by Lesley Anne Knight, Secretary-General, Caritas International
Last May, a startling image appeared on our television screens of a huge fishing net being towed behind a trawler. Closer inspection revealed a chilling reality. Around the edge of the net, 27 migrants were clinging on for their lives. They had been abandoned by people traffickers in a small wooden boat that soon began to sink. The captain of the trawler refused to take them on board, fearing that a change in course would jeopardize his valuable catch of fish. So they clung to the net until they were rescued by the Italian navy.
It was an unforgettable image and it is a powerful metaphor for our world, the poorest people clinging precariously to life, as the ship steams blindly on.
Forced migration is an international scandal that requires an urgent global solution. It can be attributed to poverty and social inequality, whether we are talking about migration as a result of conflict, famine, natural disasters, persecution or unjust access to natural resources. As long as we continue to live in a world of obscene inequality, we will always have to address the issues raised by migration.
Development has a central role to play in combating the causes of forced migration. Clearly, if people have the resources to respond effectively to natural disasters, and are prepared for them, the likelihood of mass migration is reduced. If conflicts can be resolved by dealing with their local, national and international causes, migration can be reduced. By tackling the crippling poverty which forces people to migrate merely to survive, migration can be reduced. We must also look at the increasingly pressing issue of climate change which threatens to displace large numbers of people from their homes as a result of crop failures, lack of water, or rising sea levels.
Migration also plays an active role – either positive or negative – in the development of communities and countries. Migration goes in hand with globalization, invisible or steel depending on your point of view. The increasing connectivity that is a feature of the globalized world facilitates the movement of peoples. The economics of globalization seems to always create winners and losers, exacerbating the inequalities that already exist.
There is a tendency among the richer nations of the world to want to cherry-pick the bits of the globalization phenomenon that suit them. They build bridges with one hand, and put up barriers with the other: “We want you to come and work for us, but not you.”… “You can bring your skills to our country, but don’t bring your culture.”
Globalization also encourages us to think of migrants as an economic resource, a mobile labour force, a form of capital. Although the economic view of migration may open doors, it tends to ignore the effects of migration on individuals and families.
We can speak of migrants as ‘agents of development’ when we consider the development impact of remittances sent home by migrants which are almost three times the value of Official Development Assistance to low-income countries. Or when we look at the role of women migrants in the promotion of human rights and gender equality in their home countries.
There are also pitfalls in the view of migration as a positive force for development. Should we be seduced by what we might call the ‘spin-off’ benefits of migration? Can there really be a ‘triple-win’ form of migration that benefits country of origin, country of destination, and the migrant? How do we measure the benefit to a migrant? Does a migrant benefit if he is financially better-off, but his children grow up without a father?
When we speak of the rights of people to migrate through choice, what kind of a choice are we talking about? Is it an informed choice? If you are living barely above the poverty line and you choose to leave your family to give them a better standard of living, is that migration by choice, or simply a different kind of forced migration?
Here the issues are far from clear cut. It is a key area of work for the Caritas Confederation, which has the global reach to be able to address it. While we look at ways to best respond to this phenomenon, we should always keep in mind the guiding values of Catholic Social Teaching, and in particular the belief in the dignity of the human person.
The eradication of poverty and social inequality lies at the very heart of what Caritas stands for. Our preferential option for the poor commits us to combating dehumanizing poverty, which robs people of their dignity and humanity. We believe in the universal destination of the world’s goods, and that any economic, social, political or cultural structure which opposes or oppresses and prevents change towards justice is sinful.
Let us remember that migration is not essentially about economics, it is about people. Migrants are not an economic resource, a form of capital – they are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers and children. At its most basic level, migration is a result of the efforts of individuals and families to survive and improve their lives. The problems caused by migration impact on individuals and their families, people with faces and names.
This essay is based on a speech given at the Caritas Europa 5th Migration Forum 20th September 2007 in Costa de Caparica, Portugal.