The humanitarian issue of our generation

Across the world today, there are more vulnerable migrants on the move than ever before. For far too many, this is a journey of necessity, not of choice.

A commentary for the Global People Movements programme by Dr Alastair Masser

Published 11 Apr 2019

Across the world today, there are more vulnerable migrants on the move than ever before. For far too many, this is a journey of necessity, not of choice. Some are driven from their homes by conflict or persecution, while others are desperate to escape environmental catastrophe or extreme poverty.

This issue is fast becoming the humanitarian challenge of our generation. The numbers of forcibly displaced people increased by almost three million in 2017, according to the latest data published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of the more than 68 million forcibly displaced people, 40 million are displaced within their own countries, and more than 28 million are refugees or seeking refugee status. Children make up more than half of the world’s refugee population, and conservative estimates suggest that around 174,000 of these are unaccompanied, having been separated from their families and facing unimaginable hardship.

These are staggering statistics. Not only should they command our attention, they should compel us to act. To date, much of the political and public debate has centred on the impact of this phenomenon on Europe’s developed nations, including the UK. But in reality, the vast majority of vulnerable migrants seek—and find—sanctuary within either their country or region of origin. Migration is, in other words, a predominately regional phenomenon.

Four regions lie at the heart of today’s migration crisis: sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia. Between them, these four regions comprise the countries of origin of more than two-thirds of the world’s migrants, over two-thirds of the world’s refugees, and 92% of the world’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Whilst the dynamics of displacement within each region vary, these drivers overlap to create unique regional dynamics. And at there heart, they have one thing in common: insecurity. Below we examine some of the key trends emerging in each of the four regions.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)

Though the continent is home to nine out of ten of the world’s fastest growing emigrant populations, intra-regional flows define migratory movement in sub-Saharan Africa. 70% of migratory movements in West Africa are linked to employment opportunities within the sub-region.

However, the region also hosts sizeable populations of forcibly-displaced migrants. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts around a third of the world’s refugees, with children accounting for almost half of all those on the continent.  Most stay within the region, with countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda among the world’s top ten refugee hosts in 2017.

Sub-Saharan Africa is host to the world’s highest number of IDPs, with 12.9 million people displaced within their own countries. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the number of IDPs doubled in 2017.

Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

Migration in MENA is largely conflict-driven with profound implications for nations bordering conflict zones. The Syrian Civil War alone has produced over 6 million refugees, hosted mostly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Turkey alone hosts 3.9 million refugees, making it the largest refugee-hosting country in world.

MENA is host to the second highest number of IDPs in the world. The region’s 12.6 million IDPs are predominantly from states whose conflict and insecurity also generates a significant number of refugees – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Conflict is a principle driver of displacement with 25% of the MENA’s migrant stock comprised of refugees.

 Asia Pacific

In the Asia-Pacific region, Afghanistan is the second largest producer of refugees in the world and over a million Rohingya have been displaced from Myanmar. We also have major flows of non-refugees who may be driven by necessity. From Bangladesh, India and Pakistan we see flows of migrants to the Gulf, reliant upon low skilled labour and living in harsh conditions.

In Asia, there is a major concern over environmental pressures. The World Bank warns by 2050 that 40 million people in South Asia could be forced to move due to slow onset environmental change. These migrants would become internally displaced initially, within their borders but longer term we would expect to see movement beyond borders.

 Latin America and the Caribbean

In Latin America, is the region where migration is not exclusively intra-regional. Mexico to the United States is one of the largest extra regional migration corridors in the world with migrants moving north towards the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants are increasingly staying in Mexico, with the country acting as a channel of migration to the US, a transit route for Central American migrants and finally also a destination country.

The one intra-regional situation that is gathering the most attention is Venezuela where the latest estimates are that 3.6 million people have left the country, owing to deep insecurity. These migrants have largely stayed within the region, though there has been movement to Spain and the United States. The majority however have sought safety across the border in Columbia.


The international migrant stock has increased significantly from 173 million in the year 2000 to 258 million people in 2018. Migration is the result of a complex mix of pressures for which there is no quick solution. The exact motivations that lie behind the extraordinary journeys are varied, but each journey is prompted by a very human desire: to escape a life of acute insecurity, whether human, economic or environmental.

This issue is one that the world can no longer ignore. Resolving it will require us to harness our best instincts: collaboration, imagination, and perhaps above all, compassion. Join us as we stand by those most vulnerable as they seek their own pathways from poverty to prosperity.