Forced migration: 6 Causes and examples

June 28, 2019
Written by Olivia Giovetti
Photo by Kieran McConville

Forced migration (also known as forced displacement) has caused millions of people around the world to be uprooted, including refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants. 1 person is uprooted every 2 seconds, and the global total of forcibly displaced people currently stands at over 68.5 million.

There are technical differences between refugees, migrants, and internally-displaced persons. By definition, all fall under the category of forced migration (and of course all of them are people!) Forced migration refers to the movements that refugees, migrants, and IDPs make. These can be either within their country or between countries after being displaced from their homeland. 

As of 2020, 1 person is uprooted every 2 seconds (often with nothing but the clothes on their backs). Currently, the global total of forcibly-displaced people is over 68.5 million. There are a number of different factors that lead hundreds of millions of people around the world to leave their homes. All of these factors, however, lead to one common goal: To have a better, safer, life. 

Read on for 6 of the most common causes — and examples — of forced migration.

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1. Drought

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

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 for days without food. They may also resort to using contaminated water.

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

Your Concern in Action

While drought can cause a family to leave for an area that’s more tillable, that’s not the only solution. In countries like Ethiopia, Concern works to build climate resilience. We’ve helped farmers switch from crops like barley, which aren’t drought-resistant, to harvesting potatoes. These survive on less water, and have led families like Ali Assen’s to dramatically improve their lives, moving from a one-room hut to a two-story home with livestock. “We were eating two meals a day for six months and going hungry for the other half of the year,” he told Concern in 2016. “Now we have three meals a day, every day of the year.”

2. Hunger

Hunger’s connection to drought and other causes on this list is significant: What people in farming regions don’t consume from their own harvests is sold make a living. War and conflict can also mean a lack of access to markets and fields, or that crops and food supplie are destroyed or stolen. Other causes of hunger around the world add up to the same result: Without any other alternatives, families affected by food shortages 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.

Your Concern in Action

In Niger, where farmers like Salifou Ahment would struggle to feed their livestock during the dry season, Concern established an animal feed bank. Salifou and other farmers in his village now have access to food year-round, at a fair and affordable price. This service is available a short walk from Salifou’s home, and means he and his family can remain at home.

3. Flooding

In Malawi, one of Concern’s focuses has been on resilience. But sometimes nature is just too strong, as we saw in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Idai earlier this year. During Concern’s assessments of the areas devastated by rains and heavy flooding in one village, our team only saw a few people who had ventured back to check on what was left of their homes. They didn’t want to their families back with them, in case the floods returned. 

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. 

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

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

4. Earthquakes

Almost 60,000 Haitians currently live and work in the United States. Many were driven from their homes due to the devastating effects of two major hurricanes and one earthquake in recent years. In 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit the capital city of Port-au-Prince, leaving 1.5 million Haitians homeless. No natural disaster had ever affected a capital city in such a way. The earthquake created a ripple effect that even paralyzed areas well outside the disaster zone.

In 2015, a devastating series of earthquakes hit Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (7.5-magnitude) and Nepal (7.8-magnitude and 7.3-magnitude, respectively). These drove hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes. 

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

Your Concern in Action

With Our Return to Neighborhoods program in Port-au-Prince, we relocated more than 5,000 people from post-earthquake camps to safe, secure housing following. The program offers housing options, including repairs and rental subsidies. This enabled people to move back into their homes or into new ones. For internal relocation, we provided education vouchers so that children can go to school near their new homes. We also offered training and cash transfers so that people can set up small businesses. 

5. War & conflict

The most common factor for forced migration around the world is conflict. Most recently, the world’s focus has been on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, with nearly 75% of the country’s Muslim population fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in the wake of violence and ethnic cleansing. 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.

Forced migration has been a norm in the Middle East for most of the 21st Century, according to Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. Syria’s deadly civil war has caused over 11 million instances of forced migration. To-date nearly 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced, and over 5.6 million Syrians are counted as refugees. 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. South Sudan has been continuously plagued by war-induced migration during its short existence.

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

Your Concern in Action

Concern has been working in Bangladesh since 1972. In 2017, we swiftly ramped up our response to meet the needs of Rohingya refugees. We set up eight emergency nutrition centers in camps. Our teams screened hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 5 (who are most vulnerable to acute malnutrition). Nearly 40,000 have been treated to date.  

We also help to address PTSD and other emotional issues refugees may face due to war.  With Syrian refugees, we’ve seen success with community-developed “men’s committees,” which meet weekly over three months to consider how to apply methods of non-violent conflict resolution developed by Marshall Rosenberg, focusing on self-empathy, empathy for others, and honest self-expression. This helps to mitigate some of the unintended consequences of forced migration, including gender-based violence.

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

6. Economic circumstances

One of the biggest factors for migration are the economic challenges that may affect individuals in their countries of origin. The UN’s 2018 World Migration Report notes that this is a major driver in West Africa, where temporary and permanent migrant workers commonly relocate from countries like Niger and Mali to Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire for more opportunities to work and support their families. Niger, for example, has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world (by 2050 it is expected to triple compared to 2017 figures). However, the country is unable to keep up with the demand for jobs as more and more Nigeriens become old enough to enter the workforce.

Your Concern in Action

We’re committed to providing livelihoods activities in vulnerable communities. In 2013, for example, Concern started a project teaching Nigerien women how to extract oil from peanuts — a new crop to the area, to sell at market. 

“Before the project started, we didn’t have any way to earn a living beyond making some millet or bean cakes,” says Hadijatou Cheihou. “But that wasn’t very profitable.” Now, people travel as far as 30 miles to buy the oil. The profits from this venture have gone back into the community. 

We’ve also been working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon to build their skill-sets around dairy production, embroidery, and other trades that they can use in their host communities — and back home if they choose to return.

Your concern helps bring them home

Public support enables Concern to assist millions of forced migrants around the world. We work with them to rebuild their homes in the wake of natural disasters. We work with them to adapt to climate change and other severe weather patterns. We help them resettle and regain dignity during man-made crises. We help to either find a new home, or work to prepare for a time when they can go back to their own.  

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Causes of Forced Migration