But with an estimated 900 fatalities when a boat sank this week off the coast of Italy, the toll is even greater.
I’ve felt a particular burden, even from a distance. For many years I’ve traveled to Africa and on many of those trips I’ve been implored by young people to help them emigrate. Some requests come quietly. Some are insistent. All are poignant.
The refugees who drowned, and the hundreds who preceded them on dangerous crossings, are not among those with the wherewithal to emigrate legally. They lack the contacts and the legal justification required for state sanctioned immigration. They are the invisible people.
There are myriad reasons for wanting to leave their homelands. Most seek relief from oppressive poverty. Some lack opportunity in their home countries, while others face oppressive regimes that make life unbearable. And some, such as Somalis and Syrians, live in countries where daily survival is a dangerous, risky thing.
These migrants are the poor and desperate. For too long Europe has turned a blind eye to those who risk life and limb in the vain hope that they will find security, prosperity and opportunity to the north. If they survive, most find confinement in a camp that is poorly equipped, only to be returned in a revolving door of frustration and risk.
But the neglect is not only European. The developed nations view the world through the strategic lens of security and threat. Until a major crisis erupts, or an insurgency develops that presents a global threat, the response to poverty at scale is often limited, and slow.
It’s abundantly clear that poverty is a breeding ground for instability and desperation. And desperation is a motivator for civil unrest, and a tool in the hands of manipulative radicals seeking to overthrow weak, corrupt and oppressive governments.
The failure to address poverty with a consistent, long-term approach has consequences. It is a strategic as well as a humanitarian failure.
Neither you nor I can help every young person who seeks help to leave his or her country, but we can encourage public policy that addresses food insecurity and long term development. We can encourage public policy that rewards good government. We can tell our representatives that we favor proactive humanitarian policy as a preventative to military action that results from social instability. We can provide financial support and volunteer to work for those humanitarian organizations on the front line of human need.
Here are four things we can do:
- Become informed and speak out about the current immigration crisis so that developed nations cannot ignore the poor and desperate until they die in tragedies like the ship that sank off Italy’s coast this week.
- Support the work of groups like the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and others like it, Bread for the World and Church World Service who advocate for just public policy and provide humanitarian services to ease the burdens of poverty.
- Support the Global Food Security Act to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, strengthen maternal and child nutrition, and build capacity for long-term agricultural growth.
- Support global health initiatives including efforts like Imagine No Malaria which improve quality of life in regions where under-served people face hunger and disease without proper health care.
We can be persistent in attempting to improve life for those who otherwise are willing to risk their lives in a dangerous journey to improve their chances to find dignity, opportunity and prosperity.
This article, now two years old, remains a pertinent, practical overview of the immigration crisis in Europe with clear policy recommendations.