10/15/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

As Migrant Deaths Mount, EU Needs to Rethink Border, Aid Policies

The Mediterranean Sea has become a death valley for thousands of migrants desperate to enter Europe. On Friday a boat containing 200 migrants capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 34. The Friday before, more than 300 migrants drowned near the Italian Island of Lampedusa.

This unprecedented humanitarian crisis can be directly linked to the militarization of European borders. Instead of preventing migration, European policies are forcing migrants to take more dangerous routes, funneling them into a perilous passage that often ends in death.

From Greece to Italy to Spain, Europe has become increasingly hostile toward the thousands of migrants who land on their shores each year. The EU established a new agency Frontex, which intercepts immigrants at EU borders and coastal waters; Greece put up a barb-wire fence along the Turkey-Greek border and legislation has been put in place that allows EU members, such as Germany and France, to return undocumented migrants to their point of origin in Europe.

Despite these attempts at creating a "Fortress Europe," the demand for migration hasn't lessened and the body count is rising.

The EU needs to consider changes in government policy as well as border patrol strategies. Instead of creating a militarized European border, which has not impeded desperate migrants, European governments need to look more closely at a solution that addresses the root causes of the desperate influx.

The answer to undocumented migrants lies in understanding the economics of migration. Many migrants are fleeing poverty and look to Europe as a source of jobs. For example, most of the some 300 migrants that died two weeks ago were Eritrean and Somali. In a recent UNDP survey, most Somali youth have said they want to leave the country, primarily because of chronic unemployment - 68% of them are without jobs. With no other way to earn a living, crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe is viewed as a viable option.

In many communities, migration is seen as a tool for income diversification. Families decide to send a son to Europe to find a job so as to provide an additional source of badly-needed income. Programs that can create sustainable livelihoods at home for these potential migrants are key. Studies have shown this can be an effective tool in stopping the outflow of jobseekers. In one region in Senegal, it was found that youth from families with diversified incomes were less likely emigrate than other rural youth.

Investment grants that promote entrepreneurship and spur the growth of income generating activities in regions such as Somalia that have high rates of undocumented migration will limit these communities' dependence on traffickers and smugglers.

Cash transfer programs to households impacted by poverty will provide them a safety net that makes them less eager to dispatch family members into the hands of undocumented migration networks. In countries like Somalia, where remittance transfers play a significant role in the local economy, EU officials need to ensure that remittance flows are not cut off, as has been the recent case with the Barclays' threat to shut down Somali remittance firms. Remittance often diversify these local economies and protect against the economic shocks that can drive undocumented migration.

European legislators have underestimated the desperation of the thousands of migrants who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean. When faced with abject poverty and the lack of opportunities, increased border patrols will not be a deterrent. Investing in programs that create sustainable livelihoods for these can have a greater impact in reducing migration than simply building a Europe with higher walls.

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