For the first time in many years, the increase in the number of international migrants slowed down in 2020. This slight downturn can be explained primarily by the restrictions on movement linked to the Covid-19 pandemic – the flow of migrants has otherwise been steadily growing for decades. In 2020, 281 million people were living in a country in which they had not been born. This figure has increased from 173 million in 2000, and 84 million in 1970.
Then, as now, people leave their home countries to escape poverty, to build what they hope will be a better life. Often, they leave their families behind to find a new future. The main migration corridors that have formed over time still connect developing countries to industrialized ones – the United States, Europe, the Russian Federation, and Saudi Arabia.
Increasingly, people are also leaving their countries to escape conflict and violence. In 2020, refugees and asylum seekers accounted for twelve per cent of the total number of migrants, compared to 9.5 per cent two decades earlier. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of people forced into exile by war, crisis, or persecution doubled from 17 million to 34 million, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). The effects of climate change – including water shortages, land impoverishment, and coastal erosion – are also driving up the numbers of people fleeing their homes.
In response, the UN adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018. Its objective is to improve the situation for migrants internationally, and to encourage co-operation in the field of migration. The agreement also emphasizes that states must provide assistance to migrants travelling on dangerous routes.
The plight of many migrants – especially illegal ones, who are at the mercy of human traffickers – includes exploitation, racketeering, and violence. Some pay for the journey with their lives. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, 1,146 people died at sea while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
For those who make it, the reality in the host country is often far removed from the life they had dreamed of – many migrants face prejudice and even discrimination. In a deteriorating economic context marked by uncertainty, the arrival of new populations is sometimes perceived as a threat, fuelling fears and frustration.
That the reality is more complex and nuanced than it appears is often forgotten. While the number of migrants may seem high, they only represent 3.5 per cent of the world’s population – which is far from the surge that some describe. Besides, the vast majority of migrants move within their own continent. In 2020, nearly half of all international migrants resided in their native region.
The fact that the displacement of populations has always been a part of human history is also overlooked. The oldest known human or pre-human presence outside Africa dates back over 2 million years.
Above all, the fact that there are always human destinies and life stories – sometimes dramatic, often happy – behind the dry statistics is often ignored. And that, out of this mingling of cultures, success stories in the worlds of business, sport, music, and scientific research, have emerged.
In the long term, the contribution of migrants is usually an asset for host societies. This is not something that a non-governmental organization is claiming. The Council of Europe, in a 2017 report, Migration as an opportunity for European development, stated that “migrants bring diversity to European countries, contributing to cultural exchanges and having an important impact on arts, sports, fashion, media and cuisine.”
Reporting on Migrants and Refugees: Handbook for Journalism Educators, UNESCO, 2021
Philosophy versus tribalism, The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2017
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