Migration-Refugee Exodus: A World-wide Challenge by Rene Wadlow

clip_image001During the summer of 2015, the international community has become increasingly concerned with the causes behind the mass exodus of persons − refugees and migrants.  It has been all too easy to become accustomed to the image of the refugee: displaced persons in Europe after World War II, the internally displaced Chinese during the Chinese civil war, the struggle of Jews to enter Palestine prior to the creation of Israel followed by the flight of the Palestinians, the Hungarians in 1956 and the boat people from Vietnam − the refugees who made the front pages of the world press and all the others too often forgotten.  The sum of human misery since the end of the Second World War has been so heavy and so constant as to have a numbing effect.

However, the summer of 2015 has brought images of refugees and migrants drowning at sea, trying to make their way under barbed wire, with the most recent photos of some 70 persons who died in a closed truck on the frontier between Hungary and Austria.

Until now, governments within the UN system have gone on the assumption that security and peace-keeping are political matters to be kept as separate as possible from emergency humanitarian efforts.  Since in nearly all the cases that have led to massive departures the UN has failed in its attempts at conflict resolution, humanitarian aid did what it could to bind up some of the wounds.  Both the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and non-governmental organizations working on direct relief avoided as much as possible political considerations. For public political analysis leads to controversy, to charges of being one-sided, and of misunderstanding the historic complexities of the situation.

People flee their countries for a variety of reasons and usually as a result of a combination of factors rather than a single one: wars and insurrections, the breakdown of law and order, oppression, persecution and the denial of socio-economic opportunities.  Some people may not have been singled out for repression, however they feel that their country cannot provide an adequate future and wish to try their chance elsewhere.  Others, especially those who represent ethnic or religious minorities may be deliberately forced out.

There is a link between the violations of human rights, the lack of possibility for popular participation in development and migration for economic reasons.  Although there is a good deal of writing on migration for economic reasons, the diversity and scale of the phenomenon is not always documented and much of the migration is clandestine. Migration is of increasing complexity which we are not yet capable of analyzing properly.  It is only relatively recently that the World Bank initiated a research program on international migration and development, largely as a result of information on the large amount of money that migrants send to their families in their home country.  Likewise, it is only fairly recently that the gender aspects of migration are being studied.  The World Bank reports that close to half of the world’s trans-frontier migrants are women and that the percentage is growing especially among domestic workers and caregivers.  In light of this, we see how international migration cannot be fully understood without the prism of gender. We also see how development policies and international migration are parts of the same process.

It is certain that there are no easy solutions to the problem of mass exodus.  There will have to be complex changes in attitudes and values so that we see ourselves as citizens of the world with a joint responsibility to care for and protect the seven billion on the planet.  The world community needs to develop a more adequate “early warning system” so that preventive action can be undertaken before the outbreak of destructive violence and yet another flow of refugees.  Peace needs peacemakers; there is a need to train more adequate humanitarian workers and to be able to draw more quickly upon those individuals with the necessary skills and experience.  In addition, climate changes are likely to produce changes in the environment and thus patterns of settlement creating what some have called “ecological refugees”.

There is a growing awareness of the need for a United Nations-led World Conference on Migration as there have been past UN conferences on the environment, population, food, women, urbanization and other world issues.  The pattern of the world conferences remain largely the same: preparatory regional conferences to look at issues in a regional framework, research and statistic collection, contributions from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and finally a world conference which draws up a plan-of-action.  The impact of UN conferences has been greatest when there is a per-existing popular, NGO-led movement which has sensitized people to the issue. The two UN conferences which have had the most lasting consequences were the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment and the 1975 International Year of Women and its Mexico conference.  The environment conference was held against a growing popular concern with harm to the environment symbolized by the widely-read book of Rachel Carson Silent Spring. The 1975 women’s conference came at a time when in Western Europe and the USA there was a strong “women’s lib” movement and active discussions on questions of equality.

Migration does not have a well-organized NGO structure highlighting the issues, but migration and integration have become a widely-discussed political issue, a common theme of the narrow nationalist political movements.  This anti-immigration rhetoric heightens awareness but presents no answers.  Therefore a UN-led conference can provide rational discussion based on research and proposals taking in a world view and a longer time frame.

In the meantime, citizens of the world need to stress the global aspects of migration flows which have an impact on all countries; the changing nature of the world’s economies which modify migration patterns; and the need to plan for migration as a result of possible environmental changes.


Rene Wadlow, President, and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizen