map showing numbers of migrant arrivals and deaths

Human Migration, Then and Now

Anyone watching the numbers of humans on the move should rightfully be astonished — such massive migrations have not been seen since World War II.  In geography, such migrations are influenced by two kinds of factor: “push” elements, or those that persuade people to leave their point of origin, and “pull” elements, or those that persuade them to head for a specific destination.

Right now, people are fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and even Pakistan.  This is evidence of the failure of political leaders to resolve intractable conflicts, as Lyse Doucet reports:

Now there are growing numbers of Iraqis, the other major international engagement of the decade past. Eritreans flee well-documented repression, Somalis escape a chronic instability that is now a way of life and even Pakistanis are on the move to get out of harm’s way at home.  “Is there a war in Pakistan?” I ask two men who also spill out of a bus packed with Syrians and Afghans when it pulls up to the last muddy crossing in northern Greece on the Macedonian border. “Bombs are exploding around Lahore,” one young man insists, bowing his head to show me what he says is a scar on the back of it.

The top ten origins of people applying for asylum are Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Eritrea, Serbia, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, and Albania.  Pakistan is both source and destination of refugees — according to UNHCR, the top six host countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan with a total of almost 6.6 million people.  The line in some of these cases between refugee and economic migrant can sometimes be thin, and the difference has legal meaning in international law.  As  explains, “migrant” is meant as a neutral term to refer to someone who has crossed an international border.  In this usage, the individual’s motivations for doing so are not considered.  In contrast, the word “refugee” triggers certain legal rights and responsibilities: according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee

is any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

Refugees thus have rights after they’ve been accepted for asylum.  The latest data on asylum applications worldwide can be found at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ website (the Excel spreadsheet for January-July is available here).  In July 2015, the largest number of applications were received by Germany (34,384), Serbia and Kosovo (29,037), Turkey (13,540), and the United States (10,358).  However, not all countries have finished reporting, and the numbers given here may also change.

Migration factors are covered in greater detail in World Geography Chapter 1: World of the Geographer (and especially look at Case Study: Human Geography).  Past human migrations are covered in World History A and World History B.  For more information and resources on migration today, check out the following sites:

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Dr. Annelies Kamran is V.P. for Content and Product Development at WorldView Software, Inc.

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