Migrant Deaths Heighten Calls for Action

The deaths of at least 133 African migrants off the coast of Italy last week spurred some international leaders to call for changes in global migrant policies. The tragedy occurred after a ship carrying Eritrean, Ghanaian and Somali migrants caught fire, capsized and sank October 2 near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Possibly hundreds of passengers from the ill-fated ship are still unaccounted for in Mediterranean waters that have claimed the lives of migrants in previous maritime accidents.

Pope Francis condemned the calamity, calling the mass deaths a “shame” and linking it to an “inhuman” world economic crisis that is symptomatic of the “great lack of respect for man.” In calling for prayers for the victims, the pontiff urged united action to stave off similar tragedies. “Only a decisive collaboration of all can help to prevent them,” he said.

Calling attention to Lampedusa, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development meeting October 3-4 in New York City.  Ban offered his “condolences,” adding that he hoped the disaster would spur the international community to action.

The U.N. head reiterated his proposal for a new international migrant order, outlining an eight-point agenda that includes protecting the human rights of all migrants; lowering the costs of migration; ending forms of exploitation like human trafficking; addressing the plight of stranded migrants;  improving public perceptions of migrants; strengthening research on migrant trends; and enhancing migration partnerships and cooperation.

Ban noted the changing face of migration, stressing that nearly half of all migrants are now women, one in ten under the age of 15 and four in ten residents of developing nations. The U.N.’s chief said global migrant remittances are expected to reach $550 billion this year and top $700 billion by 2016.

Ban criticized what he judged as excessive remittance transfer fees, as well as “unethical recruiters” that lure entire families into spending their life savings or entrap them in debt bondage.

Specifically, he urged member nations to ratify the International Labor Organization Convention on Domestic Workers, which took effect in September, and the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families.

Only a minority of nations has ratified the two treaties, and the United States is not among them. However, the state of Hawaii earlier this year adopted a bill of rights for domestic workers that contains minimum wage and other basic protections, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of the U.N. Secretary-General’s proposals were included in an October 4 declaration unanimously approved by the nations participating in the High-level Dialogue.

In a 34-point statement, the delegates committed their nations to upholding human rights and international labor standards, condemned racism and intolerance, and vowed to combat human trafficking.  Addressing the special needs of female and child migrants, recognizing the role of the environment in compelling migration, and respecting the human rights of peoples in movement were among the primary concerns laid out in the declaration.

By the week’s end, Ban also announced greater cooperation between the High Level Dialogue and the U.N., in addition to a new initiative led by the United Nations, Philippines and the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative aimed at better assisting “migrant workers caught in humanitarian crises.”

In separate comments made during the week, Francois Crepeau, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, criticized the lack of support from developed countries for the Migrant Workers Convention, migrant detention practices in the United States and other countries, and policies that encourage human trafficking only to end in horrors like the Lampedusa tragedy.

“Continuing to treat irregular migration only by repressive measures will only result in instances like what was seen last night,” Crepeau said.

An estimated 232 million migrants are currently scattered across the globe.

Readers interested in the High-level Dialogue’s October 2013 declaration on international migration and development can access the document at:


Additional sources: Associated Press, October 4, 2013. Article by Nicole Winfield. Proceso/Apro, October 3, 2013. Afp, October 3, 2013. Inter Press Service, October 2, 2013. Article by Thalif Deen.

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