An IOM staff member shares important and relevant information for migrants at a transit site in Bangui, Central African Republic. What lies at the crux of humankind’s current migration “crisis”?
Human migration is as old as human history. In fact, in some places on our planet there are migrant routes that have been in continuous use for over 4,000 years.
A research team of ours, from the International Organization for Migration, last month had the chance to meet some present-day migrants on one such pathway in Djibouti, a small nation dangling from the Horn of Africa. Through its mountain passes and deserts, pass even poorer people — Ethiopians, mainly, but also Somalis, Kenyans and Sudanese — trekking towards what one might envision as a kind of jobs oasis: the shimmering, booming petroleum exporting countries of the Persian Gulf.
As in ancient times, humankind literally walks out of Africa, undertaking journeys that can take weeks or even months towards places where a family can earn enough from menial work to feed itself and plot a path to a better future.
Imagine ancient tribes fleeing famine and finding sustenance building the great cities of Babylon or Egypt’s pyramids. Imagine that, and imagine that today’s wanderers are no different from what all of our common ancestors were, and forever will be.
Except today we live, at least compared with ancient times, in a highly regulated society with rules and laws that sort today’s migrants into categories like “documented” or “undocumented,” “with permits” and without, or “irregular,” as opposed to “legal.”
As all the world’s migrants know — these labels obscure a simple truth. That is: people from rich countries — the European Union member states, say, or Japan, or most of North America — are able to travel legally almost everywhere. Those from the rest of the world are able to go, legally, almost nowhere.
And therein lies the crux of humankind’s current migration “crisis.” A process that is as old, and as inevitable, as a person’s choice to dream of a better future, is contradicted by a patchwork of rules and regulations designed to reverse such a process, which is impossible.
This might be merely ironic if it weren’t also so tragic.
Consider Dawit Deresseh, an Ethiopian migrant our team encountered at a crossroads called Lac Assal in northern Djibouti. Deresseh, 30 and landless, had already crossed Djibouti twice in the last 12 months. He made one trip last year, seeking a boat that could take him to Yemen and then to a construction job in Saudi Arabia; this year he tried again, after he had spent nine months in a hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen, after losing half his left arm in an accident. He said he was riding in a smuggler’s vehicle, carrying 27 pilgrims, which struck a landmine near the Saudi border.
“All 27 came from Ethiopia,” he told our IOM team. All the others were killed, he said.