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Could population flows lead to conflict?

Posted By Kevin Jae, Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the role of migration in causing conflicts through his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Migration and conflict seem to be intrinsically connected. Intra- and inter-state conflicts around the world have devastated livelihoods and led to displaced peoples both inside and outside of home country borders. One can think of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and recently, Syria, as examples.


The converse appears to be the case as well. The recent movement of migrants into the borders of the West have shifted domestic politics. In the United States, President Trump has vowed to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out. In the European Union, there has been a similar political realignment. In the absence of an appropriate European response, nationalist responses have threatened to unravel the fragile political tapestry that is the European Union. Europe ended up paying Turkey to host migrants—the solution was figuratively displaced.


The vicious cycle of conflict, forced migration, and further conflict threatens to spiral out of control, particularly due to the unresolved threat of climate change, which may worsen food stability and literally render some areas of the world uninhabitable. According to a commonly cited figure, there will be over 200 million forced displacements related to climate change by 2050. The current figure is at 80 million forced displacements (both internal and external) today.


A brief sketch of 2050 may frighten the reader into believing in an apocalyptic image of the future, in which over-migration will lead to resource scarcity, societal disorder, and violent conflict. However, one can temper this image of 2050, where migrants storm the gilded gates of the West.


Despite popular conceptions, the share of migrants as a percentage of the global population has hardly changed since 1960. It has remained at 3% of the global population, from 93 million out of a population of 3 billion in 1960 to 244 million out of a population of 7.3 billion in 2015. However, the flow of migration has changed. The European continent has changed from being a source of migration (due to colonization and push factors) to become a destination for migrants. It attracts 1.5 to 2.5 million migrants per year today, which equates to 0.3% to 0.5% of the entire European Union population.


Forced displacements have occupied a powerful image in the public imagination. However, Europe and the West is not the final destination of all of the nearly 80 million displaced people in the world. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2019, 45.7 million were displaced internally, and 26 million were considered refugees (being displaced externally). Of the 26 million people, 73% were hosted in neighbouring countries, and 85% were hosted in developing countries. While climate change threatens to create forced displacements, the majority of those displaced will be displaced internally and most of them will be displaced into neighbouring countries.


Finally, additional context about the present discourse around migration and conflict needs to be discussed. While migrants may create some legitimate cultural and structural tensions, it is also important to explore the economic context underlying the recent shift in public discourse about migrants. Research suggests that the inhabitants of regions hit by economic insecurity, due to the 2008 financial crisis and the outsourcing of supply chains, are more likely to be anti-migration. Insecure livelihoods and scarcity revive the well-worn trope of the lazy, but job-stealing migrant, who simultaneously takes jobs from locals but also undermines the welfare state. The migrant has perhaps returned to the position of the scapegoat. These economic conditions contribute to the perception of the conflict-bringing migrant in political discourse.


Migratory movements in the future may lead to conflict; however, we can also imagine and create a future in which migration and conflict are not inevitable. One must escape the confines of the present economic and political context to think more rationally about migration and potential conflict in the future.


© Kevin Jae

Tags:  conflict  migration  population 

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