Skip to Content

Features Australia

Migration diary

Political cowardice and people on the move

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

I lived in Geneva for most of the 1990s but arriving by plane on a clear spring day has never lost its enchantment.First stop, the International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863 by a Swiss businessman who accidentally bore witness to the gruesome battle of Solferino. Dunant stayed behind to organize non-partisan help to the wounded. From this simple idea the laws of war emerged, rarely respected in full but indispensible in restraining the worst aspects of armed conflict.

The ICRC is as Swiss as gruyère, and only slowly opening itself to outsiders. One of the few to have breached its senior management ranks is Australian lawyer Helen Durham. She and I have both been nominated for an award but neither of us can be at the ceremony in Canberra so have agreed to video a ‘conversation’. It’s great fun – even if armed conflict and human trafficking are the main topics. We finish up on the perennial ‘having it all’ question, agreeing that our daughters will not be misled about the difficulties of combining an international career with a decent family life. In this regard it seems that the most important choice is not the university you attend, what you study or your first job – it’s the decision about who’s going to be the father of your children. We both scored well on that front.


The ICRC was just a detour on my way to the International Organization for Migration, where I’m part of a group appointed to provide ‘wise counsel’ to its Director-General. The recipient of our wisdom is Ambassador William Lacy Swing, who might just have one of the most grueling diplomatic posts around. IOM is the world’s migration agency: its job, since 1951, has been to work with governments to move people safely and humanely, in war and in peace. Bill Swing turned 80 last year and shows no sign of slowing down. As he criss-crosses the world (in economy class) his message is the same: countries everywhere must understand that what we are seeing today – massive flows, mostly undocumented and facilitated by smugglers – is the new normal. Migration has always been with us and the motivations – personal security and the possibility of a step up – have never altered. The only factors that change are the nationality of those on the move and the direction of their journey. It’s worth remembering that Europe has only recently become a continent of mass immigration and it is European emigrants who have shaped our world. It must indeed feel strange for Europe to suddenly find itself on the other end of the great migration game.

IOM has never been under such strain: chaotic flows of migrants out of Syria and Libya; an unprecedented number of drowning deaths in the Mediterranean; a crisis in Yemen that has trapped its people in a living hell. Bill Swing acknowledges that his organization and others are seriously overstretched. But he points out that crisis can also generate opportunity: governments are actually talking about migration. And about time. The nature and scale of what is happening is difficult to comprehend, and it’s not all boats and asylum seekers. This year, more Chinese entered the US than Mexicans, and more than one million Chinese are now living and working in Africa. The hard work of South Asians is propping up the petro-States of the Middle East. The demographic profile of many Western countries, including ours, is changing faster and more inexorably than most realise. The future is clear – global migration will only accelerate. But political leadership on this issue is disgracefully absent. Mainstream politicians, business and the media are afraid to tackle the big issues around migration because the subject has become so toxic. So the world changes and we pretend it’s not happening. Thank goodness for Bill Swing. And for one of his Advisers, the straight-talking Peter Sutherland: former Irish A-G, former Head of the WTO, and current leader of the International Catholic Migration Commission. Sutherland is blunt: defending the free movement of capital, goods and services while opposing the liberalization of migration is intellectually bankrupt and morally indefensible. I leave Geneva determined to do my bit, but convinced we will live to regret our duplicity and lack of courage.

Anne Gallagher AO is an international lawyer and UN Adviser


Show comments
Close