5 Causes of Forced Migration

April 12, 2018
Photo by Kieran McConville

Forced migration has caused millions of people around the world to be uprooted, including refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants. 20 people are forced to leave their home every minute and the global total of forcibly displaced people currently stands at over 65 million. 10 million of them stateless and 22 million are refugees in a foreign land.*

While we often associate civil conflict with forced migration, these aren’t the only reasons that people around the world leave their homes (often with nothing but the clothes on their back) in order to have a better life. Read on for the details behind 5 of the most common causes of forced migration.

1. Drought

A single drought can mean disaster for communities whose lives and livelihoods rely on regular, successful harvests. In a number of African countries where Concern works, including Somalia, Kenya, Malawi, and Ethiopia, droughts have become increasingly severe, leaving millions of citizens without the ability to grow the food that feeds them and their livestock.

Mountainous dry landscape with farmers carrying fodder

Farmers carry fodder from an aid distribution to their valley in East Gojam, Ethiopia, where there has been virtually no rain for 3 years. Photo: Kieran McConville

Drought also leaves families without access to clean water, often leading to them turning to dirty water as their only alternative for bathing, drinking, and growing crops. For families, this can mean going up to three days without food and resorting to contaminated water which could potentially bring disease — an especially precarious situation for the elderly, children, and pregnant and lactating women.

What people in these regions don’t consume from their own harvests is sold to cover vital costs, and so without any other alternatives, families are often separated by forced migration, with one parent (usually the father) seeking work in a city to cover costs. Other families leave as a unit to begin their life in a new country.

2. Hurricanes and Flooding

A lack of water isn’t the only natural disaster that can force communities to uproot: Countries that are vulnerable to heavy rains or and high winds are also at risk for cases of forced migration. After Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti in 2016, the storm’s lethal winds and rain left 200,000 homes in its wake of destruction. An estimated 1.5 million citizens — or more than 10% of the country — were left in need of humanitarian aid and damages clocked in at $1.9 billion.

(A hurricane is a storm that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and northeastern Pacific Ocean, a typhoon occurs in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, and a cyclone occurs in the south Pacific or Indian Ocean.)

Boat captain sits in wreckage of his boat after a typhoon.

Captain Mario Biñas sits in the wreckage of “Shipfas”, the fishing boat which he and his crew relied upon for their livelihoods. It was extensively damaged during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Photo: Kieran McConville

In addition to losing houses and communities and being at risk for waterborne diseases, areas affected by heavy rains, such as those seen in Somalia last September, can also demolish crops and kill livestock. Almost 60,000 Haitians currently live and work in the United States, many driven from their homes due to the devastating effects of two major hurricanes and one earthquake in recent years.

According to a report published in 2017 by Cornell University, climate change could account for up to 1.4 billion forced migrations by the year 2060. By 2100, they estimate that number would surpass 2 billion.

3. Earthquakes

In 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince as well as the surrounding area, leaving 1.5 million Haitians homeless. No natural disaster had ever affected a capital city in such a way, creating a ripple effect that paralyzed even certain areas well outside the disaster zone.

Five years later, 2015 saw devastating earthquakes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (7.5-magnitude) and two separate earthquakes in Nepal (7.8-magnitude and 7.3-magnitude, respectively).

Young Nepali girl stands in front of ruins of home knocked by earthquake.

Shiwani Sapkota, in front of the remains of her home in Kabhrepalanckok district, Nepal. It was destroyed on April 25th 2015 by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Photo: Kieran McConville

4. Disease

Contagious disease and outbreaks often follow in the wake of issues brought up by drought, flooding, and earthquakes. When crops are threatened and water supplies are either limited or contaminated, the risk for infection increases.

For migrants, even if disease isn’t a contributing factor for forced migration, it may still become a risk during migration. In a 2015 article for the peer-reviewed journal Virulence titled “Climate change-related migration and infectious disease,” Dr. Celia McMichael of the University of Melbourne notes the reciprocal cycle between forced migration and disease, particularly in the wake of natural occurrences as noted above. Populations relocating (both internally and internationally) are at a higher risk for contracting disease because they’re exposed to infection possibilities in new locations either once they’ve resettled or in the midst of travel. They’re also at a high risk for spreading diseases that they may unknowingly bring from their homeland.

Two men in protective outfits carry the body of an Ebola victim.

Members of a Concern Worldwide’s Burial Team remove the body of a 7 year old boy, who died on the night of October 31st, 2014 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo: Kieran McConville

5. War and Conflict

Conflict is the most common factor for forced migration around the world and throughout history. Most recently, the world’s focus has been on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, with over half a million of the country’s Muslim population fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in the wake of violence and ethnic cleansing. Though the Rohingya originally migrated to Myanmar during British rule of Bangladesh and have lived in the country for generations, Myanmar (a majority Buddhist nation) refuses to acknowledge them as citizens, rendering them a stateless people. In 2017, amid the escalation of ongoing tension and violence, the United Nations deemed the plight of the Rohingya the “fastest-growing refugee emergency” in the world.

Moynardhona refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Banglades

Many Rohingya families are seeking refuge from conflict in makeshift settlements in Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar. Photo: Kieran McConville

Ongoing, too, is Syria’s deadly civil war, which to date has left nearly 6.3 million Syrians displaced within the country and over 5 million Syrian citizens seeking safety in neighboring countries including Lebanon and Turkey. The Democratic Republic of Congo has the highest number of displaced people on the continent of Africa, with nearly 6 million people forced from their homes by various conflicts, and South Sudan has been  continuously plagued by war-induced migration during its short existence.

*Statistics courtesy of UNHCR

Displaced people huddle at night by a fire in South Sudan

A family displaced by fighting in Unity State, South Sudan, sit by a fire near their temporary shelter on an island surrounded by swamps. Photo: Kieran McConville

Your Concern helps bring them home

Concern’s work touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of forced migrants around the world, helping them to rebuild their homes in the wake of natural disaster, to adapt to climate change so that their harvests can provide food and income for their families, and to resettle and and regain dignity amid man-made crises.

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