Worldwatch Paper #125: The Hour of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants

June 1995
Hal Kane
ISBN: 1-878071-26-2
56 pages

Nearly 4 million new refugees fled their homes in 1994, bringing the total of the world's official refugees to 23 million. This is the greatest number of refugees of our era, nearly equal to the population of Canada, reports a new Worldwatch Paper, The Hour of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants.

In addition to official refugees, the report notes that the world's migrant population--mostly people who leave home to seek jobs abroad--has grown to more than 100 million. Many are temporary or seasonal workers; others have lived most of their lives in other countries.

Behind these rising numbers are rapid population growth, environmental decline, widespread civil war, political persecution, and even seemingly unrelated topics like disease and pollution, says the report.

In the future, the scale of displacement is likely to increase as population pressures, economic needs, environmental scarcities, and other underlying causes of migration increase.

Usually, it is not one single pressure that forces people out, but rather a combination of poverty and other pressures in a volatile cocktail of insecurities that causes people to move. The immediate cause of departure may be war or poverty, but war and poverty themselves invariably grow out of years of mounting pressures that finally propel people from their homes.

Author Hal Kane notes, "The large flows of refugees and migrants are a barometer that registers our evolving, and sometimes declining, prospects for global security".

Inside countries, 20 to 30 million people leave rural areas every year to live in rapidly expanding cities, far more than those moving abroad. China has a "floating population" of more than 100 million former farmers and other rural people now moving among its cities looking for work.

Civil war ranks as by far the largest immediate creator of refugees--among the 20 largest sources of refugees in the world, 19 suffer from internal armed conflict. Behind this warfare stand additional pressures that contribute to fighting. Land scarcity, for example, intensified the pressures that led to catastrophe in Rwanda. And rigid political systems have been a catalyst for war in countries from Lebanon to Kenya. Thus, war is not inevitable. By addressing some of the underlying pressures behind it, some conflicts can be mitigated and refugees enabled to stay home.

But today some 34 wars rage in the world, three times as many as took place at any one time during the fifties and twice as many as during the sixties. And while the number of wars has grown little since the early eighties, civilian losses account for a growing percentage of casualties. Indeed, over the last 10 years, more children--some two million--have died than soldiers. Thus, people have had good reason to flee.

Famine forces many people from their communities. By 1994, one-sixth of the population of Mali and Burkina Faso had been uprooted as a result of desertification. The number of these migrants is likely to increase as populations grow quickly in countries with scarce water and cropland.

Other people are moved to make way as residential and agricultural areas are flooded by dams, as buildings are devoured by roads, and shantytowns are razed to make way for coal-burning plants. Public works projects now uproot more than 10 million "oustees" in the developing world every year, most of whom remain within their countries. During the past decade, an estimated 80-90 million people have been resettled as a result of programs to build dams and transportation alone.

Natural disasters have forced many from their homes--floods in Bangladesh, for example. Health problems have led citizens of the former Czechoslovakia to move from industrial regions where life expectancies are below the national average to cleaner areas. And some 5 percent of the population of the Kola peninsula in the north of Russia leaves every year to escape pollution that has brought life expectancy for men there down to 50 years.

Tens of millions of workers have moved from poorer countries to richer ones to take advantage of higher wages paid in stronger currencies. Some 44 percent of Jordan's work force and 17 percent of Egypt's work force have their livelihood in other countries, for example. Some Middle Eastern countries import as much as 90 percent of their labor; Switzerland imports 30 percent, and Malaysia imports 14 percent.

The world's migrant workers send home $65 billion in remittances every year, second only to crude oil in their value to the world's economy, and larger than all official development assistance. Almost half this money goes to developing countries.

The number of workers in poor countries in need of jobs will increase dramatically in the future. During the next two decades, the world's labor force is projected to grow by over three-quarters of a billion people. In Africa, almost half the population has been born since 1980, which also holds true for Cambodia, Guatemala, Laos, and Nicaragua, and many other countries. As those children reach working age, they will need jobs somewhere. Many will have to look abroad.

Traditionally, relief agencies respond to the flow of refugees primarily with emergency rations and tents, while governments attempt to curb immigration with laws and border patrols. Although such short-term measures are crucial, they are often inadequate to meet current crises, much less future ones. But more importantly, whatever success they do have is likely to be only temporary, for they have no impact on the long-standing issues that precipitate many flows of refugees and migrants.

The current pattern of waiting until emergencies unfold and then trying to help the victims is actually a source of despair, as the need for assistance always seems to overwhelm the supply of help. Ascribing wars like those of Rwanda or Somalia to "ancient ethnic animosities," also curtails hope by putting those conflicts outside the scope of the international community's ability to address them.

Such problems are of course real, but it would be regrettable to focus on unsolvable problems at the expense of those that can be, if not solved, then at least mitigated. If, instead, we see the role that root causes play in migration, then we have a catalog of pressures that we can work to reduce.

Indeed, efforts to solve the underlying problems that entice migrants from their homes, Kane reports, would cost far less money while preventing human suffering. Kane makes a case for "economic insurance policies"--investments in agricultural education and community development designed to prevent food and employment shortages in rural areas, and thus reduce the amount of money relief organizations will have to spend later to help those who flee famine or poverty.

Early investments in stable communities also ward off the outflows of refugees that can threaten national security and the integrity of borders in neighboring nations, as well as the outflows of economic migrants that can trigger xenophobia in those countries. Kane notes several budding success stories of such early investments:

In what could become a model of wise agricultural development, Eritrea is avoiding mistakes like over-reliance on large scale public works projects and heavy foreign borrowing. Instead, the country is rehabilitating small scale peasant agriculture and revitalizing the communities that sustain such agriculture. The government is fighting future draughts by starting irrigation and soil conservation projects now. Land redistribution is giving farmers a stake in protecting their soil, to ensure that more people have a chance at making a living on their own.

Very small scale lending to entrepreneurs and families in poor Bangladeshi communities, in amounts equal to just a few dollars, have enabled people in the poorest classes to earn a living wage, thus helping stabilize communities and stem the tide of people leaving home because of poverty. In neighboring India, the government has endorsed such economic growth in Bangladesh, saying such growth is the only path to fundamentally reducing unwanted migration across their border--border controls just have not worked.

In Thailand, the government, helped by private companies, some American, is building small factories in rural areas to create self-sufficiency. The Bolivian government has decided to more than double the amount of the national budget that local communities will control, because the national government wants rural development to reduce social conflict and mass migration to the cities.

Unfortunately, such development measures do not always receive adequate funding. While crisis-driven expenditures are rising in response to increased flows of migrants and refugees, efforts to attack the underlying causes of flight are decreasing. In 1994, the United Nations spent at least $1 billion more on refugees and peacekeeping than on economic development. The budget of the U.N. Development Programme is not much larger than that of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.