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Refocusing on Irregular Migration and Trafficking

Less than two weeks ago, Elsa Haile, from the Department of International Organizations at Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, delivered an address during the Virtual High-Level Roundtable Discussion to Commemorate the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The event was organized by the UNODC’s Regional Office for Eastern Africa. The UNODC is a UN agency that works to address transnational crimes, including organized crime and the trafficking of humans or drugs. Overall, Ms. Haile’s remarks, which focused on migration and the scourge of human trafficking, Eritrea’s various challenges and efforts to combat the latter, and several possible steps for moving forward, were insightful and perceptive. Importantly, they also raised many significant issues that merit further discussion. I will briefly touch on a few.

First, one of the key topics mentioned by Ms. Haile during her remarks was the UNHCR’s Eligibility Guidelines on Eritrea. You may recall that the 2009 and 2011 eligibility guidelines call for granting automatic asylum to anyone from the country and they were prepared without any form of dialogue or consultation with the Government of Eritrea. Notably, they have also remained firmly in place for over a decade, despite Eritrea’s vehement objections and protestations.

However, something that is particularly interesting is that the vast majority of analyses and discussions over the years in regard to Eritrean migration have completely failed to consider, either deliberately or through sheer ignorance, that the blanket guidelines applying to all Eritrean migrants have served as among the main external “pull factors” for irregular migration from the country. It should go without saying that if discussions and analyses of Eritrean migration and trafficking are truly to be regarded as objective, balanced, and useful or worthwhile, then this is surely a subject that must receive greater attention and better coverage.

Of course, only a short glance at the broader historical record will show that such approaches and policies (i.e., the blanket or favorable treatment of certain groups of migrants) are not unique, are often intricately tied to broader foreign policy and geopolitical aims, and have often directly impacted patterns of migration. For instance, extensive research has been conducted on how for over half a century patterns of Cuban migration to the United States (US) have been highly influenced by the fact that Cuban migrants to the US have been awarded unique immigration privileges with a path to citizenship offered to no other foreigners or migrant groups. The granting of special privileges is firmly grounded in US foreign policy and, according to a number of analysts and scholars, was at least partly implemented in order “to sap the Cuban regime of its talented citizens and highlight Cubans’ preference for capitalist democracy over communism.”

The general similarities between this example and the approach that has been applied to Eritrea, described by Ms. Haile as an attempt at “strategic depopulation”, are quite clear. However, there is one important distinction between the two cases. Although migrants from countries in the region near Cuba, such as Haitians, may face considerable challenges in posing as Cubans once they reach American shores, nationals of countries bordering or near Eritrea face a much less difficult time in posing as Eritreans. Thus, it has been a longstanding open secret that many migrants claiming to be Eritrean are actually nationals of other countries exploiting the system, although the exact number is unknown. However, to date, inadequate attention has been given to considering how the guidelines and exceptional designation of Eritrea influence irregular migration from the country or the surrounding region.

Another important part of the address was the brief outline of Eritrea’s efforts to support trafficking victims. Ms. Haile briefly described the country’s efforts as including the provision of as much assistance as possible and rejecting any stigmatization toward them. This latter point is particularly significant, as the harmful ways that societies and the international community as a whole characterize and approach victims must be immediately reassessed and dramatically changed. Victims should be freed from all the restrictive, narrow labels that they receive, which only serve to “pigeon-hole” them as undesirable, undeserving, or unworthy others. Instead of viewing and categorizing victims with simplified, dehumanizing, and harmful labels, they should be seen as human beings and recognized for their basic humanity. Seeing and recognizing victims as human beings leads to identifying them as individuals t whom human rights, respect, and basic dignity are to be afforded, and it can be an influential first step toward providing victims with more protections and resources.

Finally, Ms. Haile correctly noted that addressing human trafficking is about much more than utilizing a law enforcement approach or increasing surveillance and security. The reality in many regions around the world is that when migration policies are tightened, surveillance is increased, and enforcement is strengthened, migrants are forced to find alternative, more dangerous routes or pushed to turn to human smugglers and traffickers. A large body of work from numerous settings has shown how increased focus on security and surveillance to reduce irregular migration is often ineffective, leads migrants toward more hazardous routes, forces migration further underground, and can increase human smuggling and trafficking.

One of the most illustrative examples is the US’ longstanding attempt to control irregular migration from Mexico. For years, US efforts, largely based on law enforcement, security, increased surveillance, and tougher border controls, have had little influence on migrants’ propensity to migrate illegally to the US and been ineffective. Generally, tougher controls have often encouraged migrants to stay in the US longer, while there has also been increased loss of life among migrants as, seeking to evade security controls, many turn to smugglers or undertake more dangerous journeys.

Instead, as was indicated by Ms. Haile, effectively combatting human trafficking – a truly global problem and pressing concern – will require a broad, multifaceted, and collective approach. Regional and global cooperation are fundamentally necessary, with all countries – origin, transit, and destination – needing to work together and coordinate efforts. Additionally, more must be done to address some of the deeply-embedded root factors that contribute to irregular migration and trafficking. Things like corruption and poor governance must be properly addressed, while conflicts and repression need to be prevented and eliminated. Furthermore, vast global inequalities (both within and among countries) must be decreased, poverty needs to be tackled, and inclusive development should be encouraged. As just one possible example, wealthy, developed countries and international organizations can work to restructure discriminatory trade and economic policies. Trade distorting agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas established by developed countries lead to significant challenges for producers within developing countries, thus contributing to the poverty, economic instability, unemployment, and inequality that leave many people desperate to migrate and vulnerable to trafficking or smuggling.

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