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2014 Deadliest Year Ever for Migrants

A rescue worker walks past bodies retrieved from the sea after a boat sank in the Bosphorus strait, near Istanbul, November 3, 2014.
A rescue worker walks past bodies retrieved from the sea after a boat sank in the Bosphorus strait, near Istanbul, November 3, 2014.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports 2014 is the deadliest year on record for migrants fleeing conflict, political persecution and economic hardship. As the world marks International Migrants Day, IOM is calling for urgent action to save the lives of migrants and to stop smugglers from exploiting these vulnerable, desperate people.

Death has always been an unfortunate part of migration. Since 2000, more than 40,000 migrants have died while trying to cross borders around the world. This past year has been particularly bad. The IOM reports some 5,000 people have lost their lives fleeing across seas, remote deserts or mountains.

Most of these deaths, two-thirds, have occurred in the Mediterranean. IOM said more than 3,000 people have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy smugglers’ boats while trying to reach Europe. Most of those risking their lives are Syrians and Palestinians fleeing conflict and migrants from the Horn of Africa, particularly Eritreans, desperate to escape fighting, oppression and poverty.

Head of the Migration Research Division at IOM, Frank Laczko, told VOA there are many smugglers who exploit and profit from the misery of others.

“There are suggestions that we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here and there is no shortage, at the moment of potential clients for the services of these smugglers. So, it is a very lucrative business to be in,” said Laczko. There are no easy solutions to the problem of illegal migration, but IOM said cracking down on smugglers and traffickers through tougher sanctions and convictions might dissuade some from entering the business. The group also urges governments to de-criminalize irregular migrants so they can report smugglers to the police for prosecution.

IOM fears the number of deaths at sea could rise now that Italy has discontinued Mare Nostrum, a rescue operation, which has saved thousands of lives. Mare Nostrum has been replaced by a European Union operation called Triton, which patrols a much smaller area.

The agency said an unprecedented number of man-made crises in the world, including conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Central African Republic and South Sudan are driving migration. It said other factors, such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, climate change and extreme weather, are also pushing people to seek places of refuge.

IOM estimates around 232 million people are international migrants. Laczko said that represents about three percent of the world population.

“That three percent figure has remained fairly constant over the last 20-30 years. So, globally, we have not seen a major increase in international migration in recent years. However, in some countries, particularly in Europe and North America and Australia, there have been significant increases in immigration and within those countries, certain cities absorb or attract more migrants than others,” said Laczko.

IOM says migration is inevitable. It also is necessary and desirable, especially now, when ageing societies are short of labor. The agency said migration, when well managed, can be of great benefit to both the countries of origin and destination.

For example, migrants around the world send an estimated $435 billion in remittances to their families back home. This, IOM reports, is three times larger than foreign aid to developing countries. It adds that these remittances provide a lifeline for many people in impoverished nations.