To move is human

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on October 09, 2020

Seeking a home: Migrants fleeing violence and persecution back home are often considered a security threat in the countries they hope to find shelter   -  REUTERS/LASZLO BALOGH

Migration is a solution rather than a crisis, argues journalist Sonia Shah in her new book

The idea of migration as a “disruptive force” had fuelled the US-based science journalist Sonia Shah’s writings for a long time. Migration, for her, was a “crisis”. That perception changed when she interviewed a senior official of Medecins Sans Frontieres (the international body Doctors Without Borders) in Athens a few years ago. Shah recounts how “he patiently but methodically exposed and shot down every assumption embedded in my neophyte questions”. The discussion prompted Shah to think if migration from a crisis could actually be a solution. Can migration be humane, she wondered.

The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move is an intelligent, intriguing, and thorough historical and scientific account of the movement of “homo migratio” — a term Shah proposes for homo sapiens on the move. Her other imperative bookPandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Coronaviruses and Beyond (2016) was re-released in August.

The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move / Sonia Shah / Bloomsbury / Non-fiction / ₹599


In The Next Great Migration, 50-year-old Shah hikes to hotspots across the world — foothills of the Himalayas, Greek islands and hills of South California — where migrants cross over to other countries. She tries to understand the reasons that spur them to make these journeys. When his friend was killed by the Taliban, Ghulam Haqyar fled Afghanistan, fearing he would be next. He sold his house in a hurry, and much of what he got was used to pay human smugglers to ensure a smooth passage to Germany. At the end of the ordeal, Haqyar is happy to be alive, but is lost and broken, stranded in a military camp near Athens. His daughter often tells him, “Daddy, Afghanistan is better than here!” Another migrant, Jean-Pierre tried to get into the US from Haiti along with his family. At one point in the treacherous journey, the family was forced to drink their urine to stay alive.

There is no central authority to collate data on human migration, notes Shah, though more people live outside their countries of birth today than at any time before. Natural calamities forced 26 million people to move out of their countries every year between 2008 and 2014. Violence and persecution, such as of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, prompted others to move. In 2015, over 15 million people were forced to flee, over a million found their way into Europe, mostly Germany.

And, worryingly, the Next Great Migration has not yet begun. “By 2045 the spread of deserts in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to compel 60 million inhabitants to pick up and leave. By 2100 rising sea levels could add another 180 million to their ranks,” she warns.

A surge in migrations leads to panic; migrants are considered a national security threat, whether they are climate-driven or political refugees. In 2018, European media was filled with stories suggesting a “migrant-driven crime wave”. The German interior ministry reported that the country had experienced 402,000 excess crimes since the arrival of immigrants. Though the claims were later refuted, the damage had already been done. Few cared that the excess crimes cited by the minister mostly involved crossing the border without permission.

Following Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016, government agencies meant to ease the entry of immigrants turned into walls to keep them out. Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks such as migrants are carriers of infectious diseases or that they cost the US billions of dollars added to the panic. The result: Patrick Crusius, 21, drove 650 miles from Dallas to El Paso, Texas, and shot down 22 people to stop the “Hispanic invasion”.

The idea that certain people and species belong in certain fixed places is a deeply embedded Western notion, Shah argues. The seed of the idea of an inferior and contaminated sub-species was sown centuries ago by the celebrated Father of Taxonomy Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who saw nature as unchanging and rigid. Sexual anatomies fascinated Linnaeus and variations in reproductive organs formed the basis of his taxonomic system for plants, animals and humans. African women, according to him, had an extra body part, which he called “sinus pudoris” or the genital flap, one no European possessed. A Dutch businessman brought an African woman from Cape Town and exhibited her across Europe for a fee; those who wanted to poke her had to pay extra! “Centuries of xenophobia and generations of racial violence, rested on this single body part,” Shah observes. Naturalists stretched it further by floating a new field of inquiry — racial science and academics talked about the contamination of the superior race with inferior traits.

However, in the 1980s, the DNA as a source of biological inheritance was discovered. Placentas of a few hundred pregnant migrant women from different continents were studied; it showed they shared “common ancestors as recently as two hundred years ago”.

“While the social panic about out of control population growth diminished, deflated by demographics shifts and political scandal, the movement to make migration as difficult and deadly as possible not only persisted, it grew,” writes Shah.

Migration, she emphasises, is a normal phenomenon, often triggered by hormonal changes. Everyone moves — plants, animals, mountains, glaciers, fossils. While migration of animals is considered natural and non-controversial, human migration becomes a complex process layered with “abstractions” — economics, politics, disease.

Shah was born to doctor parents who migrated to the US from India before her birth. A child of migrants she has lived with that empty feeling of not belonging — here or there. The Next Great Migration is her attempt to pin down the urge that makes people move. As the next migration dawns, the relevant question to ask, she points out, is not why people migrate, but what are we going to do about it.

Lamat R Hasan is a Delhi-based independent writer

Published on October 08, 2020

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