Not even 20 years into the new century, international experts are sizing up unprecedented degrees of mass migration and telling us: these are not aberrations, this is the new normal for the 21st century. The crisis on the southern border of the United States is very much a part of this development.
They leave their homes, by the millions, for many reasons: war, disaster, violence, persecution, climate change, or poverty. In the past few years, despite crackdowns to staunch the flow, more than two million people traveled north to Europe, whether along the “Balkan route” from Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan; across the Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia to Italy; or from Morocco and Algeria to Spain.
Nearly three million Ethiopians were forced from their homes just last year. New conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa are creating 50,000 new refugees a month, from South Sudan, the Congo, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Eritrea, to nearby nations already hosting more than six million refugees. In the Philippines, four million were displaced last year by natural disaster; the country is already making plans to relocate entire cities before the ocean swallows them.
Americans have mostly turned a blind eye to the implications of a globally-connected world continually disrupted by large-scale population displacement. But now, it has landed on the nation’s doorstep.
Just six years ago—the last time Congress seriously considered immigration reform—a mere 3,750 displaced people inhabited the 2,000-mile stretch of Central America between the United States border and Costa Rica. Today, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), that number is well over a half-million.
The nature of population movement has accelerated faster than the debate about it has unfolded. While Democratic Presidential candidates debate the relative merits of Obama-era policies, and Republicans fear-monger about the threat to Western culture—and both sides view foreign policy and global economics almost exclusively through the lens of a handful of direct international relationships—almost nobody is grappling with how the world is being remade.
Population displacement will likely be a defining global issue of our current half-century, just as world wars in the first half of the 20th and independence from colonialism in the second half. Conflict and natural disaster drive millions from their homes; this leads to further economic and social disorder within and between ill-equipped countries; this pushes more people to seek refuge in more developed countries; this strains resources and stokes fears, leading them toward isolationism; this further destabilizes international order and exacerbates the consequences of conflict and disaster.
This cycle is not theoretical; it is well underway. “It is the greatest amount of displacement, voluntary and involuntary, in the history of the world,” says Alan Bersin, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Border Czar under Obama.
Worldwide, the number of refugees under UNHCR mandate has doubled in five years, topping 20 million for the first time. The total number of refugees is estimated at 25.4 million; another 41.3 million are internally displaced, meaning they have been forced by conflict or violence to move elsewhere within their home country. As many as 20 million more are displaced by natural disaster.
Roughly 28 million people were newly displaced just last year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Switzerland. In 2016, to recognize the problem, the first Refugee Olympic Team competed at the Rio De Janeiro games; another is being assembled for next year’s competition in Tokyo.
Bersin views this acceleration in the context of rapid globalization. “It’s been intensified by the overall increase in the tempo of flows” of goods, capital, data, technology, ideas, and everything else, he says.
And, of course, climate change, which will make today’s record-setting migration look like the good old days.
Asylum applications filed in the United States, averaging around 2,500 a month ten years ago, began averaging more than 10,000 a month in 2016, slowing last year only due to the Trump administration’s decision to restrict the process while asylum seekers wait across the Mexican border.
Those lines, of desperate people waiting under the new “metering” policy to present themselves for protection in the U.S., have been growing.
A small city’s worth, of 10,000 refugees, wait in Tijuana alone—a number that has doubled in the past three months, according to the Associated Press. That now includes a large number of Cameroonians fleeing government repression, bringing the troubles of Central Africa to America’s doorstep.
Amy Roma, a Washington D.C. energy attorney, saw it first-hand a year ago, when she spent a week providing pro bono legal services at a detention center outside San Antonio, Texas.
“I had one woman who was kidnapped twice while waiting at the border,” Roma says. She eventually swam across the Rio Grande.
Roma led a steady flow of traumatized women and children, terrified of gang violence that had often already taken a member of the family, through their credible-fear interviews. “Gangs” is something of a misnomer; these are, according to UNHCR, “sophisticated, organized criminal armed groups, often with transnational reach.”
The stories Roma heard—when she could coax the women to talk about it—were hellish. The frenzied process was a bit like driving a race car on an unfamiliar, and ever-changing track. “We were about to walk into one credible-fear interview, and found that an hour ago the Attorney General had issued a new directive on how to conduct the interviews,” Roma says.
As green as she was, the refugees were lucky to have Roma there. The vast majority of women with children have no attorney at their credible-fear hearing; having one makes it 14 times more likely that they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. to apply for asylum, according to one study.
This is no short-term blip, likely to end with a new election or peace agreement. An international framework under development targets 2030—more than a decade off—for achieving significant reductions in violence.
In fact, “ten years is pretty optimistic,” says Kathryn Johnson, policy advocacy coordinator for American Friends Service Committee.
As Central American governments destabilize, the effects go well beyond gang violence. Rural Guatemalans face poverty and discrimination; the “dry corridor” is expanding; historically low coffee prices have impoverished growers.
“U.S. policy is so ill-equipped to deal with this,” Johnson says. Thousands and thousands of people are desperate enough to leave their homes and face a harrowing journey to the unknown; yet “it is kind of a stretch to call these people refugees under our system.”
The Trump administration’s apparent indifference, or outright hostility, to these asylum-seekers has made for an easy focus for the country’s ire and compassion. But, few anywhere across the political spectrum are publicly discussing the very real challenges, and inadequacies.
Nor are they pondering the U.S. role with similar, and much larger, population displacements elsewhere in an increasing connected and interdependent world.
Instead, the U.S. is joining the isolationist backlash, seen in Britain, Hungary, Austria, and elsewhere, in which migrant-weary nations turn inward—pushing the problems back toward the less-developed countries that are already straining.
For example, the Trump administration recently inked a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, that would force those fleeing Honduras and El Salvador to apply for asylum in that country—which itself is a main source of refugees.
That global populist, nativist backlash will only worsen, Bersin says, as climate change exacerbates the problem.
And, he warns, the backlash to the backlash can also be unmoored from reality. Bersin finds the American left, including most of the candidates for President, sounding naïve as they compete to sound most welcoming to migrants.
“To think that the American system should redress every humanitarian issue in the world is laudable, but foolish,” Bersin says.
Who to take, and how many; how to process them; how to accommodate them; what levels of violence might follow them; these are just a few of the questions that America will need to work out for a problem that is only beginning to heat up, so to speak.
Disasters waiting to happen
In 2018, more than 1.2 million people were forced from their homes due to natural disaster in just one country—accounting for some 10 percent of all disaster-caused internal displacement in the world last year.
That was the United States.
Almost all of that was due to three events: Hurricane Florence in August, Hurricane Michael in October, and the California wildfires in July, August, and November. The vast majority of people affected later returned. Still, tens of thousands were still homeless even months later.
The number and severity of these disasters has increased, and will continue to. Yet, the country continues to react individually to these and other incidents, rather than incorporate them into ongoing policy discussion.
For example: housing affordability. Reports show that in the aftermath of last year’s disasters, already soaring housing costs—exacerbated by the destruction of existing stock—have prevented people from rebuilding or relocating.
That has led policy experts to recognize the need to consider the housing problem pro-actively for areas likely to suffer displacement in coming years. That includes not only the likely targets of hurricanes, wildfires, and inland flooding, but pretty much every urban center on the coasts.
Similar concerns await in infrastructure, finance, agriculture, health, security, and other areas—not just from climate change itself, but from the frequent relocation of populations, both temporary and permanent, that will result.
Such pro-active policy-making, though mentioned in a few of the Presidential candidates’ climate plans, is barely on the government’s radar, and is unlikely to get there in a political reality that can’t even fix existing bridges.
Those issues will affect other countries as well—and those effects will in turn be felt in the U.S., which depends on stability for the flow of its own people, money, goods, and supplies around the globe.
Stability will be increasingly scarce, in a world teeming with displaced populations. America will need to face up to it, sooner or later.