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The challenges to migration paint a daunting picture for the future

Citizens can help shape migration by raising awareness, and with targeted programs


Migration has been at the core of people’s adaptation to their environment for millennia. But over the past few decades, as the world has globalized and urbanized, migration flows have greatly increased.

The United Nations estimates that the number of international migrants reached 272 million in 2019, an increase of 51 million since 2010. Internal migration is also at unprecedented levels and expected to continue to grow, typically from rural to urban areas. Today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, this share is expected to increase to 68 percent.

Rotarians understand that to have the most impact, we need to learn from other cultures. As global grant scholars, that’s what we aim to do — during our studies, and afterward.

On the Tracks of the Beast,” November 2017

Migration has traditionally generated substantial benefits for individuals and families, whether they moved within their country or sought other opportunities abroad. In particular, money sent by migrants has been a key source of income for families back home, lifting tens of millions and possibly hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Migration, even when fully voluntary, has not been without risks for migrants and their families. But on balance, it has often been a positive force for migrants, their families, and their communities.

In the future, the situation may well be different. The willingness of receiving areas to welcome migrants has been weakened because of a range of factors, including the perception that migrant flows, especially when substantial, may affect job opportunities for local residents. Whether this is the case is hotly debated in the academic literature and depends on local circumstances. But whatever the actual effects of migrant flows may be, these perceptions have contributed to more governments imposing restrictions on international immigration. There have been concerns about internal migration as well: Without appropriate policies and planning, the ability of cities, especially in low-income countries, to absorb new migrants may be more limited than in the past, with risks for social cohesion.

The dispossessed

At the end of 2019, the top source countries for displaced persons (in millions):

1. Syria: 6.6

2. Venezuela: 3.7

3. Afghanistan: 2.7

4. South Sudan: 2.2

5. Myanmar: 1.1

Source: United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees

Another major challenge is the rise in forced displacement. The latest global report by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2019, 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced. That figure includes 26 million refugees, 45.7 million internally displaced persons (IDP), 4.2 million asylum seekers, and the nearly 4 million Venezuelans displaced abroad. This is a dramatic increase in forced displacement from the estimate of 41.1 million in 2010. Cumulatively, just over the past decade, 100 million people have been newly displaced (some have returned home since). Refugees, IDPs, and “other persons of concern” (to use the terminology of UNHCR) are among the most vulnerable individuals and families in the world. Unfortunately, their numbers are expected to increase further in the future, in part because of the impact of climate change.

The challenges that the world will face related to future migration, and especially forced displacement, will be daunting. This does not mean that they cannot be met. Governments and international development agencies can implement a range of policies to help manage migration flows and support growing cities. Targeted programs for migrants, especially for education, health, and social protection, also have a role to play. But in addition, ordinary citizens and civil society organizations, including Rotary clubs, can make a difference.

Interested in making a difference in your community? That’s what Rotary clubs do. Learn more about the many ways to get involved or find a club near you.

Illustrations by Greg Mably

Rotarians can help in two ways. First, they can develop projects that support migrants, refugees, and IDPs. At the 2019 Rotary Day at the United Nations in New York, five Rotarians and a Rotary Peace Fellow were recognized for their work in this area. In Germany, Bernd Fischer aided the integration of Syrian refugee women by providing child care, job training and placement, and mentoring in their own language. In Bangladesh, Hasina Rahman supported Rohingya refugees through an outpatient therapeutic center. In Indonesia, Ace Robin led community efforts to respond to earthquakes through emergency support, temporary housing, and other services. In Turkey, Ilge Karancak-Splane helped Syrian refugees living in camps, initially providing shoes and socks, and later assisting with health and education. In Lebanon, Lucienne Heyworth works with refugees to provide education in emergencies. In Brazil, Vanderlei Lima Santana welcomed and cared for Venezuelan refugees. These individuals demonstrate how Rotarians and clubs can make a real difference on the ground.

A second role that Rotarians and their clubs can play is perhaps less salient, but no less important: It relates to raising awareness and serving as advocates. In many cases, the willingness of individuals and communities to welcome new migrants is challenged by common perceptions that an influx of migrants may have negative effects. In reality, the academic literature suggests that migrants often have positive effects on their new communities. Even when there are risks of negative effects, these can be managed. Rotarians and their clubs can educate themselves and others on these issues through simple means such as sharing a meal or a conversation with refugees, organizing a movie night to watch a great documentary, or providing a voice to refugees by enabling them to speak about their experiences at local Rotary club meetings and other venues. By learning from the refugees who live in our midst, we can help change minds and hearts — including our own.

The president of the Rotary Club of Washington Global, D.C., Quentin Wodon is a lead economist at the World Bank. He is spearheading the creation of a Rotary Action Group devoted to refugees, forced displacement, and migration.

Read more perspectives about where Rotary may be headed — and what to expect when we get there.

• This story originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.