Here to stay? Population displacement in historical context

by Jussi Hanhimaki | Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 18:21 GMT

A migrant is rescued by an Italian Navy helicopter in the area where his boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea in this 2015 archive handout courtesy of the Italian Navy. REUTERS/Italian Navy/Handout via Reuters

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Refugees are also an ageless phenomenon. There is nothing new about people fleeing for their lives

At the end of 2016 there were, according to the UNHCR, over 67 million "forcibly displaced" people in the world. Of these one third (or 22.5 million) were legally recognized as refugees. The rest were stateless people, asylum seekers, and, at an estimated 40 million the largest sub-group of all, internally displaced people. In 2016 there were 20 new displacements for every minute of the year; or one every three seconds. Worse, over half of those displaced in 2016 (and one-third of the total refugee population) were under 18.

Refugees are a truly global and heavily politicized phenomenon; Europe's handling of the Syrian refugee crisis being but the most obvious case. Even in countries where refugee populations are, relatively speaking, tiny -- as in most of Europe and the United States -- refugees almost automatically enter the minefield of political debates. Fact and fiction, often happily coexisting, produce ill-informed rhetoric aimed at maximum immediate political benefit. Scare-mongering and the linking of refugees with terrorism -- as well as careless equations of migrants and refugees -- are but some examples of this kind of instrumentalization of vulnerable populations. In other words: just throw in a mention of 'radical islam' and you have managed to politicize (or securitize) a large group of people fleeing for their lives. The current US president may be the best-known practitioner of such 'branding.' But he is hardly the only one.

It is important to remember, though, that refugees are also an ageless phenomenon. There is nothing new about people fleeing for their lives. Wars and persecution -- based on religious, political or ethnic grounds -- were hardly inventions of the 20th century. For millennia people have been forced to leave their homes in search of safety. Some were successful: think of the Puritans who settled in what became quaintly known as New England. Others eventually encountered more discrimination almost wherever they went: think of the Jews fleeing any number of places over the past couple of millennia. In some cases, the refugee story became a rallying point or a foundation myth of sorts: the idea of a 'promised land' is hardly unique to the Old Testament. Its counterpart -- the fear of an alien group arriving in large numbers to take over what is rightfully yours -- equally resonates across time and space. The Puritans, for example, were not invited by the natives to build their city upon a hill in present day Massachusetts.

There is, though, something new about the way we have become accustomed to thinking about displaced people over the past century or so. To be sure, prejudice and fear still tend to be the most widely shared reactions among native populations when faced with the arrival of large -- or even relatively small but heavily mediatized -- groups of 'aliens'. In the 21st century incidents of terrorism (while rarely perpetrated by refugees) feed such, in many cases irrational, gut reactions vis-à-vis the proverbial 'others'. But perhaps more importantly, we have seen the emergence of large-scale efforts to address what is euphemistically called the 'refugee problem'.

Whether it's international institutions (like the UNHCR), national governments, supranational bodies or voluntary organizations, there is a broad agreement of the need to help the world's growing refugee population. The large-scale displacement caused by the two world wars -- especially World War Two -- produced this kind of 'global humanitarian compact' with its own legal norms. The major institutions, such as the UNHCR, were originally limited in scope and duration. Over time they became global and, so it sadly seems, permanent. Globalization has made the refugee question ever more visible, symbolized by the designation, in December 2000, of June 20th as World Refugee Day.

This is, undoubtedly, a positive development. The idea that there is an international community -- ill-defined though that term is -- that shares a responsibility towards displaced persons is without a doubt a cause for celebration (as well as the occasional Nobel Peace Prize). It does strengthen one's belief in humanity to know that there are people and institutions ready to help those in desperate need and to stand up, quite often, to the political pressures of the moment.

There is, though, a dark side to the (admittedly imperfect) global compact to assist refugees. To have permanent institutions with highly motivated and professional staff devoted to helping refugees is also an implicit admission that we always will have large-scale forced population displacements. Or to put it another way: the UNHCR has become a permanent institution because finding preventative solutions to the causes of refugee situations has, apparently, been deemed hopeless.

In short, the emergence, over the past century or so, of international institutions that engage in global humanitarian efforts to alleviate the ''refugee problem' is an important historical evolution. It deserves to be commemorated. But, judging from today’s figures, a lot remains to be done to address the underlying causes of displacement. 

Jussi Hanhimäki is professor of international history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He specializes in the history of the Cold War, American foreign policy, transatlantic relations, international organizations and refugees.