Italy migrant boat
A view of part of the wreckage of a capsized boat that was washed ashore at a beach near Cutro, southern Italy, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Image Credit: AP

The drowning of more than 60 refugees off the coast of Italy late last month and the deadly earthquake that hit southwest Turkey and northwest Syria earlier in February has brought to the forefront the plight of refugees, illegal migrants and asylum seekers.

By the end of 2021, and according to UN figures, there were 27.1 million refugees and 53.2 million internally displaced persons (due to conflict and violence) around the world.

These are staggering figures that tell only one side of a spinning humanitarian crisis that is getting out of control. In 2022, it was estimated that 2,062 migrants died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Exact figures are hard to come by. Many of those forced to cross the Mediterranean or the English Channel are unaccounted for; lost at sea.

Smuggling of illegal migrants has become a huge business for specialised cartels. It is estimated that migrant smuggling generates proceeds of no less than $10 billion a year.

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Escaping civil unrest, poverty and more

The two preferred destinations for illegal migrants — some are registered refugees or displaced persons while others are escaping civil unrest, poverty, famine and political persecution — are the United States and Europe, especially Western Europe, mostly Germany, and now more increasingly the United Kingdom. British records show that the total number of recorded migrants crossing in 2022 was 45,756.

The Syrian civil war has driven tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers to enter EU countries illegally; triggering unending political, cultural and economic problems for host countries. It is unfortunate that illegal migrants have been used at times as a political pressure tool by some transit countries.

Countries that have their own political problems, such as Libya and Tunisia have been unable to control the flow of illegal migrants coming from crisis-hit African countries and looking to reach the Mediterranean to make the hazardous crossing into Europe.

Migrants and refugees on a rubber boat during a rescue operation of the Topaz Responder, a rescue ship run by Maltese NGO "Moas" and the Italian Red Cross with the help of the Libyan coastguards, off the Libyan coast. Image Credit: AFP

Several European countries have ignored EU and international laws on migration by closing their borders entirely, or by passing their own laws to ban or control illegal migrants.

The migrant crisis, especially from non Christian countries, like Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, have given rise to Far Right parties in countries like Sweden, Hungary, Italy and France.

Italy has toughened laws regarding receiving illegal migrants and imposed hefty fines of search and rescue ships picking up illegal migrants. “The Mediterranean Route” into Italy is considered as the deadliest migrant crossing route in the world.

According to the UNHCR figures, more than 100,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat in 2022. At least 1,400 migrants died while trying to cross the central Mediterranean in 2022, apparently heading to Italian shores.

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Now a controversial law is being pushed by the Conservative British government making it impossible for illegal migrants to enter the United Kingdom and proposing to relocate those who enter to third countries — against their will.

Joining the chorus now is the United States, where illegal immigration from Mexico and Central American countries has become a polarising bipartisan issue. But even for the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden the nagging problem of illegal migrants is pushing for readopting extraordinary measures.

With the outcome of the 2024 presidential election hanging in the balance, the Biden administration is contemplating whether to detain migrant families who illegally enter the country. The issue is dividing the Democratic Party while giving the Republicans something to chew on.

Waves of illegal migrants to Europe

Civil wars in the Middle East and beyond, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, climate change, famine, drought, and political instability in many African countries are driving waves of illegal migrants to Europe and North America.

Migrants want to escape death, turmoil and poverty in search of a better life. But on the other hand, the number of those affected is in the millions and the West cannot be expected to receive them all.

The war in Ukraine has rattled European economies and legal residents of these countries are losing many of the taken-for-granted benefits that their “welfare societies” once offered. Far Right populist politicians play the religion and ethnicity cards, and so far their ascendancy to the helm has been spectacular.

The double crises of refugees and illegal migration are posing a huge challenge to universal laws, human rights and humanitarian organisations.

Host countries are taking their liberal laws to the brink while the UN and other bodies are unable to find sustainable solutions to the forces that are driving millions from their homes. But there has to be an attempt to address these challenges collectively and not individually.

Closing the borders while looking the other way as the problems in the dispelling countries, complex and diverse as they are, fester and get worse is no solution.

It’s a dystopian projection of what would become of this world; a worst-case scenario that is both unacceptable and horrifying.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.