Displacement and the Challenge of Forced Migration

Driven Out

– James Hollifield

Displacement and the challenge of forced migration.

As America’s televisions broadcast vivid images of migration crises from Afghanistan, Syria, and Myanmar to Venezuela and the U.S.-Mexico border, it seems little wonder that many feel a sense of crisis and loss of control.  

 But we must put the current crises into historical perspective, recognizing that migration, forced or otherwise, is not a new phenomenon in the annals of human history. 

The migration "crises" of today pale by comparison with the upheavals associated with the industrial revolution, imperialism, two world wars, and decolonization. The expansion and collapse of empires resulted in genocide, irredentism, the displacement of tens of millions of people, and the radical redrawing of national boundaries. 

The migration "crises" of today pale by comparison with the upheavals associated with the industrial revolution, imperialism, two world wars, and decolonization.

For much of recorded history and for many civilizations, the movement of populations was the norm. Only with the advent of the nation-state in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and the imposition of the nation-state system through European imperialism did the notion of legally tying populations to territorial units (sovereignty) and to specific forms of government become commonplace.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, passport and visa systems developed. Borders were hardened and closed to non-nationals, especially those deemed hostile to the nation and the state. Almost every dimension of human existence – social-psychological, demographic, economic, and political – was reshaped to conform to the dictates of the nation-state. In "settler societies" like the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australia, the creation of new states led to the displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples and to genocide.

The Numbers and the Historical Context

According to UN data (below), approximately 281 million people resided outside of their country of birth for one year or more in 2020, constituting 3.6 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion people. We can see that international migration remains the exception, not the rule.  

Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Of course, not all migration is voluntary. In any given year, millions of people move to escape persecution, political violence, hunger, deprivation, natural disasters, and the vagaries of climate change. These people are driven out of their country and they become refugees or asylum seekers. 

At the end of 2020, the number of "persons of concern" to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was 82.4 million (about 1 percent of the world’s population), including 26.4 million refugees, 4.1 million asylum seekers, 48 million internally displaced people, and a relatively new category of forced migrants, 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled their country.  

The fact that over half of the persons of concern to UNHCR are internally displaced raises a host of issues. Are these people moving within their country because of war and conflict, climate change, or just for economic reasons because they can no longer survive where they are?  UNHCR counts only those who are displaced because of conflict and repression, whereas the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, or IDMC, includes those forced to move because of natural disasters—40.5 million new internal displacements across 149 countries in 2020, not counting the Venezuelans.

But in terms of numbers of displaced people, Venezuela has catapulted into second place, just behind Syria, and ahead of Afghanistan where the situation at this writing is dire and getting worse.  

Note that Central America (the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador plus Nicaragua) does not rank in the top fifteen humanitarian emergencies in the world today in terms of numbers of forced migrants.  

Human mobility is part of a broader trend of globalization.

Until the global pandemic of 2020, tens of millions of people crossed borders on a daily basis, which added up to roughly three billion border crossings per year. Human mobility is part of a broader trend of globalization, which includes more trade in goods and services, increased capital flows, greater ease of travel, and a veritable explosion of readily accessible information. While trade and capital flows are the twin pillars of globalization, migration is the third leg of the stool on which the global economy rests, and the three movements are intricately related. 

We know for example that when less developed economies suddenly are opened to trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), this can lead to a spike in migration, internally and internationally. This is what happened in Mexico, for example, with the implementation of NAFTA in the 1990s followed by a "migration hump." Trade and FDI are not substitutes for migration, but complements, at least in the short- to medium-term.

People Are Not Shirts 

While migration is a defining feature of the contemporary world, and it is connected in many ways to trade and investment, it is also profoundly different. People are not shirts.

Linyi Fonseca, 25, with her children, María Fonseca Gorrondona, 5, Sarveli Gorrondona, 2, Adrianyi Gorrondona, 3 months, and Nervis López, 7, at the Integrated Assistance Center in Maicao. Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo/UNHCR.

This is another way of saying that labor is not a pure commodity and has not been since the abolition of chattel (as opposed to modern) slavery, and that individuals have rights. Unlike goods and capital, individuals can become actors on the international stage (they have agency) whether through peaceful transnational communities (diaspora) or violent terrorist and criminal networks. In the extremely rare instances when migrants commit terrorist acts, migration and mobility can be a threat to the security of states. 

In a time of pandemic, the movement of people can endanger public health, although it is important to note that the movement of people per se is not a threat. It is the inability of governments to identify, quarantine, test, and isolate travelers who might be infected—an expensive proposition but more effective than blanket bans on entry.

Despite these threats to national security and public health, migration remains vital for human and economic development, and it reduces global inequalities. Many studies highlight the economic benefits of international migration, which in the more advanced economies provides new sources of human capital and manpower, more entrepreneurial activity and innovation, fewer labor market bottlenecks, and lower levels of inflation in periods of high growth.  

The benefits of migration outweigh the costs, according to the most recent study of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The NAS studies demonstrate a tight correlation between successful immigrant incorporation, economic and social mobility, naturalization, and citizenship. Immigrants bring much needed labor and human capital, new ideas and cultures (diversity); and, depending on the country, they quickly catch up and surpass the native born in terms of income and social mobility.  

Conversely, emigrants may return to their countries of origin where they can have a dramatic impact on economic and political development, often becoming "transnationals" shuttling between countries of origin and destination, and a brain drain can turn into a brain gain.  Remittances remain a vital source of foreign exchange and investment in developing countries, despite the fact that the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis jeopardized this capital flow in some countries.

Forced migration, on the other hand, presents a legal conundrum.

Forced migration, on the other hand, presents a legal conundrum. Identifying forced migrants (those driven out) requires states and the international community to distinguish between political and economic refugees, parsing the motives for migration. To complicate matters, in wealthy states of the global north this must be done on a case-by-case/individual basis, using the international legal definition of a refugee: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” 

Hence, refugee status for individuals in the global north is de jure, whereas the status of refugees in many states of the global south is de facto, meaning large groups of people are granted refuge even in countries that have not signed or fully ratified the Refugee Convention, often leaving millions in camps and legal limbo where they languish—a waste of lives, labor, and human capital.  

Signatories of the Refugee Convention are not required to admit asylum seekers or refugees, but they must give individuals a hearing and until their status is determined, states cannot legally send these individuals back to the country from which they have fled.  This is the principle of non-refoulement, and it only applies when an individual has fled their country of origin, crossed an international border, and can claim asylum under the terms of the Refugee Convention.  

That said, non-refoulement has become customary international law, which is why some states in the global south that host large refugee populations—like Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, Jordan—admit groups of people, but without determining the refugee status of every individual. In contrast, most countries in the global north apply strict standards for granting asylum with individual adjudication, and they often deport asylum seekers to countries in conflict with highly repressive governments.

Feb 12, 2020: Ethiopian people with zebu cows on the road from Lalibela to Gheralta, Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, Africa. Rudi Ernst/Shutterstock.

Displacement per se—whether because of civil war, poverty, deprivation, desperation to survive and to improve one’s life chances, natural disasters or climate change—does not automatically qualify an individual for asylum and refugee status.  

The Liberal Paradox and Migration Governance

All migration, whether forced or voluntary, comes with trade-offs. Obviously, there are costs for the migrants themselves, who leave behind kith and kin at great risk and expense, plunging into the unknown. For receiving states, there are the short-term fiscal burdens of caring for migrants and the dependents, asylum seekers and refugees, as well as the long-term challenges of social and economic integration. 

In an age of drug cartels, terrorism and a global pandemic, security costs and public health risks abound; these costs must be weighed by host societies. Of course, the sending states risk losing vital human capital (a brain drain), and in a moment of regime change (as in Cuba in the 1960s, Venezuela or Afghanistan today) the entire elite of the country (those with means) may rush for the exits.  

In addition to deciding how many immigrants to admit (and with what skills), determining who qualifies for refugee status, and how to cope with waves of asylum seekers, liberal democratic states must contend with the issue of the rights (legal status) of migrants, refugees, and their families, including legalization, naturalization, and citizenship.

If liberal states trample upon civil and human rights and shirk their humanitarian responsibilities, they risk undermining the social contract.

If liberal states trample upon civil and human rights and shirk their humanitarian responsibilities, they risk undermining the social contract, feeding the fires of nationalism and populism, and destabilizing entire regions. Likewise, if states (liberal or otherwise) lose control of their borders and migration becomes a chaotic rush through a partially open door, this can undermine rule of law and weaken the social contract.

I call this tension a liberal paradox, which pits the need for economic openness and humanitarian largesse against the need for legal closure to safeguard the institutions of sovereignty and citizenship. In a world of nation-states, open borders are a non-starter, and leaders must guard against moral hazard—the danger of inadvertently encouraging migrants to leave their countries and take long journeys at great risk in hopes of gaining asylum, being allowed to stay and to settle.

Rising Numbers Despite Walls and Roadblocks

Wars, instability, poverty and desperation—driven increasingly by climate change and natural disasters—mean that forced migration and displacement touch every corner of the globe from the Middle East and Africa to South Asia and the Americas. Most forced migrants come from just eight countries—Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea. Each is responsible for the flight of at least half a million people and with the return of the Taliban, Afghanistan is moving rapidly up the charts. 

Wars, instability, poverty and desperation—driven increasingly by climate change and natural disasters—mean that forced migration and displacement touch every corner of the globe.

On the receiving end, Europe (as in the EU), Germany and Sweden in particular, struggled to cope with waves of forced migration. Almost 1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany in 2015 alone with numbers for all EU member states gradually falling back to 416,000 in 2020. Of course, the United States too is an important destination for asylum seekers, as tens of thousands of Central Americans and increasing numbers of Haitians flee violence and poverty, most of them headed north through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. Many of the Central Americans are minors coming in search of family members who migrated to the United States years and sometimes decades earlier. 

The informal settlement of La Loma, in Barranquilla hosts refugees and migrant families from Venezuela and internally displaced families from Colombia. The area is divided into two large communities ICA and Puerto. Around 600 families make up this informal settlement in the city of Barranquilla. June 2021. Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo/UNHCR.

While refugee resettlement in the U.S. went down dramatically during the Trump years, from an average annual intake of 70 to 80 thousand to only 12,000 in FY 2020, the number of migrants granted asylum increased by 24 percent in 2019, and the largest group of asylees in the U.S. are from China, followed closely by Venezuela.

While Europe (EU) and North America face the challenge of managing large numbers of asylum seekers and determining their status on a case-by-case basis, it is important to note that 86 percent of forced migrants have taken refuge in poorer countries in the southern hemisphere where the ability of states to host refugee populations is limited, and the liberal paradox does not always apply. Understanding the dynamics of displacement and forced migration in the "global south" is essential for explaining the dilemmas of migration governance in the "global north."  More scholars have challenged the distinction between global north and south, noting that it is likely that human mobility in general and intra-regional migration in particular are under-estimated for the "global south."

Yet, despite the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States followed by a series of bloody attacks by jihadis in Europe, the great recession of 2007-09 and Europe’s subsequent sovereign debt crisis, liberal democracies remained relatively open to immigration in the first two decades of the 21st century.

The U.S. was admitting on average 1 million immigrants annually until 2019, including tens of thousands of refugees. And in 2019 roughly 2.7 million people emigrated to the EU from non-EU countries.  

The COVID-19 pandemic led to new restrictions on human mobility, a sharp drop in border crossings, and a general decline in immigration. Legal permanent immigration to the U.S. dropped by 30 percent between FY19 and FY20, from 1,031,765 to 707,362. Other forms of immigration in the U.S. had begun falling several years prior to this, largely due to Trump administration policies restricting Muslim immigrants, the entry of foreign students and asylum seekers, as well as slow-walking legal immigration and dramatic cuts in the number of refugees.

Even with restrictions on migration and mobility, global economic inequality and demographic imbalances between the north and south mean that supply-push forces remain strong while demand-pull forces persist. Growing demand for low-skilled workers and competition for the highly skilled, coupled with stable or shrinking workforces, created more economic opportunities for migrant workers, as well as refugees and asylum seekers.

Transnational networks (family and kinship ties) are as dense and efficient as ever, linking sending and receiving societies, easing passage, and lowering transaction costs. Professional smugglers have thrived in this environment with tragic consequences. IOM estimates that 22,673 persons have perished since 2014 while trying to enter the EU to seek asylum, with 5,272 migrants missing in the Americas during the same period.  

Frameworks and Firewalls

The specter of human smuggling and black markets brings the legal environment for displacement and migration into sharper focus. Like any type of transnational activity, migration does not take place in a legal or institutional void. Governments are deeply involved in organizing and regulating it, and it is here where the liberal paradox comes into sharp relief. 

Buses were used to move Haitian migrants past a border fence near the International Bridge where thousands had formed a makeshift camp, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. Eric Gay/AP.

Rights for migrants and refugees are rooted in the legal and constitutional protections guaranteed to all "members" of liberal societies. Thus, establishing a claim to residence on the territory of a liberal state increases an individual migrant’s chances of being able to remain and settle.  Deportation or repatriation typically are difficult. Once extended, (civil and human) rights have a very long half-life. They become institutionalized and hard to roll back.  

It is in this context that four factors drive migration policy making—security, cultural and ideational concerns, economic interests, and rights. National security along with the institutions governing sovereignty and citizenship compete with economics (markets) and rights in a multi-dimensional and multi-level political game.   

In "normal" times, the migration debate focuses on markets (numbers) and rights (status) and the trade-offs required to manage this interplay. How many immigrants should a nation admit and with what skills? Should migrants be temporary guest workers? Should displaced people be granted temporary protection? And should migrants be allowed to settle and get onto a "path to citizenship?" 

Yet as pressing as markets and rights may be, cultural concerns also come strongly into play. Questions about ethnic characteristics, integration, and security are politically more salient today in liberal societies than markets and rights.

Questions about ethnic characteristics, integration, and security are politically more salient today in liberal societies than markets and rights.

In times of war and pandemics, the dynamic of markets and rights gives way to a culture-security-public health dynamic. Finding equilibrium (compromise) in the policy game is more complicated and the liberal paradox more acute. For instance, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (followed by a series of bloody attacks in Europe in the 2000s and 2010s), shifted the focus to migration’s national security dynamic with fear of Islam as a deep cultural subtext.

Not only the wealthy states of the global north face migration policy dilemmas and trade-offs. Some states in the global south have made the transition from nations sending migrants to become transit and/or receiving states. Turkey, Morocco, and Mexico are cases in point. For instance, net migration from Mexico to the U.S. has been negative since 2007, with over two million Mexicans returning "home" in the past decade, and Mexico now must deal with the exodus of Central Americans and Haitians, many of whom will remain and settle in Mexico.

From Low to High Politics

The policymaking game has shifted from the national to the global level. Sovereign states must cooperate with each other and coordinate migration policies, as we can see in the "new" migration strategy of the Biden Administration. This dynamic in international relations is particularly evident in both North America and Europe. The deal struck between the EU and Turkey to stop the influx of asylum seekers in 2015-16 is one example, and now the U.S. and Europe are scrambling to prepare for a new wave of asylum seekers from Afghanistan.    

The four-sided game (depicted in the chart above) is made more complex because migration control has important foreign policy implications. The movement of people affects international relations and security (and vice-versa) in myriad ways. The EU and three successive U.S. administrations (Obama, Trump, and Biden) learned that it is impossible for a state, even one as powerful as the U.S., to manage migration unilaterally. Source: James Hollifield.

The relaxation of internal borders in Europe (the Schengen process) and the refugee policy turmoil of 2015-16 created a crisis of governance in the EU, putting more pressure on member-states to adopt common visa and asylum policies, and leading the European Commission to propose a "new" Migration and Asylum Pact. But the Council and Parliament have been slow to adopt and implement the Pact, and some states in Central and Eastern Europe (the so-called Visegrád Group) resist burden or responsibility sharing that would redistribute asylum seekers within the EU.

In the 1990s, international migration moved from the realm of "low politics" and domestic governance, especially labor market and demographic policies, to the realm of "high politics" and problems affecting relations between states, including war and peace. 

Human displacement—driven by events ranging from civil war in the Balkans to conflicts in the crescent of instability from West Africa through the Middle East to South Asia—moved migration to the top of the foreign policy and geopolitical agenda. Governments recast migration control as a problem of national security. And international organizations, such as UNHCR and IOM, have come under pressure to help states manage forced migration and displacement.

Prospects for Migration, Mobility, and Human Development

The populist and nativist backlash against migration, building over decades in the major receiving countries, together with the COVID-19 pandemic led many states to close their borders in 2020, severely curtailing migration and mobility. If the political and cultural backlash persists and the pandemic leads to further closure of societies and to more nationalism, the international system is likely to descend into greater anarchy, disorder, and war. 

Human and economic development will suffer and global inequalities will rise. Nationalism has surged to the fore, setting the stage for more conflict, as new power blocs emerge, and multilateralism and international cooperation recede. It is too early to say with certainty whether these developments in world politics will lead to the "end of liberalism." 

Clearly, however, the international liberal order is under stress, democracies are turning inward, and erstwhile open, liberal societies are closing. Yet, rising levels of human displacement—associated with conflict, poverty, deprivation, and climate change—require a response from the international community, especially the wealthy states of the global north. To say that my neighbor’s house is on fire, but this is not my (or the community’s) responsibility is a recipe for disaster.  

To say that my neighbor’s house is on fire, but this is not my (or the community’s) responsibility is a recipe for disaster. 

Migration is a fundamental feature of the interdependent world in which we live. Will the increase in migration be a virtuous or a vicious cycle? When properly managed, migration can lead to greater openness, wealth and human development.  

Can powerful states find ways to manage migration for human development, while securing migrant rights and remaining attentive to various forms of human displacement? Perhaps migration management requires a truly global migration regime under the auspices of the United Nations, following the outline of the Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees. Though non-binding, the compacts provide frameworks for improving international cooperation in managing migration and in finding solutions for refugees who will otherwise be confined to protracted displacement and camps.

As a close observer, I am not sanguine about the prospects for building a system of global migration governance. The asymmetry of interests between the north and south remains too great. Politics in the global north have taken a decidedly illiberal turn. For this reason alone, we must make the best of the international legal framework and organizations that currently exist. A global refugee regime exists that should be able to address displacement in and from Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries. The pressing issue for the international community is how to strengthen this regime so that it functions more effectively when there are multiple humanitarian crises with so many people internally displaced and few immediate prospects for durable solutions.  

James F. Hollifield is a Global Fellow and Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. He is also the Ora Nixon Arnold Professor of International Political Economy and the Director of the John G. Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs at SMU.  

The author wishes to acknowledge invaluable feedback from several colleagues, including Philip L. Martin, Susan F. Martin, Khalid Medani, Blair Ruble, and Ann Singleton. This article also benefitted from a fellowship at the Paris Institute for Advanced Study (France), with the financial support of the French State, programme “Investissements d’avenir” managed by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-11-LABX-0027-01 Labex RFIEA+). He is currently (2021-2022) a Fellow at the French Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris.    

Cover art: Feb 12, 2020: Ethiopian people with zebu cows on the road from Lalibela to Gheralta, Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, Africa. Rudi Ernst/Shutterstock.