Looking through the migration lens

by Brian Dyck

About a year ago, I was finding fine print on packaging was becoming impossible to read, so I went to an ophthalmologist to have my eyes checked. He said he could prescribe glasses, but since I have never had glasses and don’t need them that often, it might be better to start with a cheap, non-prescription pair.

Anyone who has gotten new glasses knows what an epiphany that can be. I quickly found that my grocery store glasses not only helped me read fine print, they even made things I could see just fine look clearer. I began looking at all sorts of things with them on and discovered where they could help me and where they could not.

At Mennonite Central Committee we are talking about getting some new glasses. We want to start using a “migration lens” to look at what we do around the world and how we communicate about what we do.

Tukul housing in Terkidi refugee camp in Ethiopia. (MCC Photo/Peter Woolner, 2015)

There are many aspects of MCC’s work that directly relate to migration and forced displacement which we can see without using a migration lens. For example, in Ethiopia, we provide material resources for people in refugee camps. In Lebanon, we support education for children who have fled their homes. In Chad, we support people who are returning to their home country, and of course, we work with refugee resettlement here in Canada.

However, there are many situations that have an indirect connection to migration and when we look at those situations from a migration lens, we can see things we may have missed before.

Looking at things with a migration lens helps us realize that there is rarely a single factor that leads someone to migrate. There is usually a complex mix of “push factors” and “pull factors” that lead to migration. Violence, persecution, economic instability, and environmental factors in a person’s home community are some of the things that can push people to consider leaving their homes. Opportunities for work, education, healthcare, and family may be some of the factors that pull people to move to a new place.

In places like Canada, people sometimes only focus on the things that pull people to migrate to our country. While understanding the factors that pull people to migrate to Canada are important to recognize and understand, it is very important to consider the things that are pushing people to leave their homes to get the full picture.

Sometimes the push factors are not significant. I would say that all the moves I have made as an adult have been primarily for work or education and in each situation, there was not a significant force that was pushing me to leave. However, sometimes factors like war and persecution in one’s home country are the overwhelming forces that lead people to move. We call these situations “forced migration.”

MCC Ethiopia staff and members of the Shakota settlement in Afar region, Ethiopia, stand in 100-degree heat next to a traditional Afari steam collection structure. (MCC photo/Rose Shenk, 2017)

One of the more complex push factors that we are starting to pay more attention to is “climate migration.” Climatic factors have had an impact on migration for much of human history. Alex de Sherbinin of the Migration Policy Institute writes, “Climate variability hastened migration following the decline of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and drought was at work during the downfall of the Mayan Empire (660 to 1000 AD) …. In the last century, the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s drove many to migrate, respectively, to California and to regional urban centers in countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.”

Sometimes there are cataclysmic events such as major flooding or hurricanes that can create a lot of damage in a short period of time. When people flee these types of climate events, they generally return to rebuild.  However, if these rapid-onset climate events become more frequent, they can lead people to consider not returning to the home that once felt like a place that could sustain them.

What is more difficult to track are slow-onset disasters like droughts and other factors that lead to food insecurity. Because these events unfold over years, it is difficult to point to them directly as a factor that pushes migration. What does happen is that scarcity of resources can often exacerbate other conflicts and divisions in a region. For example, some research suggests that a drought from 2007 to 2010 in Syria led to conflict that has now created more displacement than just about anywhere else in the world.

Syrian refugees and Lebanese children from the Nabaa Bourj Hammoud suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, participate in a numeracy and literacy class that is part of an after-school education program run by MCC partner House of Light and Hope. (Photo courtesy of House of Light and Hope, 2019)

The connection between the lack of resources because of the drought and the unrest that led to a brutal crackdown is subtle and can be missed until we start digging into what is behind the push factors. Even then, it is difficult to say how many people are “climate migrants” because the push to move can be slight, but also relentless.  

When we start looking at situations with a migration lens, it can bring into focus the push factors in a certain context and how they can add up to an unstable situation where people are forced to migrate.

In Canada, responding to the root causes of migration includes refugee resettlement, but it also includes advocacy. For example, MCC is advocating for companies to be held accountable for resource extraction that can lead to displacement or encourage the Canadian government to protect human rights, regardless of citizenship or legal status, and provide support for grassroots peacebuilding and advocacy.

Our goal is not to stop migration. Migration is important for many reasons and beneficial for receiving countries. In fact, it is economically imperative for countries like Canada where many people are ageing out of the work force. Instead, our goal is ensuring that immigration is a choice and not an imperative for people fleeing violence, environmental degradation or cycles of natural disasters.

Looking at situations with a migration lens can help us do at least two important things. It can help us understand why people migrate to Canada and help welcome them better. More importantly, understanding both the dramatic and subtle push factors of forced migration can inform how we support people who are challenged by factors like climate change to prevent forced migration where possible.

It will likely take some time to adjust to our new glasses, however, I am sure that they will continue helping us see important things that we may have missed.

Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.

Learn more and get involved: Visit our website here> to learn more about MCC’s work and take action today by writing a letter here> to ask the Canadian government that all government decisions and agreements, whether around aid, trade, or asylum seekers on our own border, uphold the dignity of people on the move.

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