Why it’s time to see migrants in a new light

We have seen some dark days this year. In 2015, we have witnessed acts of sickening violence, the fury of nature, and too many lives lost as a result of conflict and neglectful governance.

It is not surprising that so many cultures have created festivals of light to counter the darkness. Hindus recently celebrated Diwali, and last month was Loy Krathong in Southeast Asia, where candles were set afloat to give thanks. Soon it will be the holiday season for parts of the world. Lights are already twinkling everywhere, from Central Park to Bondi Beach.

In Ireland, a nation which has experienced poverty, war and famine, there is a tradition of placing a candle in the window during the holiday season, to remember the emigrants who now live far away.

On this International Migrants Day, I call on individuals to let their light shine – to light a candle to commemorate the deaths of those who have died attempting to reach a better life, and figuratively to advocate for a migrant-positive, inclusive dialogue.

As an issue, migration defined 2015. It was a year of mass and rapid population movement. A typhoon in Vanuatu, an earthquake in Nepal, a war in Syria, insecurity in a number of countries, and nearly 900,000 migrants arriving by boat in Europe fleeing war, poverty, and persecution: the world was in foment and flux.

In an ignorant panic, sections of media and society have sought to portray migration as a social evil: a divider of families and communities, a spawning ground for fanaticism. Through my many decades of watching, commenting and leading thought on migration, this particular moment in the global discussion on migration causes me more concern than any other time.

I see an anti-migrant sentiment taking over the political consciousness of states and their populaces. I see ethical malaise; an absence of courage and empathy, a bankruptcy of leadership, and a paucity of moral sensitivity.

I see a one-sided debate, focusing on fear, negativity and security. Recent events in Paris and the United States have been used as an excuse to paint migrants with a broad brush – undermining the sentiments of inclusion seen at train stations and in football stadiums across Europe this summer that made migrants and refugees welcome.

The perceived intersection of national security and movement of people has led to hostility and fear. But to read the invective against these victims of war and violence is to blame the innocent who are fleeing the same threat that is feared by host countries.

I have often described our time as a perfect storm of humanitarian emergencies which factor in today’s unprecedented human mobility. Almost one out of every seven human beings on this planet, more than one billion people, is in some way a migrant. Almost 60 million of those have been forcibly displaced from their homes as the result of war, instability, and increasingly, climate change. Millions of others are seeking opportunities in other countries, or elsewhere within their own countries – and most are moving for a combination of reasons.

We have become all too familiar with the image of the migrant boat crossing the Mediterranean, of people attempting any means possible to reach safe and welcoming shores. Less public are the deaths of migrants, which go largely unnoticed an­­­d unmarked amid the focus on responding to the needs of the living.

For those who have never been forced from their homes due to war, or compelled to seek better employment opportunities across a national border, it is too easy to become complacent about the fact that lives are at stake. When we talk about migrant deaths, we are not simply talking about numbers; we are talking about lives that are forfeit to nations’ inability to make legal, regular channels for migration accessible.

It is for those who have perished in search of a better life that we light candles this International Migrants Day, with the hope the light serves as a very clear reminder of the human cost of current political and social attitudes towards migration.

I truly believe that communities will continue to open their hearts and arms to embrace the tired and the oppressed. In addition to individual nations’ support for migrants and refugees at a local and national level across the globe, the United Nations has drawn a line under the importance of migration in its blueprint for human development: the Sustainable Development Goals.

Migration is firmly on the global agenda. The first United Nations side event on migration took place this year. A summit in Malta brought African and European leaders together around migration. In Asia, governments have gathered to seek a regional solution to the migration crisis in the Andaman Sea. Canada’s new government has sounded a clarion call, offering a permanent home to 25,000 thousand refugees in a rapid, regulated mass resettlement.

Migration is the mega-trend of our time. Let us prioritize the responsibility to prevent further migrant deaths, and use their memory to shed light on a way forward to more safe, secure and legal migration.

Author: William Lacy Swing, Director General, IOM