We call what has happened in Europe and in South East Asia this year a ‘Migration Crisis’. In just a few years’ time we may very well look back at the numbers we have faced this year with nostalgia as a long lost age of innocence. This is almost certain if we maintain our current approach.
The migration trends the world has seen this year have been misrepresented by the media as simply a matter of war – the result of a set of political circumstances, such as the Arab Spring in Syria (and Libya) as well as the remarkable rise of ISIS in post-invasion Iraq, who individually were statistically unlikely but together, as a perfect storm, could only be a unique event.
And perhaps European politicians and indeed the global media find this narrative necessary: it does not seem any of them trust the increasingly xenophobic European media to react humanely to what is happening now unless there is at least an illusion of an end game. Syria is not a huge country, and Europe can absorb enough of its displaced population. And if that’s what it takes to atone for our sins in the Middle East, then that’s fine. But what if Syria is only the tip of the iceberg? What if Europe, and eventually the U.S. too, are set to face inward migrations that are several times larger than what we are expecting from Syria? How would the public in the West react to that?
The problem is that the factors driving this migration are only superficially political and to do with war. The war in Syria is indeed the main reason that Syrians cite for seeking refuge in Europe, and there is no reason to doubt their honesty when they say that they do eventually hope to be able to return to Syria. But War, a consequence of political breakdown of the state apparatus in Syria, is but a symptom of much more fundamental trends.
A global gunpowder keg
I can cite at least three such trends that are obvious and uncontroversial. The first one is demographics. The population of the world is still booming. And most of the places it is booming in are places where people do not or often cannot make a decent living in. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent have both some of the highest numbers of people living in absolute poverty, and some of the highest population growth rates. Also, some of the highest population densities, and in places, densities well above what the agricultural productivity of the land can sustain. People will have to move, or they will starve. So they will move. And even if we do not see these people make it as far as Europe or the U.S., they will push others in this direction, as their movement will put pressure on other territories around them.
The second trend is climate change. Even if countries have stable populations which they can maintain with their own resources of food and water, all is not guaranteed to be well. This is the true lesson of Syria, and this is a fact that really cannot stand to be ignored in the media in the way it is now. From 2006 onwards, Syria faced the worst drought in the instrumental record. This led to a collapse of its agricultural production in parts of the country which led to an estimated 1.5 million Syrians moving from the affected areas to the country’s urban centres in search for a means to make a living and sustain their families. It was this that tipped over the fragile political settlement of Syria, which was ruled with an iron fist by a mis-trusted religious minority, and ultimately led to civil war. And very many of the countries in the Middle East and indeed in Sub-Saharan Africa are in similarly precarious conditions.
And lastly, there seems to be a global trend, perhaps partly driven by the rise of the internet and certainly driven by the rise of the “global middle” class, of people everywhere scrutinising and holding to account their governments. There seems to have been some kind of cultural sea-change in almost all countries in the world where citizens ask for more from their politicians. They ask for human rights and effective governance. And when they fail to get them, they regard their governments as illegitimate. Many, many governments around the world now govern with precious little consent from their citizens. This need not, on its own, lead to political instability, but against the background of the demographic boom and the environmental degradation that is often worst in exactly the same regions, we are sitting on a global gunpowder keg.
We are currently happily in denial about these facts. And while we are trying to do things as a global community about climate change and economic development, economic development that is probably the only thing that will be able to contain the demographic boom, we are failing to acquiesce the obvious links between these factors and the Migration Crisis. Never has there been such obvious evidence for why we need effective international cooperation in these areas – and we are still failing to take account of this evidence. It is time to wake up to the true significance of the Migration Crisis and demand of our politicians that they address the fundamental causes, before things get much, much worse.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim