The global movement of people, across continents and national borders, is a fundamental precept of human civilization. Throughout history, people have been driven to take risks and attempt dangerous journeys, in search of a better, more fulfilling, safer life. December 18 is International Migrants Day, significant because migration shapes our world in profound and fundamental ways.

There are an estimated 232 million cross-border migrants in the world – nearly 3.5% of the total global population – up from 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990. For many of these individuals and families however, the journey abroad does not end well. They face great risks along the way – many lose their lives – and often face tremendous hardship as they attempt to settle in new countries.

Often, migrants rely on criminal smugglers and “brokers”, who prey on the vulnerability of the desperate. While migrants are afforded legal protection and rights from a variety of legal instruments, all too often unjust policies and intolerant approaches have led to the marginalization and criminalization of migrants. The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 4,868 people have died so far this year (more than twice as many recorded deaths as last year.) And these statistics only represent a fraction of the people who are never found and simply disappear along the journey. We do not know the full picture of the plight of migrants because of this lack of accurate statistics – countries do a poor job at capturing key data surrounding migration, both on the sending and receiving ends. What we do know, however, is that migrants are unfairly portrayed as a threat, and undesirable.

To wit, this new Australian government ad (translated into a dozen languages), which seeks to deter potential migrants from attempting to arrive in Australia through irregular means.

The message it sends is unequivocal: you are not welcome. Australia, along with most Western nations, has not signed or ratified the International Convention on theProtection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, leaving a legal gap in the global migrant protection framework. Notwithstanding, numerous other treaties – dealing with human rights, refugees, stateless people and the protection of political, civil and economic rights –indirectly afford protection for migrants; unfortunately, all too often, receiving countries flout these obligations. In the Netherlands, for example, the government recently rejected a call to offer basic shelter and sustenance to asylum seekers whose claims have failed and who are awaiting expulsion. Many of these individuals are homeless and without resources, a moral – if not legal – failure of the system to protect the most vulnerable among us.

We should not accept a false dichotomy between pursuing criminal migrant smugglers and protecting migrants”, said Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.. Disrupting irregular migration means focusing on the criminal elements involved – and not on criminalizing migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons. Migration is a natural meta-social phenomenon. Today, there are more people than ever living outside of their country of birth, and many nations have been built on immigration. As conflict, war, economic disparities, and global inequality continue to persist – and as the world becomes increasingly “smaller” thanks to modern telecommunications and technology – migration will naturally continue to take place. Individual countries, and the international community, must place greater emphasis on ensuring that the fundamental rights of people moving across borders are respected and upheld.

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