Winter 2015

Making Sense of Migration: The Defining Issue of the Century

Robert Fox

People are on the move across the world in greater number than ever in history. The outpouring of refugees from Syria has captured the headlines and the attention of leaders in Europe and North America. The EU population agencies have estimated that 1.2 million migrants and asylum seekers will reach, or try to reach, EU and associated countries in 2015 alone. This has produced great challenges in security, welfare, and governance. But, if anything, the crisis of refugees and migration is not likely to abate – the prospects for 2016 are worse than 2015 as the conflicts in the Middle East, North and Sub Sahara Africa show little sign of slackening.

Population movement is set to become the defining issue of the century. People will leave their birthplaces in millions, driven by fear and a need for self-preservation, or by economic opportunism – the dream of riches in another land – or a sense of global entitlement to live securely wherever they want. Patterns of crowd behaviour not fully understood yet show that very large groups are prepared to risk life and limb on perilous journeys almost on a whim

A great deal of statistical data reveals who the refugees and migrants are, where they come from and where they are going. But surprisingly little analysis enters the public domain about attitudes and aspirations, and disillusionment in the places of destination. [i] Why precisely do people decide to uproot everything, risking their own skins but also those of their children? Why does the place of destination so often fall short of the dream of destiny? 

Among the big drivers for population movement, four stand out. First, there is demography itself – the doubling of the world’s human population in just under a century and a half. According to the UN’s revised population projection made in 2015, the global population is expected to be 11.2 billion in the year 2120. In 1990 it was just under the 6 billion mark. Africa is due to be home to nearly 5 billion humans in the second half of the 21st century – raising huge issues of governance, security and migration. In the space of under three decades, Morocco’s government expects the arrival of more than 30 million migrants from West Africa, doubling the resident population – with many likely to move on to Europe.

Demographic surge and movement will accompanied by demographic decline, and in one or two places demographic collapse. Japan, and much of Europe, Germany and Russia especially, are ageing and declining in numbers. Natality – the level of reproduction per fertile woman – is set to decline in China, despite the lifting of the one child policy. So, in the old maxim, will China grow grey before it grows rich? In 85 years time, in the year 2100 China’s population is projected to stabilise at around 1.004 billion. A large proportion will be old, and the economy will be increasingly reliant on migrant labour. 

The second driver will be the effects of environmental and climate change. Here the centre of gravity of debate is beginning to shift from political polemic – climate change deniers versus the rest – to scientific analysis. The World Climate Conference in Paris is another milestone for the world leadership grappling with the issue of toxic emissions – but the goals set at the preceding conferences still seem to be like the grapes of Tantalus. 

The growth of desertification in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Iran and North West Asia, and water stress in Yemen, Pakistan and across the Fergama valley are already generating movements of people, and even conflict. Coastlines are under threat of drowning in parts of almost every continent, and whole island chains, the Andamans and Maldives are at risk of drowning. 

Added to this, the phenomenon of weird weather’, violent storms and cyclones, which increasingly seem part of the pattern of climate change, will cause communities to up sticks and leave suddenly. The announcement of the Meteorological Office that the global average temperature had risen by one degree Celsius since the early industrial era, should have been a wake-up call on the eve of the Paris Climate conference. The Met Office has warned of unpredictable consequences” as the rise in temperature heads towards the benchmark of two degrees average global increase since the late 18 th century CE

The third and fourth big drivers to popular movement are collapse of governance and the chronic condition now known as continuous conflict that persists in two dozen areas. [ii]

In addition to the main drivers, a number of important catalysts to migration, legal and illegal, should be added. Prominent is the revolution in communication, the mobile telephone, electronic messaging and texting, the Internet and the prevalence of social media. These have shortened timelines and distances, and raised expectations and even a sense of entitlement. Information about the migrant routes, and how to manage them is distributed via vehicles such as Twitter, and the current favourite, What’s App? As Tom Friedman has pointed out in the New York Times, the acceleration of communication capacity defined in Moore’s Law has a particularly powerful effect on the world of human migration. [iii]

Friedman points out the impact of globalisation, a belief that the migrant world is a part of globalised world and all the benefits and entitlements that concept purports to offer, including economic and personal security. 

The raw numbers of people on the move in the late autumn of 2015 make a sobering audit. According to the EU compilation of figures 1.2 million migrants will have tried to get into Europe by the end of the year. The UN High Commission for Refugees puts the number of Syrian refugees outside the country at 3.5 million, with 6 million displaced inside the country. Local refugee monitors put the figure higher, up to 12 million of Syria’s population displaced and over half set to move out of the country in the coming year. Some refugees are reported leaving the camps, so dire are conditions there – some even risking returning into Syria itself. 

Meanwhile the flow of boats of migrants continues across the Mediterranean, despite the onset of winter. Around 200,000 are expected to have made the journey from Libya into Italy, and new routes are opening from Morocco and Tunisia. 

Germany is now trying to restrict migrant arrivals with renewed border controls. Sweden is doing the same, the government stating it is finding it hard to accommodate the 200,000 who have arrived already this year. The eastern EU partners, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia say they are equally challenged. Slovenia has to put razor wire barriers along its border with Croatia.

The UNHCR puts the number of refugees in the world now at 60 million. This is almost certainly an underestimate, as are most figures on migration. They are educated estimates at best. Few estimates are given of those who make it on to Europe’s southern shores illegally, and manage to settle. This is a process that has been going on in present form for decades, across the unpatrolled beaches of Italy, Dalmatia, Greece and its islands. In 198081 Italy’s interior minister Claudio Martelli recognised the phenomenon in a law named after him for temporary visas for the commuter migration,’ across the Mediterranean. The maxim then was that for every migrant worker that could be identified there were at least two or three unidentified illegals in the shadows. [iv]

The Syrian crisis has focused Europe’s attention on the issue of economic, social and political migration, which has been under way for decades. The problem goes well beyond Syria and the Syrians. Among those that make the short but tricky boat passage from mainland Turkey to the Aegean islands, a high proportion has not been from Syria, but from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and beyond. They have learned to work the routes of passage, along routes to Europe established among others by drug traffickers. Informal networks of traffickers along the way aid them. 

People movement – it is so obvious to the human and satellite surveillance eye now, it can hardly be called people smuggling ’ – is a mainstream activity for the interlocking linkages of mafias across Europe, Asia and Africa. Much has been made of the need to smash the traffickers operations as if it is a catch all’ solution. Most traffickers have short, highly active and not very beautiful lives. Here the parallel with the mafia operations of the Somali and Yemen pirates is instructive. Most of the leaders of pirate operations in the Indian Ocean had an effective working life of about three or four seasons at most, before removing themselves or being removed by superiors and rivals. They were expendable, and much the same goes for the people traffickers of the Mediterranean. [v]

The surge of migration in and around Europe is now playing high in the agenda of political debate. Parties proposing a brand nationalist isolation such as Geert Wilders Freedom party in the Netherlands, the Alternative For Germany, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the UK Independence Party in Britain, are flourishing. They benefit from very real fears of governance and security, accentuated by the ISIS operations in Paris in mid November 2015

The cells of the ISIS terrorists headed by Abdelhamid Abaaoud appear to have moved between their training grounds in Syria and their targets in Europe by mixing quite easily with the migrant traffic. Another security issue is seen in the indications that refugee camps and ghettos in the new host countries are being used as incubators to radicalise and recruit new terrorists. This is neither easily ignored nor dealt with. 

Closing off borders and closing off migration flows are missions impossible. It is something with which the governments of Europe are beginning to come to terms. In the summit of European north shore’ leaders and leaders of south shore’ African leaders in Malta in November 2015, the whole migration issue was aired in stark terms not heard before. But the remedies were hesitant and inadequate. The offer of 1.9 billion for improving governance in Africa looks less than timely, with no prospect of immediate effect on the migration outflow and very little in the longer term. The UK government’s offer of 275m for the refugee camps in Turkey over three years looks like Band Aid for just a few short-term symptoms of the problem. 

The Mediterranean represents a startling paradigm of the great migration and population phenomenon of the 21 st century – but it is far from the only one. It combines the converging demographic, governance and security crises of three continents, and can only be mitigated or resolved by international initiatives on a continental scale. 

Other great swirls and vortices of migration and popular movement are now gathering across the steppe and the new Silk Route, in West and sub-Equatorial Africa, as well as to and through the great city ports of the southern Asian littoral. Some of these are the new monster cities, megalopoli, each as big as a medium size state – the likes of Mexico City, Cairo, the Sao Paolo-Rio sprawl, Shanghai or Mumbai. They present problems of displacement, population shift and abandonment from immigration to them and migration within the chaotic organism. 

The down side to the phenomenon is the prospect of sheer wastage of human talent and human lives even. Millions of people face marginalization and statelessness, undervalued and underemployed vagrants on the fringes of society. 

The crisis, which is now here in our midst, needs a gradualist and evolutionary approach to remedy on several fronts, including civic governance and leadership, security, education and effective investment in points of departure – wherever that may be feasible, practical and profitable. This is the approach proposed by Professor Sir Paul Collier, who is now a leader in the migration debate. [vi]

Governments need to follow the Collier script in investing in realistic productive development projects, governance and education and hard power security strategies for today and the future, and not harking back to doctrines and postures of the past. They must combine, share and cooperate on an international basis. Too much is being offered on a party political and parochially national basis. Even the generous 12 billion British overseas development and aid budget is being dispensed to an almost casual short-term political timetable. 

The crisis and conundrum of migration and movement is set to preoccupy us all for a century to come. It is already with us, and needs to be addressed in the terms it requires here and now. 

[i] In Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin 2006) Ian Buruma illustrates this in a discussion with Bellari Said, a Muslim psychiatrist in Amersfoort, where over 20 per cent of the population are immigrants. 

[ii] The list of current armed conflicts compiled by Wikipedia, November 2015, from a variety of sources including the Uppsala Conflict Data programme is illustrative. Four continue to claim more than 10,000 fatalities, and 35 between 1,000 and 9,999 dead a year; some eight have been running for more than fifty years. 

[iii] Walls, Borders, A Dome and Refugees, Op Ed by Thomas Friedman, NY Times 9 September 2015

[iv] I tackle the problem of counting legal and illegal migrants in The Inner Sea, The Mediterranean and Its people, Knopf 1993, which addresses the new waves of migration then already under way across the Mediterranean. 

[v] I am grateful for a series of private conversations about this during the summer of 2015 with the head of Britain’s Royal Navy, Admiral Sir George Zambellas. 

[vi] Exodus – Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, Penguin London 2015 is his new essay on the problem. See also his groundbreaking The Bottom Billion, London 2007

Robert Fox is Defence Correspondent for the London Evening Standard and author of The Inner Sea: The Mediterranean and Its People.