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Migration: the misunderstood crisis

What do we think about when we think about migration? I think about my grandparents, who emigrated from Europe to Canada, and myself — who made the opposite journey and moved from Toronto to London. Most of us would probably think of desperate Africans on rickety boats. That is, if we thought about migration at all in these days of pandemic.

It’s challenging to write about migration in the current climate. This came up during a conversation I had with a friend who works in the field. She was frustrated because migration is yet another casualty of Covid-19. We may have other priorities, but the virus has brought migration to a halt with the closure of land, sea and air borders. This kind of restriction of movement is something we haven’t seen in our lifetime.

Yet the migration issue is slowly creeping back into our consciousness, as President Joe Biden rescinds Trump’s anti-Muslim ban. That stopped many people in their tracks. They had been heading to the US for a new life when they found out they were back in the resettlement pipeline with no clear end in sight. My friend, who works for the International Organisation of Migration, told me of many people who had lived in Kenyan refugee camps for 15 years and were on the point of departure from the airport at Nairobi when Trump cracked down.

By contrast, Biden’s administration has promised to “expand refugee resettlement, asylum and protection mechanisms”, and to “address the root causes of irregular migration and displacement, explore humane options for vulnerable populations and enhance regular migration pathways to the United States.”

Migrants have also fallen victim to the pandemic. In Saudi Arabia in 2020, anti-migration sentiment manifested itself when authorities corralled exploited migrants into squalid detention centres.Vulnerable Africans and South Asians, who largely work as maids and labourers, were accused of acting as vectors for the virus. Dead bodies were thrown out like trash. The threat is the virus, not the people. We know in Europe that the original super-spreaders were rich ski tourists. But it’s so much easier to blame people who look different — especially if they are poor.

The emerging reality is that most African migrants stay close to home when they choose to resettle. This fact turns the accepted narrative on its head. It’s not difficult to understand why the press concentrates on the 30,000 migrants, mostly from Africa, who drowned in the Mediterranean, and the many more who made it. But immigration to Europe from Africa has remained fairly constant over the past decade.

Young, well-educated Africans who want to leave are looking for work and an escape from poverty. A large number, 29 per cent, want to stay in Africa and in their region. The population in African countries is growing, faster than their economies. GDP in Nigeria, for example, is only growing at 1.9 per cent, but corruption is a lot higher. The hope is that intra-Africa migration will drive transformation.

But despite a dip in violent conflict in 2019 and 2020, everywhere except in Africa, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) expects that 2021 will be a more violent year, due to Covid-19 and the failure of global politics. Brutal leadership is on the rise in many countries that have seen the explosion of radicalism and populism.

ACLED predicts that there are ten conflicts to worry about. There is a rise of authoritarianism and gang violence in Haiti. The insurgency in Mozambique has reached “unprecedented levels of sophistication”. The Sahel’s jihadi threat is “reinforced by pastoralist populism and poor international coordination”. There are multiple conflicts in Ethiopia and the coup in Burma (Myanmar) doesn’t come as a surprise. There is always cross-border violence between India and Pakistan. “Russian interests are a growing and determining factor in Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The violent indirect effects of incomplete peace agreements are felt in Yemen and Colombia,” says the report published this month.

The report concludes that state actors in all these conflicts “exploited global distractions to repress, attack, and subjugate their citizens”. And so, for better or worse, migration will soon be back in the centre of our lives. When it returns, perhaps we should try to deal with it calmly and rationally, not in panic or rage. Many of us, or at least members of our families, have been migrants at one time or another. Most of the problems migration creates are caused, not by the migrants themselves, but by misunderstandings on both sides.