15/8/2016

65.3 million fled homes in 2015: Is the world not a safe place anymore?

 

Migrations are a function of conflict; people move to stay safe and avoid insecurity. However, when people move they are heavily restrained. Most are not able to move, while many more are not allowed to move. Despite the headlines, only three percent of the world’s population are international migrants. Still, it is a big number.

In addition to the 65.3 million displaced people noted by UNHCR, over 250 million migrants left places where they felt economically, politically or environmentally insecure. There are very few adventurers among ordinary migrants, but many brave men, women and children. Migration is costly and many migrants risk their lives to escape insecurity. Not only Syrians but many others including Turks, Kurds, Russians, Colombians, Sudanese, Mexicans, Chinese.

Violent attacks – bombings and murders in France, Germany, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq, civil wars in Syria, Sudan, failed military coup and curfews all fuel a feeling of insecurity. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and others risked their lives crossing from Turkey to Greece on dinghies over the last summer, many highly skilled Turks quietly leave their country for security and safety at the face of increasing authoritarianism, an even bigger challenge after the failed July 15th coup. 

These are all displaced people who have been forced to leave their homes, their families and friends and their jobs against their will. Threats are technically required to seek asylum, but many who are not direct targets of oppression and repression feel insecure in many places around the world and they vote with their feet. Migration is a response to crises that range from the social to the environmental and to the political.

Yet, these big numbers often overwhelm the experiences of particular individuals and the groups to which they belong.  Perhaps more problematic, defining large groups, including 65.3 million displaced movers, makes it difficult to identify potential solutions.  The causes, outcomes and effects of displacement are not the same.  And while it is important to know that there is a record number of people who are displaced, it is incumbent upon us to understand what are the local dimensions of displacement if we are to find solutions.

In our book, “Cultures of Migration,” we underline that migration is complex and challenging decision.  It is not simply made by the individual but in conversations with her or his family, communities, states, agents, employers, and others.  There are many non-movers who shape the decisions of migrants to leave insecurities behind and once started there is no guarantee of success or that over time new conflicts and insecurities will not arise.

Displaced people balance conflicts and insecurities at places of origin and of destination. Once you are on the move, migration, return or remigration is always on the menu. Syrians moved to Turkey fleeing the Assad regime.  Now for many they are trying to reach Europe and avoid the insecurities of Turkey (lack of refugee status, volatile political system, tough labour market, to name a few). What awaits them in Europe is bleak and includes the rise of right wing parties across the continent and strong anti-immigration sentiment. The Brexit referendum in the UK was dominated by hatred against immigrants, for instance.

Sudanese, Iraqi, and Afghan migrants, among others, face similar, but not the same situations and this is the key. Thinking in large numbers abstracts the challenges, conflicts and insecurities that displaced people face.  And a focus on movers can make it hard to think about destinations.  Afghanistan and Somalia are two large source countries for displaced movers but they also host about half of the world’s refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate. And many refugees who cannot leave their native homelands, like the Colombians avoiding civil war, must flee internally. 

Comprehending 65.3 million displaced people is difficult and it can demote millions of stories and lives into statistics. The misuse of numbers means that movers can also fall victim to metaphors that mischaracterize mobility and describes migrants as “swarming”, “flooding”, “influxing”, and “swamping” borders and receiving countries. These metaphors don’t reflect the sad story of baby or epic success of Yusra Mardini at the heat of the 100m butterfly at Rio Olympics.

Politicians and media often twist and exploit these numbers without touching on the realities and human stories behind them. They also tend to misstate and exaggerate the numbers. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and lead figure in the leave campaign at the EU referendum, said that there were 76 million Turks waiting to come to the UK. In fact, Turkey had the lowest desire to migrate rate in Europe; thus only a few Turks are likely to join quarter a million others who already settled in the UK. In the US, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, warns US citizens to lock their doors; and Milos Zeman, the Czech president, describes refugees’ arrival to Europe as an “organised invasion” are no different from each other. These arguments terrify their audience and build hatred as they deny the realities faced by the displaced and refugees.

Talk about good or bad refugees and migrants is absurd but very easy to spread. There is no evidence to suggest that migrants are more criminal than the natives. In fact, many studies show the opposite. However, the fear of the outsider is easy to flame. Simple dichotomous categories are easier to than the stories that explain of the lives of movers. 

The question of displaced movers is only complicated by the differences that define “good” and “bad” and misrepresents the conflicts that motivate movement. Knowing the numbers of displaced people globally captures the size of the crises driving people from their homes. However, it is more important to focus on the conflicts and insecurities that define specific crises. By identifying the causes of forced relocation, we can better address the outcomes and build toward solutions.

Image: DFID.

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