About 70,000 years ago, a person — genetically identical to us in every way that matters — waded into the narrowest part of what is now the Red Sea between Eritrea and Yemen. He (or she, no one knows) made it safely to the other side. More than 7 billion of us have followed, according to the best available science, leaving a common home in Africa and scurrying across the planet.
We poured into the Middle East, followed the shoreline through Asia, paddled onto Australia. A separate group entered Europe through what is now Turkey. Still another band, traveling through present-day Russia, found a low tide bridge to North America. Future generations walked all the way through South America to modern Cape Horn. By about 15,000 years ago, humankind had encircled the globe.
We are all migrants, or the descendants of migrants, and the story of our movement is the story of humanity. But in recent years, that shared story — never without struggle — has sunk into a swamp of despair and dispossession unlike any previously seen. Nearly 60 million people are on the run for their lives, stateless and scared, fleeing war and persecution, according to the United Nations.
We’ve seen some of this before. World War II produced about 60 million refugees in Europe alone. The fall of Saigon in 1975, the crash of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the war in Kosovo in the 1990s: Each pushed throngs of people out of their homes.
But there’s a speed and asymmetry that’s unique to today’s crisis. There’s also a backlash, a fear of cultural and economic change, exacerbated by the threat of terrorism. As a result, what were once dog whistles of discrimination in many countries are now foghorns.
World War II was a big bang that reduced whole cities to rubble. But it also had specific geography and a clear end-point. The current migrant crisis stems from 15-or-so conflicts that have erupted or reignited in the past five years, blended with the lingering embers of older wars, especially in Latin America.
Most Americans are familiar with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly Syria’s foul and bloody civil war. But what about the Yemeni Civil War? Or the clash between rival governments in Libya? Or the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians forcibly displaced within their own borders?
The United Nations counts eight distinct conflicts in Africa alone. Analysts say it’s all likely to get worse. New conflicts start, even as old conflicts fester, fathering woe for generations.
In a recent Gallup poll, a quarter of Afghans said they wanted to leave. That’s 10 million people. Another recent poll, of Nigerians, found that 40% “would leave if they could.” That’s a potential pool of 37 million people.
And here’s the thing: They can leave when they want to, or at least they can try. Unlike the poor, huddled masses of the 20th century, dependent on steamships and freight trains, today’s mobile populations are technologically mobile as well. With a smart phone, it’s possible to hide from an armed gang and research an exit plan at the same time.
"We are witnessing a paradigm change,” the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in an unusually blunt assessment of his agency’s figures. He’s a 66-year-old Portuguese man, a career politician who has seen a lot in his 10 years as the commissioner in charge of the wandering classes—but never a crisis like the current one.
In the same mid-summer statement, Guterres warned of “an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.” His assessment, in a word: “Terrifying.”
The numbers certainly support the rhetoric.
Sixty million people pushed from their homes? The U.N. calls that “the highest level ever recorded,” an increase of 8 million people over 2013, a leap of more than 30 million people in the past decade. It’s the statistical equivalent of someone clearing out California by machete, then barrel-bombing Texas into a ghost state—only, in this case, half of the displaced are children.
To understand the full burden of the global migrant crisis, it is necessary to understand that the U.N. figures are an intentional and inevitable undercount. The data is from 2014, for one thing, which means it doesn’t yet include the 1.5 million Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others who poured into Europe this year, according to European border police. The data is also limited to people “forced” to leave their homes by threat of physical harm—the legal definition of a “refugee” (if they cross a border) or an “internally displaced person” (if they do not).
That excludes the untold millions who leave life-sapping poverty in one place for a sliver of economic hope in another. They pay the same human smugglers, ride in the same boats, and ply the same trails as those “forced” to go. But they aren’t counted in the figures, because they are not an officially protected class.
The U.N. data also exclude the large-scale displacement of people as a result of natural disasters, especially those linked to the heat and fury of the global climate crisis. They are recognized in the new Paris climate agreement, which calls for an effort “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”
All these people are a test of our conscience.
“You have to understand,” the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote, in a line meant to expose the flimsy distinction between migrant and refugee, “No one puts their children in a boat /Unless the water is safer than the land.”
Jill Goldenziel, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is calling for the creation of a new area of international law, one that humanely resettles both refugees and migrants. It’s based on the idea that most people would never flee their homeland, at least not by anything we’d recognize as choice or free will.
America, for its part, is doing something unusual in response to the current migrant crisis: relatively little.
After World War II, the U.S. absorbed 650,000 displaced Europeans. After the war in Vietnam, it accepted 1.4 million Southeast Asians. After an overhaul to its immigration system in 1980, it welcomed another 3 million refugees from around the world, more than any other country.
But this time is different. America—land of immigrants, beacon for the war-torn and persecuted—has taken in just 1,500 Syrians since the start of the country’s civil war. Germany, by contrast, has accepted more than a million asylum-seekers. The White House has promised to do more, but the country’s welcome mat seems to have vanished, especially if you are Muslim or Latino.
After a radicalized Islamic couple killed 14 people in California on Dec. 2, the leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, called for a temporary but “total and complete shutdown” of America’s borders to Muslims. Trump has also proposed monitoring mosques and registering American Muslims.
Early in his campaign, Trump accused Mexico of sending “rapists,” and people who are “bringing drugs” and “crime” into the U.S. illegally. He has also pledged to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and build a wall along the country’s southern border.
“We have no choice,” Trump has said.
It’s not just the U.S. turning a cold shoulder to migrants. Other than Germany, the European Union has responded to the migrant crisis with a stingy, voluntary, and still un-executed resettlement plan. Trump-like populists are now in power in Poland and Hungary (and, until recently, Australia). They have a seat at the table in Switzerland and Finland, and are rising in the numbers in France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
One young member of Sweden’s Parliament recently had a crisply nativist response to the claim that immigration is good for a nation: “Bulls---,” he said.
Two legislators in the Netherlands faced hate crime charges this year, one for advocating “fewer Moroccans,” the other for comparing Muslim prayer in public to the country’s experience with Nazi occupation.
In a recent op-ed, the prime minister of Hungary argued, “Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe.” He feared that a modest resettlement plan in Europe would undermine the continent’s Christian character.
“We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture,” he continued. “Most are not Christian, but Muslim.”
About the same time, Hungary erected a razor-wire border fence, and passed a law making it a crime to tamper with it.
Just possibly, the politicians don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what it is to be a migrant. They’ve never been a refugee. And they know that the public will pay attention only occasionally, if a child washes up dead on a beach or a huge number of migrants die in some ghastly way, like, say, 71 suffocations in the back of the meat truck. Those spikes of national and international attention are temporary and fleeting.
So the crisis remains. Of the 60 million displaced people counted by the U.N., only 126,000 returned home in 2014, the lowest total in three decades. At this pace, the world will go back to its original order sometime around the year 2400.
In the meantime, Magnum Photos can help. It was founded as a photographer collective in 1947, and since then, its members have captured the great shakes and crashes of history. Conflict is a Magnum specialty and migration is above all a conflict. The U.N. had a pithy subtitle for its latest refugee report: “World at War.”
For this series, some of the best photographers in the world will take a global look at migration, producing what amounts to a chapter in human history. The pairing of shooter and subject works in another way: photographers are themselves often migrants of a kind. They are ramblers and chance takers, tacking from here to there.
Moises Saman, 40, was born in Peru and raised in Spain and the United States. He’ll shoot what has become the central path of the modern migrant crisis — the route from Syria through Turkey to a Greek island, and northward through Serbia, Hungary and Croatia. But Saman shoots in reverse, moving against the tide.
“I am interested in searching for the positive commonalities in human spirit,” he says, “to expose those intimate moments among people that remind us of dignity and hope in the face of conflict.”
Mark Power, 56, is a British photographer and a professor of photography at the University of Brighton. He’ll shoot the architecture of two refugee camps in Jordan, pop-up communities for Syrians displaced by that country’s bloody civil war. He likes to shoot “free from specific events, where there are different expectations, where it is first and foremost about ideas.”
Alex Majoli, 44, is an Italian photographer with frames from the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Kosovo and Albania. He’ll shoot a different sort of migration, less about conflict and more about opportunity. The subject: 278 million Chinese laborers, the secret source of China’s urban economy, returning to their rural homes for the Chinese New Year.
Larry Towell, 62, is a Canadian poet, folk musician and photographer. His business card says, “Human Being.” He’ll shoot Mexico’s other border, the one with Guatemala, where thousands of people a year arrive fleeing the violence and poverty of Central America.
“If there's one theme that connects all my work, I think it's that of land-lessness,” he says, “how land makes people into who they are and what happens to them when they lose it and thus lose their identities.”
Magnum will dispatch additional photographers in the months ahead, including within the United States, a nation colored and re-colored by immigration and an open-road ethos of perpetual motion. By mid-century, as a result of this churn, white people — once about 90% of the American public — will no longer be the primary ingredient in the melting pot, according to federal data.
But a change in color is superficial. For millions of refugees worldwide, the greater concern is a change in class, a shift from the rank of those who have a country to those who do not and may never again. That’s the sad, disgraceful fact about many refugee camps: Two-thirds of the people inside them will never go home.
They languish in a place like Cooper’s Camp in West Bengal, India, home to the oldest “temporary” village of refugees: 7,000 people who fled Pakistan amid the horrors of British India’s partition. That was 1947.
Or they languish in a place like Daadaab, in Kenya, home to the largest “temporary” camp for refugees. Built for around 90,000 people, it now houses more than 350,000. The first tent popped in 1991. Now the U.N. says that 10,000 children have been born in the camp—to children who were themselves born in the camp.
So many migrants and refugees languish in any of thousands of “temporary” camps that the sum total is almost unthinkably huge. If these refugees and displaced people were a nation unto themselves, it would be more populous than Canada and South Korea, roughly on par with Italy and Great Britain.
It would also be poised for growth. Even if the world’s conflicts suddenly simmered, the sun would still shine and that’s a problem. Manmade global warming is expected to quadruple the number of environmental migrants in a matter of decades.
If you are interested in helping a refugee or a migrant, you can start here.
Migration doesn't need to be grim. Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher, once wrote that “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. True enough, but so do all of humanity’s pleasures.