Like many at the beginning of the new year, I have been wondering if 2023 will be better for the world based on what we saw unfold in 2022. The short answer is no. The long answer is that, given human nature’s inclination to always be hopeful, I am going to hold on to positivity and wish for the best.
But my positivity was quickly dampened by the news that 13 Moroccans had drowned trying to reach the Canary Islands in Spain last week. Meanwhile, the Italian coastguard rushed to the rescue of 50 migrants who were in distress in the sea between Italy and Libya this week, despite the desire of Rome’s anti-immigration government to reduce the number of arrivals. In Lebanon on Saturday, two people drowned and 200 were rescued after their boat, which was destined for Europe, sank. In Gaza, a mother has received the corpse of her son, who perished at sea along with seven others after making the land journey through Egypt to Libya with the aim of making it to Europe with the help of human traffickers.
Last year, nearly 2,000 people were recorded as dead or missing in the Mediterranean by the UN Refugee Agency. The number reaching Europe by crossing the Mediterranean has been on the increase for the past three years, reaching 146,000 in 2022. The UK announced this week that more than 45,000 migrants reached its shores in small boats last year, which is 17,000 more than the previous year.
The majority of those arriving in Europe have claimed they are fleeing persecution, conflict, violence, instability and poverty in North and sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran and even farther afield, such as Afghanistan and other parts of Asia.
The moral case for giving shelter to those in need still mobilizes many in the Western world, despite the pressure on resources and ever-shrinking state purses for providing adequate housing, social care and education for their needy citizens, let alone the newcomers who require funding for their initial integration, which might last for years.
But there are also some adversities, as many countries known for their hospitable policies toward refugees have been grappling to separate illegal or economic migrants from genuine asylum seekers and a smaller number of those who could be victims of criminal human trafficking gangs.
The UK has been promising to make it extremely difficult for those arriving illegally to remain in the country, since the belief is that many of them have been paying people smugglers huge sums of money for the journey. They are then classified as economic migrants risking their lives for what they hope will be better living conditions and opportunities in a developed country.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, under pressure to curb migration, has pledged to reduce the backlog of asylum seeker applications waiting to be processed in a bid to curb the overall number of migrants reaching the UK in general. Specifically, he wants to try and create precedents of failed applications to deter those arriving by small boats from French shores from paying large sums of money for nothing.
As the UK and many other countries have found out, there is no easy way to stop people from trying to seek an alternative life, under whatever pretext and at any cost, material or physical. Since the dawn of history, people have been on the move and it is no different today for those determined to try to seek a better life somewhere else. The problem faced by host countries — which are often Western, democratic, stable nations — is that people are ready to go to any lengths to reach their soil.
The UK Conservative government has drawn heavy criticism for its Rwanda removal policy and its efforts to process and remove the Albanians who made up at least 25 percent of all small boat arrivals last year, despite their home country being deemed safe. The UN Refugee Agency said that British plans are likely to undermine global refugee protection rules and violate international law. It said London was going against the basic principles of international solidarity and responsibility sharing, upon which the 1951 Refugee Convention was founded. Britain’s new focus on Albanian migrants also seems to have angered that country’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who said that the UK should “stop discriminating” against people from Albania to excuse its own migration policy failures.
For years, Britain has suffered from a broken immigration system, which is viewed by many as having too many loopholes that, while helping deserving political refugees and genuine asylum seekers, can also be capitalized on and used and abused by economic migrants and criminal human traffickers.
The year 2023 has started with the world looking more and more volatile, with no indication of a rapid end to the war in Ukraine, while there is also instability in Afghanistan under the Taliban and the heavy-handed clampdown on demonstrators in Iran, to mention just a few. In addition to violent conflicts and civil strife, economic woes are multiplying and exerting more pressure on precarious nations that are struggling in the face of costly food and crop failures due to climate change, along with other adversities, putting further pressure on people to seek alternatives and maybe flee.
Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. This article originally appeared in Arab News.