This article was first published in the February 2015 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

During the first half of 2014 the Middle East and North African region became the largest source of refugees in the world, displacing Asia Pacific, which has led for decades.

This is a significant shift driven mainly by the Syrian crisis, though according to the UNHCR Mid-year trends 2014 report, Somalia is currently the third largest source of refugees, followed by Sudan. Afghanistan has been the main source for a few years.

Africa has been a consistent source of both legal and illegal migrants to Europe due to the proximity of the continents. The traditional and most dangerous route for illegal migrants is by overcrowded boats across treacherous seas. Currently over half of all illegal migrants come to Europe by sea, according to European Union border patrol agency Frontex.

Data from the EU’s Migration Policy Institute shows that 623,118 migrants reached the sea shores of Europe between 1998 and 2013; an average of about 40,000 per year – most of them headed for Italy. However, though the flow is consistent, the risk of dying during the journey increased significantly after 2006, staying consistently over 30 dead per 1,000 crossing the riskiest sea migrant corridor in the world.

It is hard to estimate the number of dead but advocacy groups working in the field say that around 10,000 migrants have died crossing the sea over the last couple of decades.

Tragic incidents, such as the sinking of a boat just one mile off the coast of Italian island Lampedusa in October 2013, which led to 366 migrants drowning, led to calls for action by the EU and governments on both continents to stop the deaths.

Italy has already taken action by keeping vigil and mounting rescue missions. Other countries are working via the EU on joint initiatives.

On the African continent, countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Central Africa will need to reduce poverty, improve their democracy and governance rankings, reduce the conflict and inherent instability in their societies and mend their justice systems to reduce the numbers of their citizens fleeing their countries. It comes down to economics in the end; people will always move from bad economic conditions to good ones given the opportunity. The imbalance is the ultimate cause. 

But there are legal issues to contend with. Current legislation does provide protection for refugees and migrants, and requires that EU countries ensure that these people are actively rescued and not abandoned.

Article 1.3.2 of the global Search and Rescue Convention of 1979 states that the result of rescue must be ‘to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medial or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety’. 

However, there is no legislation detailing where rescued migrants should be taken, so most EU countries simply send the illegal migrants back to their home country. In Australia there are designated holding areas for illegal migrants, who are only offered the ‘choice’ of going back to their countries of origin.

Perhaps as some have suggested, there is a need to legalise illegal immigration – but this would require more solidarity between EU countries. Article 80 of the Treaty of Lisbon requires solidarity and the sharing of responsibility for illegal migrants, but so far this has been theory rather than practice. Without solidarity, shared responsibility and clear legal options for migrants the refugee problem between Africa and Europe can only get worse.

Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent financial management consultant in East Africa who writes regularly on social and business issues. He is also active in TV and film in Africa.