to save lives by ensuring migration is safe, regular and dignified for all. 


Syrian-born Sibal has lived in Turkey since 2014 with her refugee mother, grandmother and four other members of her extended family in a two-room apartment.  

The catalyst for their departure was a single incident. While the family sat in their garden drinking tea, a circling aircraft bombed Aleppo. The family escaped unscathed, but funerals were held for every other household on the street in their affluent neighbourhood. 

Like hundreds of thousands of their fellow displaced citizens, they’ve struggled to maintain their dignity and make ends meet since fleeing the war. Sibal’s mother is illiterate and puts a premium on education for both her young daughters.  

In addition to helping her sister access medical care, IOM is providing secure transportation for young Sibal so she can get to and from school. 


Like many of his countrymen, Than* left rural Cambodia in search of better paying work overseas. Duped by human traffickers and sold into conditions of modern slavery aboard foreign fishing vessels he languished for years at sea, rarely setting foot on land, starved, overworked and unpaid.  

The practice of press-ganging crew remains an all-too-common feature of global fisheries. Every year thousands of young men across Southeast Asia hunt for work abroad to free themselves from the cycle of poverty at home. They instead find themselves in similar situations on the high seas, construction sites and in factories. 

In March 2015, for example, Indonesian officials raided a remote fisheries weighing station, interrupting the operations of a vast fleet and freeing upwards of 1,500 trafficked fishermen whom IOM subsequently helped to return home. 

Ensuring the entrenched poverty of their home communities does not drive vulnerable men and women back into the arms of traffickers requires investments in community-based economic activities of the type IOM provides. 

With a viable farming livelihood now available and dignity restored, Than has his eyes focused on the future. 



Edhabo hasn’t seen her home since 1991, the year she was forced to flee war-torn Mogadishu, where she’d witnessed people being killed and houses bombed. 

Over the next quarter century her family was shattered, scattered by conflict to multiple destinations in the region. Her journey took Edhabo to Mombasa, Kenya, 1,300km south of her childhood home, and then on to the sprawling refugee camp in Kakuma (2018 pop: 147,000).  

Ultimately, she ended up in Nairobi, running a small cleaning business to support herself. 

Despite all the challenges that marked her life, Edhabo chose to remain positive. When she was selected for resettlement in the United States, IOM was there to assist with a dignified transition from the Kenyan capital to a rural Wisconsin winter. 

Asked what she was looking forward to in the next phase of her life, Edhabo listed: not having to rely on anyone for help, finding a job – possibly in a mall – and paying taxes. 

At the airport her suitcase was packed with cold-weather items and the clothes she thought she would need to begin a new career abroad.  


Olivier was just 10-years-old when his father bound him to his back with rope and fled violence in Rwanda for neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Along with two brothers and his parents, they lived rough, constantly on the move, surviving on what food they could forage, mostly cassava and bananas. He remembers the forests, itinerant camps, the rain and hunger. 

Some didn’t make it. His father, mother and one of his brothers died in the conflict. His surviving sibling vanished: Olivier believes he’s still alive somewhere in the rainforest. 

Years later, the Red Cross helped Olivier return home where he was invited to participate in IOM small business trainings and provided with start-up assistance. He and three friends moved in together, pooled their energy and started a small welding company in Mundende district.  

Olivier has reclaimed his dignity by actively supporting his young family, building a life and a modest degree of prosperity. He’s feeling optimistic about the future.  

“I have won my independence,” he says.  

He remains hopeful that Rwandese like his missing brother will come home.   


In 2006, a devastating earthquake in verdant Central Java, Indonesia, killed over 5,700 people and reduced dozens of villages to rubble. 

An agricultural heartland of the most populous island on earth and a major recipient of money remitted by overseas workers, the area is also renowned for its home-based artisanal businesses, in particular the production of hand-drawn or pressed batik cloth. In a heartbeat, thousands of families were reduced from a precarious form of affluence to poverty as walls collapsed, destroying their enterprises and ruining their stock. 

For many, particularly women, the only desperate option was the indignity of abandoning their hard-won independence to seek employment abroad, far from their families and communities. Many had already done so and were extremely reluctant to leave again. 

To stabilize these fragile circumstances, IOM and its local and international partners invested in a wide range of income-generating activities designed to get communities back on their feet financially. 

Ibu Sri Windarti (centre, orange headscarf) and her highly skilled neighbours in Kebon village, were among the first to be assisted. A dozen years later, their cooperative is booming, selling their unique batik tulis product to international designers, supporting dozens of households while passing down their knowledge of patterns and natural dyes to a younger generation.