Speeches and Talk
Date Publish

Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean

Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean
Director General William Lacy Swing
International Organization for Migration
Bangkok, Thailand
29 May 2015

Your Excellency, Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, General Tanasak,
Distinguished Delegates:

It is a distinct honor and privilege to be invited here today and I wish to thank the Royal Thai Government and Deputy Prime Minister General Tanasak for organizing this important and urgent Special Meeting. The large number of migrants trying to reach your countries has focused our minds-and, indeed, our hearts-on the urgency of developing responsible and humane measures to address the complex migratory flows across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, and elsewhere.

In this regard, IOM and I personally have publicly welcomed the Joint Statement from the Ministerial Meeting held at Putrajaya, Malaysia, last week; and IOM has endorsed the new emphasis of the Governments of Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar to make saving life the highest priority and, in this respect---to provide life-saving assistance to migrants and allow them to disembark in your respective territories.

In all of this, IOM is firmly committed to supporting you in addressing these migratory flows. We also support you in developing longer-term comprehensive migration policies that serve your respective national interests and simultaneously the interests of the migrants. You have our support. That is why we are here today and that is why I immediately committed one million U.S. dollars to this worthy cause ten days ago.

IOM has long advocated and actively supported a holistic migration policy approach- one that recognizes migration as a "mega-trend" of this century-Our "thesis" is that migration is:

  • Inevitable--owing to demography and other realities;
  • Necessary--if skills are to be available, jobs filled, and nations to flourish; and,
  • Desirable--if well-managed through sensible, humane and responsible policies.

IOM's "thesis", further is that migration is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be managed.

With these introductory remarks, I would like to emphasize 3 points:

  • A global perspective on migration trends,
  • Some of the elements of a comprehensive response to these migration flows; and
  • Three current cha llenges which we must meet together, if we are to succeed.

I. Global Trends: "A Perfect Storm"

A. Situation in South East Asia

The steady flow of irregular migrants in all categories-- and increasingly refugees and others forced to move- is nothing new here in Southeast Asia. What may be new is the number on the move.

Since 2012, some 160,000 irregular migrants have moved into the area of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia- 88,000 since 2014 and 25,000 alone this year. Whether by land or at sea, those who survived have left a "trail of tears" - victims of criminal gangs of smugglers - who torture, extort and dehumanize their victims. The gruesome smuggler camps that are being discovered tell their own tale of brutality and gross crimes against people whose only crime was to seek security and a better life.

As we gather here in Bangkok today we in fact could be assembling anywhere else in the world--- and just change the names of the countries involved.

Only two days ago, for example, I was in Brussels speaking to the European Parliament - and holding discussions with the European Union and separately, with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The issue was the 76,000 irregular migrants who have arrived on European shores this year and nearly 2,000 who died in attempting to do so.

The issues in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea that have brought us together today are global-- replicated throughout the world. In the Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden, in the Caribbean between Haiti and Florida, the Sahara Desert, in Yemen where IOM is evacuating tens of thousands of migrants; in South Africa where Zimbabweans are fleeing xenophobic attacks, in the Central American Countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where minors are forced to migrate without their parents, and on the Aegean Sea. IOM has documented 50,000 deaths along migrating routes since the year 2000 - which is a gross under-estimate because most governments don't maintain statistics on deaths on their borders)

B. Migration Today: A "Perfect Storm"

Today's irregular migrants, whether smuggled or trafficked or pushed to cope on their own--are facing what I can only describe as a "PERFECT STORM."

The elements of this storm are:

  1. Unprecedented human mobility with more people on the move than ever before: One BILLION---or One in every 7 Persons.
  2. The largest number of persons forced to migrate since the Second World War, more than 50 MILLION.
  3. Unprecedented numbers of simultaneous complex crisis and humanitarian disasters, from armed conflict to political upheaval to abject poverty----with no viable political process or active negotiations that offer any hope for a solution to any of these in the short to medium term.
  4. Unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment amplified by a growing fear of terrorists;
  5. A vacuum of leadership in a world in disarray, together with an erosion of international moral authority, with International Humanitarian Law being violated on all sides and the UN Security Council often sidelined on issues AND;
  6. Decreasing public confidence in governments' ability to manage migration.

C. The "Drivers of Migration" or the "Root Causes"

What is driving large-scale migration, I would like to offer you the (7 Ds)

  1. Demographic imbalances-- Aging industrialized countries in need of workers at all skill levels, and a youthful "Global South" with few jobs
  2. Disasters and Crisis-- We are living in an era of unprecedented humanitarian disasters and crisis from the western bulge of Africa to South Asia---Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan , Libya, Yemen, South Sudan (where I have just visited), CAR, Boko Haram in Nigeria, AI Shabab in Somalia, Ukraine, Burundi on the eve of elections and Ebola in West Africa.
  3. Demand for labor-- The lure of improved living and working conditions constitutes a pull factor despite the more powerful push factors
  4. Disparities socio-economically remain between the industrialized world and the Global South
  5. Degradation of the environment and climate change
  6. Digital revolution-- Today, some 3 billion or nearly 40% of the world's population has access to the internet and, therefore, to instant information on where the jobs are, places to avoid, etc.
  7. Dreams-- The desire to have security and a better life

These drivers, and others, will ensure that migration remains a "mega-trend of our century."

II. Managing Irregular Migration

First of all, it's important to put the current crisis in perspective:

88,000 migrants arriving irregularly in your three countries since 2014 - with a combined population of some 350 million- is not exactly an invasion- any more than the 25,000 who entered this year.

Similarly, the 200,000 migrants who arrived irregularly in Europe last year hardly pose a threat to the EU's combined population of 550 million. Compare these statistics with those of, say, Lebanon with a population of 4.5 million hosting more than one million Syrian refugees, and the same is true in Jordan.

A. Objectives

The elements of a "HIGH ROAD" response to this "PERFECT STORM" and these driving forces would require immediate and deliberate measures in pursuit of four (4) objectives:

  1. Saving life and protecting migrants rights
  2. Addressing the root causes of irregular migration
  3. Promoting safe, orderly and dignified human mobility
  4. Developing partnerships

Save Lives

Our first priority must remain to save lives and to protect the rights of migrants who take to the seas. Regardless of the reason why--and how an individual finds themselves making a dangerous voyage, if we compromise this priority, then we have collectively failed our responsibilities. Those of us sitting in this room must have the courage to endlessly promote and implement this priority.

B. Implementing Measures

1. Government Capacity Building to Manage Migration
Increasing regional capabilities to monitor and identify migrants in distress at sea is imperative. This capability must also be accompanied by an ability to respond through effective search and rescue teams. Once rescued, providing appropriate reception assistance onshore is as important to prevent deaths as allowing the migrants to land.

2. Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration
For those migrants who have been determined not to have an international protection need, a range of other options should be considered, including assistance to help these migrants voluntarily return home and receive reintegration support must be part of any solution moving forward. I sympathize with the reasons why economic migrants risk their lives to find employment and a better life. I also recognize the need for a mechanism to be in place to assist them to return home if that is the only legal option available to them.

Under the current circumstances, we must support these individuals and their communities at home, to provide them with the decision making power and freedom to choose to be a migrant, not to be forced into illegally migrating out of desperation. If this is not a priority, we know that we will see them again at sea.

3. Arrest and Prosecute People Smugglers
Criminal networks containing human smugglers and human traffickers have been implementing a brutal and effective business in this region and in the world. A regional strategy must include mechanisms to address the root causes for these conditions and mechanisms to counter them.

Having a better understanding of these networks, the routes that have been taken, and the recruitment techniques they use, will allow us to better defy this callous business and to stamp out the trade.

4. Humanitarian Border Management
By implementing humanitarian border management, law enforcement agencies can be supported to ensure that their borders are safe, free from the criminalities of human smuggling and trafficking, and for those in need of protection and may enter in distress. This approach assists agencies in distinguishing between the criminals and the victims in a humane and comprehensive manner.

5. More Avenues for Labor Migration
Beyond addressing the reasons why individuals turn to smugglers and traffickers, we have an opportunity to provide people with another option. Increasing legal avenues for labor migration in the region will take the wind out of the sails of the smugglers and traffickers. The expertise exists within our organizations and governments to provide alternatives.

Last month, I had the honor of co-chairing the Regional World Economic Forum in Jakarta. Much of the discussions centered on the emergence of an ASEAN Economic Community. It became clear that labor mobility in this ten-nation area of 650 million inhabitants, will be critical to its success. So we have lots of work ahead of us.

6. Public Education and Awareness-RaisingInformation Campaigns in countries of origin, transit, and destination.

7. More Migration Alternatives
Humanitarian Visas; temporary protective status; short-term visas; seasonal visas; circular migration; temporary re-location; resettlement; integration.

8. Dialogue and cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination.

9. De-criminalize irregular migrants close detention facilities.

Ill. The Overarching Challenges
(On which migration policies will succeed or fail)

A. Changing the Migration Narrative.

We all have a common responsibility to change the currently negative migration narrative to one that is more balanced, once that recognizes that, historically, migration has been built on the backs and with the brains of migrants. We must work to eliminate the misleading stereotypes and dangerous mythology about migration and migrants and eliminate the stigma associated with migration. An honest and evidence-based dialogue should provide the basis for improving the public understanding of the benefits of migration.

B. Managing Diversity.

Demographic, socio-economic and other imbalances mean that nations will become inexorable more multi-cultural, multiethnic and multi-religious. As with our responsibility to change the migration narrative, it will be important to provide public education, public information and public awareness-raising forums and campaigns to prepare our people for these changes. We will need to shift the debate from the one focused on "identity" to one that centers on shared "values".

C. Finding a Balanced Migration Formula.

The third challenge is to find a balanced migration formula that satisfactorily conjugates the paradox between national security and human security; and between national sovereignty and individual freedom.

If we get close to balancing these, we will know that we are on the right path to a successful and comprehensive migration policy.


We congratulate you all for your engagement on this critical matter and we would like to propose that you consider a follow up mechanism or technica l group after today's meeting to carry your discussions forward. As a token of IOM's commitment to support you in finding the right formula for the current situation, and also for reaching a longer term proposal we are allocating an additional $1 Million Dollars, IOM will there to assist you in helping the migrants who are disembarking. We hope that this very modest gesture will encourage other donors to be generous in addressing the needs that have arisen out of this crisis.ank you.