The history of humankind over the past hundred years has thrown up a gamut of emotions and heart-wrenching crises. An accentuating challenge is the displacement of millions upon millions of people throughout the planet. People are forced to flee or migrate from their homeland or places of birth for a variety of reasons. At the international level, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees holds annual consultations with Governments and Non-governmental Organisations to address the worsening crises.
As per the mid-2021 data available with UNHCR, there are 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. It includes 48 million internally displaced people. A total of 26.6 million are refugees and 4.4 million are asylum-seekers. Around half of those classified as refugees are under the age of 18. If we also look at the statistics of people who are forced to migrate or displaced within their own countries, these figures would be much higher.
The mass movement of such large sections of populations makes it clear that the peace, stability, and prosperity of different regions of the world are interconnected and that solutions cannot be intelligently considered in isolation from this global reality. Indeed, understanding the root causes of mass migration, people risking their lives to find refuge and the problems of internal displacement have historical antecedents. However, my focus is on the situation as it obtains in a 21st-century global society.
Migrants, including refugees, and internally displaced persons, are people away from their home region or country, whose rights as noted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are trampled upon. These include the right to life, right to livelihood and right to education, to list just a few. In fact, mass migration has challenged us to look beyond the nation-state, to perceive the world from a global perspective and has heightened our awareness of the interconnectedness of humanity. Indeed, “in a world of interdependent peoples and nations, the advantage of the part is best to be reached by the advantage of the whole”.
There is a flip side, too. Beyond those who count as forcibly displaced persons there is a significant proportion of people who migrate for other reasons namely higher education, work, or family, to developed countries. In 2020, there were approximately 281 million international migrants worldwide. The least developed countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total.
Large-scale population movements are nothing new – global international migration rates have remained surprisingly stable, hover- ing around some three per cent of the world’s population since at least the 1960s. The sense of crisis that pre- sent-day migration generates provides an opportunity to reflect on the root causes of this movement, to see the ways in which migration and dis- placement are expressions of deeper processes of integration and disintegration transforming our world.
Identifying durable solutions for the many crises causing people to flee their homes deserve the highest attention of the international community. If not through the identification and creation of lasting solutions, how else can we hope to prevent the situation from deteriorating? The current dire humanitarian situation caused by the war in Europe calls for a profound, dispassionate,
and collective reflection on the underlying conditions that have caused the mass movement of populations. The unprecedented displacement of millions of people globally cannot only be viewed in terms of “managing migration”. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the ongoing suffering of countless individuals who risk their lives for greater security is yet another symptom of a much deeper and far-reaching concern.
The causes for internal and international migration, whether forced or voluntary, should not be analysed separately from patterns of displacement and refugee migration. The wide-scale displacement of populations around the world – due to conflict, natural disasters, and educational or livelihood constraints – is also part of the social transformations of the modern period. The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Yet, despite this reality, evident from the recent global health pandemic caused by Covid-19, individuals, companies, and countries continue to prioritize their own well-being in isolation from their neighbours’.
The gap between humanities richest and poorest is widening as
unprecedented quantities of wealth are amassed by a relative few. The pursuit of power and economic gain continues to overrule concern for how the environment, which sustains all of humanity, is affected. These social ills nurture the conditions within which prejudice, insecurity, and conflict take root. In this light, it is easier to see why, although com- mon discourse and legal pathways for migration often make a hard distinction between “refugees” and “economic migrants,” the reality is much more blurred.
People’s movements in response to these shifting forces may be conceptualised as occurring along a spectrum of “forced” to “voluntary,” with much contemporary migration occurring somewhere in the middle.
Let me share a few lines from the 2021 message of the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres: “War, violence and persecution have forced more than 80 million people around the world to flee their homes, leaving everything behind to save themselves and their families…We have a duty to help refugees rebuild their lives. Covid-19 has shown us that we can only succeed if we stand together…I call on communities and governments to include refugees – in health care, education, and sport. We heal together when we all get the care we need. We learn together when we are all given the chance to study. We shine together when we play as a team and respect everyone…The refugees I have met have shown me what it means to rebuild your own life while summoning the strength to enrich the lives of others…I thank refugees and displaced persons across the world and reiterate my personal admiration for what they have taught us all about the power of hope and healing….”
There is a need to acknowledge that as human beings we have a shared identity which has its roots in our spiritual nature, the immortal rational soul. Recognizing this will help us not just in overriding our differences and limiting identities but inspire us to take steps for bringing about cooperation and harmony among contending groups and the comity of nations. This acceptance calls for an urgent moral imperative to reexamine systems, structures, policies and more importantly the attitudes and assumptions that have shaped them. For, “the earth is but country and humankind its citizens.”
(The writer is an independent researcher and social worker based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at [email protected])