The Courage of Migrants


By George Packer
The New Yorker

Packer Courage of Migrants 690
The Rohingya—stateless Muslims who have taken to the Andaman Sea by the tens of thousands to escape oppression in Burma—are throwing themselves into the unknown without any saving illusion of the promised land. - PHOTOGRAPH BY S. YULINNAS / AP

In the summer of 1983, I made the rash decision to get on a small cargo boat in the port town of Victoria, Cameroon, and sail across the Gulf of Guinea to Calamar, Nigeria. My Lonely Planet guide to West Africa had misinformed me that a weekly passenger ferry made the same route. When I discovered that no such ferry existed, there wasn’t enough time to exit the country overland before my Cameroonian visa expired at midnight. At the dock, a forty-foot vessel called the Beg God, with a single outboard motor, a cargo of nails in wooden boxes, a crew of three or four young toughs, and a pilot named Abraham was leaving that night for Calamar. For a price that seemed extortionate, I would be allowed on board. Abraham wouldn’t say how long the trip might take. It was the height of the rainy season and the ocean was wild, with five-foot chop. I was twenty-two and didn’t think twice.

There was another passenger on board the Beg God that night, a non-paying one. He looked miserable, and he wasn’t interested in talking. After the first hours of drenching waves and seasickness, neither was I. But I learned a few details: he was Nigerian; he had been living in Cameroon illegally, doing menial work in Douala, and had gotten into some sort of trouble that I no longer remember but that at the time seemed fairly mild. Instead of paying the cost of imprisoning him, the Cameroonian government was having him “repatriated” to Nigeria, via cargo boat.

That was all—I never learned more. The trip lasted thirty hours. At dawn on the second morning, we docked at Calamar. As I prepared my explanation for the Nigerian port authorities, I noticed the man being led away by a pair of customs officers. His head was down; he had become completely passive. But for a second I caught his eye and had the strongest sense that he didn’t intend to remain in his own country for long.

Even in the early nineteen-eighties, African cities were awash in migrant workers. Lagos had its Ghanaians and Cameroonians, Douala its Nigerians and Chadians, Abidjan its Malians and Burkinabé. It was striking that many of them were just trading places: Mauritanians sold cloth in Lomé’s central market, while Togolese drove taxis in Nouakchott. Statistically—by the standards of the World Bank, say—their life chances might have been no better in the other place than at home, and perhaps worse; but this was seldom a consideration. The incredible decision to uproot oneself—to say goodbye to home and family, travel hundreds or thousands of miles into the unknown, and risk ruin and death with hardly a naira or West African franc to one’s name—didn’t always answer to facts. They weren’t nearly as strong as the impulse behind this mass movement of human beings to and fro across national borders: the belief that life must be better somewhere else.

During the year and a half I lived in Africa, I saw the consequences of migration everywhere. Lonely men, trying to survive in foreign cities, would have that particular look of anxiety, expectation, and defeat on their faces; the women they left behind in villages like the one where I was an English teacher waited for the next installment of money, falling into depression when it didn’t arrive. (And it often didn’t.) The toll on everyone seemed immense—the hardships, the uncertainty, the longing. I could tell the migrants by their aloofness, the way they concealed the pain of dislocation behind poses and jokes. There was something heroic about this effort, and migrants were some of the most compelling people I met. They saw themselves, their origins, and the world with more openness and more clarity than those who lived with what was given. Whether consciously or not, they had chosen to make themselves anew. They would be changed forever, and perhaps they would never be at home anywhere again. It was a modern impulse, and in tearing themselves loose they joined the modern world.

One of the books that meant the most to me in Africa was V. S. Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River,” which had been published a few years earlier. A character named Indar tells the narrator, his cousin Salim, the story of his journey from a village on the east coast of Africa to London:

          We have to learn to trample on the past, Salim. I told you that when we met. It shouldn’t be a cause for tears, because it isn’t just true for you and me. There may be some parts of the world—dead countries, or secure and by-passed ones—where men can cherish the past and think of passing on furniture and china to their heirs. Men can do that perhaps in Sweden or Canada. Some peasant department of France full of half-wits in chateaux; some crumbling Indian palace-city, or some dead colonial town in a hopeless South American country. Everywhere else men are in movement, the world is in movement, and the past can only cause pain.

          It isn’t easy to turn your back on the past. It isn’t something you can decide to do just like that. It is something you have to arm yourself for, or grief will ambush and destroy you.

In those days, relatively few Africans made it to Europe. The immigration policies of countries like France, Britain, and Spain were more liberal then than they’ve since become, but the costs and logistics of communication and travel were prohibitive. Every now and then you heard about someone who had made it to Paris or London, and they were regarded with awe, like the explorers of centuries ago, and also with envy, and even a little pity, because they would be truly alone and gone for good. But the world was still too big for the imagination of most African villagers to conceive of Europe.

Today, the only true destination for African migrants is Europe. Whether or not life is harder in Ziguinchor, Ouagadougou, N’Djamena, and Enugu than it was thirty years ago, globalization has shrunk the distance and expanded the imagination. When we read about the boat tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, the thousands of Africans—and Middle Easterners and Asians—drowned on the lethal voyage to the shores of Europe, we think of desperate souls struggling to escape the hell of their lives. And it’s true.

It’s also true of the Rohingya, stateless Muslims who have put themselves in the hands of murderous smugglers and taken to the Andaman Sea by the tens of thousands to escape oppression in Burma, the only country they know as home. The Rohingya are throwing themselves into the unknown without any saving illusion of the promised land. The neighboring countries—Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia—offer them no hope of a refuge. The lucky ones are allowed to stay as unwanted guests without access to jobs or school. More recent arrivals have been turned back to sea in dangerous vessels, or tolerated on a short-term basis. No nation on earth, including ours, is willing to take in more than a few Rohingya—except for Gambia, a hopeless sliver of a country in West Africa, whose own citizens are fleeing to the coast of Libya.

But in addition to being desperate, these new boat people are courageous, and not just physically. They have the heart to leave everything they know behind, to make themselves anew somewhere else. In this sense, they’re better than most of us. They deserve that recognition, if not a home as well.


By George Packer
The New Yorker

(Click here for the PDF copy)


Joint Statement on Mediterranean Crossings

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development Peter Sutherland, and Director-General of the International Organization for Migration William Lacy Swing



Gregory A. Maniatis (EMAIL)
Apr 23, 2015  

A tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding in the Mediterranean. We, the undersigned*, strongly urge European leaders to put human life, rights, and dignity first today when agreeing upon a common response to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. 

The European Union is founded on the fundamental principles of humanity, solidarity and respect for human rights. We urge EU Member States to demonstrate moral and political leadership in adopting a holistic and forward-looking action plan centred upon these values.

The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach in the 10 Point Plan on Migration, announced by the EU on Monday, which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores. As a paramount principle, the safety, protection needs, and human rights of all migrants and refugees should be at the forefront of the EU response. EU leaders must look beyond the present situation and work closely with transit and origin countries both to alleviate the immediate plight of migrants and refugees and address in a more comprehensive way the many factors that drive them to resort to such desperate journeys by sea. Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees.

We would therefore encourage bold, collective action to expand the range of measures under consideration to include:

  • Setting in place a State-led, robust, proactive, and      well-resourced search-and-rescue operation, urgently and without delay,      with a capacity similar to Mare Nostrum and a clear mission      to save lives.
  • Creating sufficient channels for safe and      regular migration, including for low-skilled migrant workers and      individuals in need of family reunification, and access to protection      where needed, as safe alternatives to resorting to smugglers.
  • Making a firm commitment to receive significantly      higher numbers of refugees through EU-wide resettlement, in addition to      current quotas, and on a scale which will make a real impact, combined      with other legal means for refugees to reach safety.
  • Bolstering arrangements to support those countries      receiving the most arrivals (Italy, Malta, and Greece) and to      distribute responsibility more equitably across the European Union for      saving lives and protecting all those in need.
  • Combatting racist and xenophobic rhetoric vilifying      migrants and refugees.

*Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development

António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; 

William L. Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration; 

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights



Gregory Maniatis  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +1 917 609 8777



Adrian Edwards, UNHCR Spokesman,   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +41 79 557 9120

William Spindler, UNHCR Senior Comms Officer,  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +41 79 217 30 11


Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Paris Representative,  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +33 1 44 43 48 50


Andrej Mahecic, UNHCR UK Spokesperson,  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +44 78 802 30 985


Brian Hansford, UNHCR US Spokesperson,  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +1 202 999 8253


Carlotta Sami, UNHCR Southern Europe Spokesperson,  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. +39 335 679 4746


Joel Millman  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.+41 79 103 8720


Rupert Colville  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.+41 22 917 9767 


Gregory A. Maniatis (EMAIL)
Apr 23, 2015


European Leaders Urged to Strengthen ‘Minimalist’ Approach to Mediterranean Migration Crisis


The New York Times

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Migrants from Africa, rescued 40 miles off the shore of Libya, arrived in Sicily on Wednesday.CreditLynsey Addario for The New York Times

GENEVA — United Nations officials joined a leading relief agency on Thursday in exhorting European leaders to improve their planned response to the Mediterranean migration crisis and address root causes of the surge of people risking death at sea to reach Europe.

“A tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding in the Mediterranean,” they said in a statement released in Geneva, as European ministers prepared to hold an emergency meeting on the crisis in Brussels. “The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach in the 10 Point Plan on Migration.” The European ministers agreed to that plan on Monday.

The statement was issued by António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees; Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, its high commissioner for human rights; Peter Sutherland, its special representative for international migration and development; and William L. Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration, a 157-member intergovernmental group based in Geneva.

Their plea reflected what one United Nations official called an attempt to influence a debate that appeared to be driven by short-term political expediency at the expense of humanitarian principles. The 10-point plan outlined at the start of the week called for enhanced search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean but put the emphasis on border protection and action against traffickers rather than addressing the causes of the crisis or the plight of migrants.

“As a paramount principle, the safety, protection needs, and human rights of all migrants and refugees should be at the forefront of the E.U. response,” the United Nations and International Organization for Migration officials saidThursday.

April is already the deadliest month on record in terms of migrant deaths. There have been more than 1,300 fatalities in the Mediterranean, bringing the total to more than 1,776 so far this year, the United Nations refugee agency has reported. This is roughly half the number who perished at sea in all of 2014.

“The worry clearly is that the European response doesn’t look as if it will be sufficient by a long way and we will see more deaths,” a United Nations official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. “If you think you can close the gates to people fleeing war and repression, then you are clinging to a fantasy.”

More than 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean seeking entry to Europe in 2014, a record. While the political discourse on migrants labels most as people seeking a better life, the United Nations refugee agency says half of them were fugitives from conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, mayhem in Somalia and an abusive dictatorship in Eritrea.

“It is clear there are push factors as well as pull factors,” Volker Turk, the assistant head of the refugee agency, said earlier this week. “In our assessment, the push factors are much stronger.”

The statement on Thursday called on Europe to begin a “robust, proactive and well-resourced” search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, to create channels for safe and regular migration and to make a firm commitment to take in significantly higher numbers of refugees.

“These are ideas that have been around for 20 years, but the E.U. isn’t doing them, and politics and xenophobia keep getting in the way,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesmen for Mr. Hussein.


The New York Times 


How To Channel Migrant Remittances To Deliver Growth


Asian Development Blog
By Mayumi Ozaki
17 April 2015

Photos ADB 2011 SGP LL 1090607
Migrant workers from South and Southeast  Asian countries contribute to manpower needs in developed countries, and to their home countries by sending remittances. A laborer works on a construction project in Singapore.

Over the past decade, many developing countries have made substantial progress toward reducing poverty, and remittances sent by migrant workers have hugely contributed to this progress.

In ADB’s developing member countries, remittances nearly tripled from $92 billion in 2005 to $246 billion in 2013. This huge flow of remittances helped reduced poverty levels, mostly through increased spending on food and other essential items, housing, and education. It is estimated that remittances helped reduce the poverty level by 1.5% in Bangladesh, 5% in Indonesia, and 2% in Viet Nam from 2000 to 2005.

The remittances growth is a reflection of high worker migration from developing countries to wealthier economies such as those in the Middle East. Migration and remittances have grown rapidly, however, with little or nosupport from the public sector or from donor agencies which have few projects to directly support migrant workers and remittances.

Moreover, we in fact know little about remittances beyond the headline numbers. How are they transmitted? How exactly do migrant worker households spend that money? How can we better channel remittances to reduce poverty? Have remittances really contributed to inclusive, sustainable economic growth in receiving countries? And above all, how can governments make use of remittances to create more domestic job opportunities, and thus reduce the need for so many workers to leave?  

ADB recently hosted the Forum on Promoting Remittances for Development Finance to find answers to those questions. The discussions covered issues like impact on economic growth, household investments, access to finance and technology innovations, and investments. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Remittances can contribute to economic growth if the receiving household saves or puts the money into the formal financial system which would channel the money into  public and private investments.
  • Households spend most of the remittances they receive. In Bangladesh, 84% of remittances is consumed. Only 14% is saved, mainly due to transaction costs such as fees to open a bank account, lack of trust in financial institutions, regulatory barriers like official identification documents that many poor people lack, a dearth of information and financial literacy, social constraints, and behavior barriers. Studies suggest more financial education helps households to save more.
  • To channel remittances for investments, it is essential to expand access to formal financial services. Digital finance has an enormous potential to capture remittances in the formal financial system. In Bangladesh, only 15% of the population has access to banks, but 60% have mobile phones. “bKash,” the mobile-based banking service offered by the country’s BRAC Bank, has 15 million registered customers and daily transactions worth $26 million. Digital finance can help include poor people in the formal financial sector, and enable them to save and invest in financial assets.
  • Capital market instruments such as diaspora bonds and securitization of future flow of remittances are available to capture remittances for investments on a national level. In Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya raised $400 million, $20 million and $154 million, respectively, through sovereign bond issuances targeting non-resident nationals willing to contribute part of their savings to their home countries. To tap diaspora investments, though, countries should develop the right structure, marketing and distribution channels, and build long-term relationships with the target investors.

So what is the way forward? The forum identified three potential areas for support:

  1. Improving financial education.
  2. Expanding digital finance.
  3. Promoting remittance-linked capital market instruments.

Both the public and the private sector, including donors, must think about concerted assistance in these areas. For example, governments can promote financial education for migrant workers before they go abroad. Donors can support developing financial sector infrastructure IT systems such as core banking system, e-payment and networks to promote digital finance. They can also help develop enabling legal and regulatory frameworks for remittance securitization and diaspora bonds. More essentially, governments and donors must have a vision to leverage remittances to develop viable local industries to generate local employment opportunities, so in the long run workers can find good jobs at home rather than migrate out of necessity.


Asian Development Blog
By Mayumi Ozaki
17 April 2015


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