Panel Discussion, “Migration and Refugee Crisis: Building a Better Future”

Date Publish: 
Saturday, April 1, 2017 - 15:00
William Lacy Swing, Director General, International Organization for Migration
New York, United States

I am honored and humbled to be part of such a distinguished panel event. I took a pledge several years ago not to take part in any panel without at least one woman. Karen AbuZayd wanted to be here.

I am pleased to be with you and glad to see so many of you, “my migrant family”. Migration is more than ever a hot topic and I am glad that young and experienced people alike, such as yourselves, have expressed great interest in learning more about this issue.

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 250 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 500 billion dollars; this is equivalent to 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.

A. Address the “Root Causes”

Migration “Drivers”

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

  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, three billion, heading toward four billion Internet users today.
  5. Degradation – of the environment, as well as the effects of climate change. Entire island states will disappear.  The President of Kiribati, a Pacific island state,  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), victims of trafficking, 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 World amidst a “Perfect Storm”

Unfortunately, forced migration and desperation migration are also a mega-trend.  For example, some 1 million irregular migrants entered Europe in 2015 – more than twice as many as in all of 2014.  A further 3,700 died more than the death toll of 3,200 in 2014. In 2016, the number of crossing was lower, 387,000 migrants, but the deaths higher – at least 5,000 reported as drowned or missing. This year (2017), the number is already at 21,000 arrivals and 700 deaths.

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). These 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 DC on the 5th of September in 2014.  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 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” led to the death of 5,000 migrants last year.

C. Unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment

This is also a period of unprecedented anti-migrant, anti-refugee, anti-foreign, anti “the other” sentiment and policies 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.  Barbaric attacks, such as the ones in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Florida were “home grown”, yet fuel greater anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment, xenophobia and the victimization of refugees and migrants. But xenophobia is a double tragedy – endangering the lives of migrants and denying our societies their contributions.

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 accurately.

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 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 one million migrants who have come to Europe in 2015, after all, are arriving in a population area of 500 million. To manage these mixed migration flows, we must overcome psychological challenges and develop a sense of share responsibility.

B. Second, we must avoid “refugee amnesia”.  IOM and UNHCR were founded in 1951 precisely to take hundreds of thousands of Europeans – ravaged by World War Two – 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 four million Syrian refugees are in neighboring countries – Turkey with 2.5 million; Lebanon with a population of five million hosts one million Syrians; and water-poor Jordan 800,000.  In short, it will not be possible to solve a “demographic deficit” with a “compassion deficit”.

C. Europe, et al, must overcome systemic paralysis; five of its 28 Member States refuse to accept any refugees;

D. Europe needs to make the psychological transition from being a continent of origin for four centuries to a continent of destination for the past four decades.

E. 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; de-criminalization of irregular migrants, eliminate migrant detention centers and transform into open reception centers.

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

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


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

The first challenge is demography. The populations of developed countries are contracting. Developed countries are facing and will continue to face a decline in birth-rates leading to a “demographic deficit”, leading to steady population decline. People in the industrialized world are living longer, and having fewer children. And, fewer children eventually means fewer parents. These population contingents are ageing and will continue to grow old. It follows, therefore, that the domestic labor supply in developed countries is getting smaller and is likely to continue to shrink.

Second, we must find a way to change the public discourse. 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.

The third 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.  

Fourth, the disasters challenge. Unfortunately, on-going crisis beset many countries today – crises which I believe will continue to haunt us tomorrow. Desperation compels people to migrate under dangerous circumstances. On the land and at sea, these migrants have left a “trail of tears – victims of criminal gangs of smugglers who torture, extort and dehumanize their victims. Moreover, the effects of climate change – intertwined with those of wars, social and political unrest and entrenched poverty – will exacerbate human insecurity at the global level.  Climate change poses pernicious, slow – yet long term – threats to the well-being of populations, endangering livelihoods through desertification, water stress, droughts and food shortages. Now is the time to plan for ways to use adaptation measures to offset current and future adverse impacts of climate change. Addressing climate change, adaptation, and mitigating its effects will be crucial to protecting people, including migrants and displaced persons.

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.


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