On 18 December every year, the United Nations observes International Migrants Day. There are very clear and important legal differences between refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers and migrants that should not be forgotten. (You can read more about what they mean at this blog post.) These categories are kept separate and distinct by the UN. However, CNEWA works in a world where all of these categories are present — and, at times, massively present. Today, I will look at how the various migrations of peoples have affected the globe and had a significant impact on the world CNEWA serves.
It is important to understand several things. Mass movements of people are not new; as you’ll see below, they have occurred several times in at least past two thousand years. The movements cause untold suffering for those who are displaced. However, they have also caused the destabilization and even destruction of civilizations and cultures which were the “host” or target countries/peoples. The problems caused by these movements often provide demagogues with deceptively easy “solutions,” which are often little more than thinly veiled forms of racism. Nevertheless, the problems and challenges are real.
Let’s look at how these migrations have occurred, and some important examples.
Throughout history people and groups have moved to find better or safer living conditions — at times, doing so in great numbers. There are many causes for this. The biblical book of Ruth speaks of Naomi and her family leaving Judah for Moab because of famine. Over the last 2,000 years there have been times of massive movements of peoples. War and military aggression are among the chief drivers of the mass movement of peoples. The arrival of the Huns on the stage of world history in the 4th to 6th centuries caused massive movements of peoples from Central Asia to the west, fleeing the armies of the Huns. The Huns coming from the east put pressure on the Goths and other “barbarians” who, in turn, pressured and ultimately brought about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.
In the late 11th centuries, it was the Mongols, again coming from eastern Asia, that caused great destruction and displacement from central Asia to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The Mongols brought the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate to an end and destroyed other kingdoms in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Lastly, the mass movement of Europeans to the “New World” which began in the 16th century had major impact on the indigenous peoples of North and South America, causing the extinction of many native civilizations and cultures. In each of these, climate, military conquest and economic issues all played varying roles.
In the last 20 years, it appears that there is a new mass movement of peoples. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 68.5 million “forcibly displaced” people in the world. That number is broken down into 40 million internally displaced people, 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum seekers. As has been the case with every massive movement of peoples, this brings with it huge social, political and economic changes, all of which—at least initially—are destabilizing.
While it is common for the media in Europe and the United States to focus on the impact these people have on the situation in Europe and the U.S., in point of fact, the major “hosting countries,”— i.e., countries targeted by the movement of peoples—are Turkey (3.5 million displaced people), Uganda (1.4 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (just under 980,000).
The UN recognizes that this is a humanitarian crisis of the highest magnitude for those people who are displaced. However, it presents almost insurmountable political, social and economic problems for the “hosting countries,” few of which are that economically—and at times politically—stable themselves.
In an attempt to address this, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was signed 13 July 2018. While not a treaty and not formally binding under international law, the Compact is an attempt to deal both with the problem both practically and compassionately. The Holy See. especially through its Permanent Observer Mission at the UN, has been active in promoting the Global Compact as a possible way of dealing with the problem. The main goals are not merely to provide for a safe and orderly migration of peoples but also to eliminate those “drivers of migration” that force people to leave their homes— i.e., climate change, war, poverty.
As a papal agency working in areas where the mass movement of peoples has had profound and almost invariably negative impact on all involved, CNEWA encourages our readers to become informed about the issues involved and remain familiar with what the Catholic Church is trying to do to address these important challenges.
Next week, we’ll look at how the various migrations of peoples have had a lasting impact — spreading new traditions, beliefs, practices and cultures to different corners of the world.