Migration, survival and politics


This book extrapolates from that to human migrations, from the trek out of Africa some 60,000 year ago to the present day
Camille Parmesan’s 1996 paper “Climate and Species’ Range” in Nature catalogued the migration patterns of Edith’s Checkerspot Butterfly, which used to be considered a sedentary species. It showed a startling migration pattern as a response to environmental change. Since then, scientists have documented migrations of over 4,000 species, ranging from polar bears to coral reefs and tamarind trees.

There is a biological imperative to move when the environment turns hostile. This book extrapolates from that to human migrations, from the trek out of Africa some 60,000 year ago to the present day. Migration is occurring on a massive scale in the 21st century, triggered by natural disasters, wars, climate change, and poverty. Further escalation is guaranteed: Climate change and rising sea levels will force hundreds of millions to move.

Dealing with this is a huge challenge. The policy response has been, in a word, horrifying. Governments everywhere attempt to stop migration by various means and tens of thousands have died as a result. Some have drowned crossing the Mediterranean, others have died of thirst in North America’s deserts and the jungles of Panama. Millions more languish in refugee camps. After the advent of Donald Trump, children have also been forcibly separated from their parents and shoved into detention centres.

Many politicians have come to power by campaigning on anti-migrant, exclusionary platforms. They routinely deploy distorted statistics and fake news to induce and amplify already extant racist and anti-migrant sentiments. Draft legislation such as India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens will probably lead to even harsher anti-migrant initiatives in the future.

The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet

Author: Sonia Shah

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Price: Rs 599 

Pages: 388


Sonal Shah puts the socio-political attitudes and the science into historical context in this remarkable book. She cites both data and anecdotes in her treatment of a subject that is politically explosive, yet little understood outside academia.

In the anecdotal sections, Ms Shah profiles some of the immigrants she met: A Haitian who came to the US via Colombia and Panama after the earthquake; an Afghan family that made it to Europe; Syrians in Greece. She also weaves in her own story as the daughter of Indian doctors, who migrated in the 1960s to the US and explains how she has always been treated as an “outsider”, despite being US-born and -bred.

The oxymoron of “race science” started in the 18th century, when pioneering taxonomist Carl Linnaeus classified Ubermensch theories and the Nuremberg Race Laws, and Apartheid (Himmler went so far as to suggest the exclusion of “non-Nazi” plants from gardens). In conjunction with the Malthusian hypothesis of population explosion, “race science” also led to support for policies such as enforced sterilisation.

We now know, thanks to DNA analysis that sapiensā€ˆmigrated out of Africa and mixed with other human populations, subsuming groups such as the Denisovians and Neanderthals. Successive waves of migrations led to the colonisation of the entire world, via incredible journeys such as the voyages in open canoes that populated Pacific archipelagos.

Hard science proves race is a purely social construct. There is more genetic variation between individuals of the same “race” than between “races”. But despite this debunking of eugenics, racism remains a powerful ideological force. No modern nation may dare to go so far as to openly promulgate Nuremberg-style laws. But many nations — including, unfortunately, India — are attempting other legal fictions to pack the unwanted into camps.

Ms Shah unpicks many popular myths about migrants, as she describes how anti-migrant lobbies routinely distort statistics, and disseminate fake news. For example, the US Border Patrol inflates violent incidents to show migrants in a bad light. In one instance, the BP registered a single small scuffle between six BP officers and seven migrants as 126 separate assaults! In another well-known incident, a right-wing US channel declared Stockholm was a “no-go zone” due to violent migrants, by asking irrelevant questions and selectively editing the answers of Swedish police officers.

These subterfuges have obviously worked for Mr Trump and his ilk. Ms Shah cites evidence that such wilful distortions persuade “locals” to believe migrants are violent, and suck up public resources, though the data suggests the exact opposite. Citizens in many countries also believe they host far more migrants than in reality, with survey after survey showing over-estimation of migrant numbers by large factors. In reality, crime has dropped in the US and Germany, even as immigration (legal and illegal) increased. Migrants also contribute much more in the way of tax revenues and other forms of economic value-addition than governments spend on them.

This book also offers a fascinating exposition of the migrations of other species, introducing readers to resources such as Movebank, the animal-tracking website where scientists log over one million data points of movements every day. Climate change and urbanisation have together led to tragic outcomes. An estimated 150 species are going into extinction every day. As sea levels rise and droughts get longer and storms fiercer, we must find better policy responses to save whatever can still be saved.

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