Page last updated at 21:37 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 22:37 UK

Plea for reforms after migrant tragedy


Tens of thousands of migrants attempt to reach Europe by sea every year

UN aid agencies are suggesting wealthy industrialised nations should perhaps rethink their policies on immigration and asylum in the wake of the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean, writes the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

Reacting to the news that at least 200 migrants were feared dead off the coast of Libya, after the smugglers' boat which was supposed to take them to Italy capsized, the head of the UN refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, said the barriers to legal migration had become too high.

"This is a tragedy that is multiplying itself, in the Mediterranean, in the Gulf of Aden, in south-east Asia. More and more people are trying desperately to move," Mr Guterres told the BBC.

Those people [would-be migrants] will take risks if the doors aren't open. They'll go in by the back window if the front door isn't open
Patrick Taran
International Labour Organisation

While the trend towards globalisation was encouraging free trade, there were still lethal barriers to people, he added.

"I think it's important to recognise that in today's world where as we have seen, money moves so freely, and goods tend to move also more and more freely, there are still tremendous obstacles for people."

"People need to move because they can no longer live in their countries of origin because of war, because of environmental degradation, because of poverty, there are many reasons that force people to move."

'Total disprespect'

The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 67,000 people undertook the dangerous voyage to Europe in smugglers' boats in 2008.

More than 1,700 are known to have died, but that figure could be far higher, because no-one really knows exactly how many people the smugglers cram onto their vessels.

A would-be immigrant on Spain's Canary Island of Tenerife. Photo: 29 March 2009
Migrants are prepared to risk the crossing for the lure of a better life

What is clear, however, is that anyone choosing to try to get Europe on an illegal vessel is risking his or her life.

"Unfortunately it is something we see over and over again," said Jean-Philippe Chauzy of the International Organisation for Migration. "The total disrespect for the safety and dignity of those people."

"They are crammed below deck, the boats are filled three or four times above their capacity, they have no navigation equipment, no safety equipment.

"So, when the boats capsize there are obviously no lifejackets, no dinghies, because everything has been stripped from the boats to get as many people on board as possible."

UN aid agencies believe the strict asylum and immigration policies of many western industrialised countries are forcing migrants to turn to smugglers.

The UN refugee agency points out that of those who crossed illegally from Africa to Europe last year, a majority applied for asylum, and more than half of those were found to be in need of protection.

This proves, the agency says, that a significant number had legitimate reasons to come to Europe and should not have been forced to take the illegal smuggling route.

Growing fears

At the same time, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says that despite the current global financial crisis, falling birth rates across western Europe will cause a labour shortage over the next few years

It says Europe should think about making it easier for people from the developing world to come in and work.

"You have a strong demand for labour particularly in industrialised countries," explained Patrick Taran, a migrant labour specialist with the ILO.

"They need people to fill the low skilled jobs in agriculture and construction, manufacturing, domestic work, in health care, and you have a lot of people, including with skills, who need those jobs and are willing to come for them."

"Those people will take risks if the doors aren't open. They'll go in by the back window if the front door isn't open."

"When there's no job at all at home, when you have a family to feed, you will take risks to make sure that you and your family have food on the table."

So, as G20 countries, the world's richest nations, work on plans to rescue their own economies, the fear among aid agencies is that the solutions they come up with may close the door to legal migrants and refugees even more firmly.

And if that happens, the agencies warn, more people will turn to smugglers, and more will die as a result.

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