“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”- Franklin D. Roosevelt
One of the greatest challenges facing the Middle East and Africa today is that of immigration. Every year, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees leave their home countries to pursue opportunities elsewhere. In many cases, their final destination is Europe and the United States. On Saturday morning, over 800 of these journeys ended in tragedy as a boat carrying migrants to Italy capsized in the Mediterranean. So far, less than thirty of the passengers are confirmed to have survived. Sadly, these occurrences are becoming commonplace in the region, as nearly 2,000 people have died at sea so far this year alone while attempting the crossing.
Why are so many people risking so much to get into Europe? Safer routes such as air travel or entering via land routes are much more difficult with travel restrictions imposed on immigrants attempting to enter the countries of the European Union. Traveling by boat across the sea isn't the only option, but it is often the cheapest. Smugglers will charge anyway from $1,000 to $15,000 per person to ferry people across the sea to Europe. Aboard these boats, people are crammed into tight quarters and sometimes even locked in cages. It is a harsh and brutal journey, but it is nothing compared to the tragedies experienced in their home countries.
So what are people fleeing from? In Libya, there has been almost no functioning government since the outbreak of civil war in 2014. Though a transitional government managed to mostly keep the peace following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country has now essentially split in two. As such, military forces are far more concerned with killing each other than with patrolling the borders. A substantial portion of these migrants are also fleeing from war ravaged Syria and Iraq. Often, anyone who stays in their home town in these regions is forced to choose between supporting rival military factions or ISIS. Instead, many choose to strike out on their own rather than get caught up in the cycle of destruction which has plagued the region. This year alone, nearly 9,000 Syrians have already arrived in Europe. Still others are traveling from all across the Middle East and Africa from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan. In the chaos of its civil war, Libya is one of the easiest routes into Europe. Migrants often end up flying to countries like Algeria, crossing the border into Libya, and then boarding a ship to carry them from Libya across the sea.
Even if the migrants reach the shores of Europe, their struggle is still far from over. Backlash against immigration is strong in many parts of Europe. In January, thousands of Germans attended an anti-immigration rally in Dresden, voicing strong anti-Muslim sentiments in the process. France has also used its laws enforcing secular government to ban some Islamic clothing such as the burqa. This isn't to say that everyone in Europe is hostile to immigrants, but their voice is often the loudest. In addition to meeting an increasingly hostile society, immigrants have to fight for increasingly competitive jobs, housing, and access to government programs.
These problems are not unlike those facing migrants to the United States. One of the biggest concerns is that immigrants will take low paying jobs away from citizens and will contribute to rising unemployment rates (at least in Europe). Also of concern is the possibility of extremists from the Middle East entering Europe via these illegal means. Without meaningful regulation or oversight of this immigration, it is difficult to tell extremists looking to cause terror from refugees just trying to survive. Still, this shouldn't let us condemn all immigrants looking to find a better life.
So what are the solutions to this impending immigration problem? One possibility would be for European nations to greatly ease immigration restrictions and take a more active role to make the crossing much less dangerous. If there is one way most people can help the oncoming immigrant population, it is through supporting these programs which are designed to provide the basic necessities of life to those who brave the difficult journey. Some may call it amnesty, I call it basic humanity.
However, this is just a short term solution to a very long term problem. Addressing the root causes of the region's security issues is probably the most effective, but also the most difficult solution. Stabilizing the countries with the highest immigration rates and increasing the standard of living is the only true long term solution for this problem. A great example of this is Tunisia. Immediately following the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, which saw the overthrow of former President Ben Ali, immigration to Europe from Tunisia quickly soared. Now that the country is much more stable following its elections last year, this tide of illegal immigration has dropped off significantly.
In all, the people who are trying to migrate to Europe are simply looking for a better life and an escape from the difficulty of life in their home country. They, like many who leave their homes for the promise of a better life, are risking death on these journeys every day. America (and Europe to some extent) has always hailed itself as the land of freedom and the promise of a better life for those seeking it. Perhaps it is time to start translating these words into actions. Rescuing and providing assistance to those who make the journey is a noble solution to the immediate problems of immigration. But only by investing in education, healthcare, and infrastructure in the Middle East and Africa can we hope to prevent people from wanting to escape the region in the first place.
TL;DR: Everyone wants to make their lives better. You would probably risk your life to escape these conditions too.