Speeches and Talk
Date Publish

Keynote Speech, 240th US Marine Corps Birthday Ball - “A world in search of itself”

Your Excellency, Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What a privilege to be with you,

Congratulations, Marines, on your 240th birthday,

I. A World on the Move

We live in a World on the move.  Ours is an era of unprecedented human mobility – more people are on the move than ever before – more than 1 billion in our 7 billion world.  One in every seven of us is a migrant.  

Were the world’s 240 million international migrants to constitute themselves as a nation, this new nation would have a population slightly smaller than Indonesia and somewhat larger than Brazil. Annually migrants send home, USD 435 billion dollar; this constitutes the GDP of a small or medium-size European nation such as Austria.  New York City’s migrants alone would make them the third largest city in the US after New York City itself and Los Angeles.

Migration “Drivers”

Migration is thus a “mega-trend” – and will remain so because of a half-dozen or so “drivers” of large-scale migration.

  1. Demography
  2. Demand for labor – an aging industrialized Global North in need of workers at all skill levels, and a youthful, heavily unemployed Global South with a turgid rate of job creation.
  3. Distance shrinking technology – e.g., budget travel.
  4. Digital revolution – 300 million persons connected to the Internet at the turn of the century and today, 3 billion, heading toward 4 billion Internet users today.
  5. Degradation – of the environment, as well as the effects of climate change. Whole Island States will disappear.  Tomorrow, I will receive the President of Kiribati, Pacific Island States.  He is buying land for his people in Fiji, because his country may disappear into the sea as it rises.
  6. Desperation – crossing the Mediterranean today are not only refugees but also migrants – fleeing abject poverty, political persecution and hopelessness; unaccompanied minors (UAMs), persons seeking to join their families, the sick and the elderly.
  7. Disparities – socio-economic – ever-widening gaps between the Global North and Global South, growing inexorably, as more and more wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few.
  8. Disasters – of all sorts: natural, armed conflict, internal turmoil and political instability.  Earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, Typhon “Haiyan” in the Philippines; flooding in Pakistan.

II. A Hostile World

Unfortunately, forced migration and desperation migration are also a mega-trend.  For example 850, 000 irregular migrants entered Europe this year – more than twice as many as in all of 2014.  A further 3,500 have died – more than the death toll of 3,200 in 2014.

But, forced migration is also a  global phenomenon: not just in the Mediterranean but from the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to the Indian Ocean; the Red Sea, in the Caribbean between Haiti and south Florida, in the Sahara desert and  the US-Mexican border.  The current focus, however, is on Europe, the most favored destination for migrants and – in terms of deaths – the most deadly destination.

A. Unprecedented forced migration

Today, more people have been forced to migrate than at any other time since the Second World War – some 60 million – 20 million refugees; and  40 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Forced migrants constitute a population the size of France.

B. Unprecedented disasters

Today, there are unprecedented simultaneous, complex humanitarian disasters – stretching from the western bulge of Africa to Asia, with few stable areas in between.  Instability in Mali; Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors ethno-religious conflict in the Central African Republic; ethnic civil war in South Sudan; a forty-year-old conflict still raging in Somalia; the Syrian civil war in its fifth year; and unfinished conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the midst of all these man-made political disasters, along comes the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.  I recall vividly a phone call I received from Washington on 5th of September last year.  Washington asked me if IOM could recruit medical personnel and manage the first three Ebola treatment units in Liberia; manage the Ebola Training including in Sierra Leone and start up Emergency Operation Centers on Guinea’s borders.  Overnight, I deployed 100 staff to the area and the first three centers were operational on schedule. 

Meanwhile – apart from exceptions such as President Obama – the world was largely indifferent. The world’s attitude was to shut down all flights from Africa and put everyone in quarantine who arrived from Africa.  Indifference and hostility, when compassion and support were needed.

Were that not bad enough – except for the Vienna talks – there are at present no viable political processes or active negotiations that might offer us hope that any of these numerous conflicts might be resolved in the short to medium term.

All of these conflicts are driving people to migrate under dangerous circumstances – via the sea and the desert. On land and sea, these migrants have left a “trail of tears” – as victims of criminal gangs of smugglers torture, extort and de-humanize their victims. These “travel agents of death” have led to the death of 3,500 migrants already this year.

C. Unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment

This is also a period of unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment –  even though there is unfilled labor demand in an ageing Europe and the OECD area. Closing borders, instituting rigid visa regimes, criminalizing irregular migrants and other rash measures are driving more and more migrants into the hands of smugglers.  The barbaric attacks in Paris last weekend, are fueling yet another potential tragedy – greater anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment, xenophobia and the victimization of refugees and migrants. 

D. Unprecedented Political Malaise

There is also a vacuum of political leadership, lack of political courage, and an erosion of international moral authority on migrant issues, with international humanitarian law being violated by all sides. And finally, unclear power relationships. Public confidence in government’s ability or willingness to manage these migration flows is a further element; and a pervasive “globalization of indifference” as Pope Francis has described it.

III. A World of Shared Responsibility

It is entirely within our capacity, however, to manage these migratory movements – if there is political will.

IOM’s thesis is that “migration is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be managed”. Large-scale migration or human mobility is:

(a) inevitable given demographic and other driving forces I’ve described such as disasters, demography, and labor demand;

(b) it is necessary if skills are to be available, jobs to be filled, and economies to flourish.  The truth is that the industrialized world would need more, not fewer, migrants – Europe alone will need some 40 million workers at all skill levels by mid-century – workers that they will not have given Europe’s declining population, in the same period, African’s population will double from 1 billion to 2 billion.

(c) finally, migration is desirable if managed in a responsible, humane and dignified manner.

How then should we respond to or manage the realities and challenges that are now before us?

A. First, we must recognize these realities and put them in perspective. For example, the 850,000 migrants who have come to Europe this year are, after all, arriving in a population area of 500 million. To manage these mixed migration flows, we must overcome psychological challenge’s and develop a sense of share responsibility.

– First, to avoid “refugee amnesia”.  IOM and UNHCR were founded in 1951 precisely to take hundreds of thousands of Europeans – ravaged by World War II – to a new life in countries outside Europe.  The 200,000 Hungarians who fled Hungary in 1956 – only 60 years ago – were received with open arms, open hearts and open purses in Austria and Yugoslavia.

For many years, Ethiopia has been  host to  700, 000 refugees; Kenya to 400,000 and Sudan to 200,000.  Today, most of the 4 million Syrian refugees are in neighboring countries – Turkey with 2 million; Lebanon with a population of 5 million hosts 1 million Syrians; and water-poor Jordan a million.  In short, it will not be possible to solve a “demographic deficit” with a “compassion deficit”.

– Second, Europe must overcome systemic paralysis; five of its 28 Member States refuse to accept refugees;

– Third, Europe need to make the psychological transition from being a continent of origin for four centuries to a continent of destination for the past four decades.

New migration policies are clearly needed – a “High Road” Scenario. Policies have not kept pace with change.

“High road” policies include: more legal avenues of migration; more resettlement countries and larger resettlement quotas; temporary protective status; seasonal worker permits; voluntary return (AVRR); humanitarian border management; relocation; integration; etc.

Communication. Public information, public education and awareness-raising programs to help citizens understand and manage human mobility; and abandon false stereotypes about migrants.

Comprehensive Approach. Managing migration from a comprehensive, long-term plan and vision – a whole-of-government approach. 


In conclusion, I see two challenges – challenges  the world must meet to recover its dignity and share responsibility. 

A. First, we must find a way to change the migration narrative. The public discourse on migration at present is toxic. Historically, migration has always been overwhelmingly positive. Our own country was built, and continues to be built on, the backs of migrants and with the brains of migrants. Migrants are agents of development. Migrants bring innovation. Migrants don’t take our jobs, they create new jobs.

B. The second challenge is learning to manage diversity: Demographics, and the aging industrialized world, together with other driving forces I described, mean that the countries of Europe and other industrialized countries need migrants.  Our societies will, therefore, inexorably become more multi-ethnic, more multi-cultural, and more multi-religious. To succeed in managing diversity will require:

– political courage – a willingness to invest in public information, public education, awareness-raising and dialogue.

– moving the debate from one of identity, to one of shared values and interests.   

Migration is as old as humankind. Migration is the world’s  oldest poverty reduction strategy – and is a key to a world in tune with itself. Turning migration challenges into opportunities for all requires good migration governance; a broad, durable consensus among a wide constituency; coherent, coordinated policies among partners.