The plight of immigrant families in the United States facing threat of deportation has provoked a massive compassionate response, with cities, churches, and colleges offering sanctuary and legal assistance to those under threat. It is an inspiring expression of our human response to others in need that evokes hope for the human future. At the same time, we need to take a deeper look at the source of the growing refugee crisis.
There is nothing new or exceptional about human migration. The earliest humans ventured out from Africa to populate the Earth. Jews migrated out of Egypt to escape oppression. The Irish migrated to the United States to escape the potato famine. Migrants in our time range from university graduates looking for career advancement in wealthy global corporations to those fleeing for their lives from armed conflicts in the Middle East or drug wars in Mexico and Central America. It is a complex and confusing picture.
There is one piece that stands out: A growing number of desperate people are fleeing violence and starvation.
I recall an apocryphal story of a man standing beside a river. Suddenly he notices a baby struggling in the downstream current. He immediately jumps into the river to rescue it. No sooner has he deposited the baby on the shore, than he sees another. The babies come faster and faster. He is so busy rescuing them that he fails to look upstream to see who is throwing them in.
According to a 2015 UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report, 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution in 2015, the most since the aftermath of World War II. It is the highest percentage of the total world population since UNHCR began collecting data on displaced persons in 1951.
Of those currently displaced outside their countries of origin, Syrians make up the largest number, at 4.9 million. According to observers, this results from a combination of war funded by foreign governments and drought brought on by human-induced climate change. The relative importance of conflict and drought is unknown, because there is no official international category for environmental refugees.
Without a category for environmental refugees, we have no official estimate of their numbers, but leading scientists tell us the numbers are large and expected to grow rapidly in coming years. Senior military officers warn that food and water scarcity and extreme weather are accelerating instability in the Middle East and Africa and “could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.” Major General Munir Muniruzzaman, former military advisor to the president of Bangladesh and now chair of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change, notes that a one-meter sea level rise would flood 20 percent of his country and displace more than 30 million people.
Already, the warming of coastal waters due to accelerating climate change is driving a massive die-off of the world’s coral reefs, a major source of the world’s food supply. The World Wildlife Federation estimates the die-off threatens the livelihoods of a billion people who depend on fish for food and income. These same reefs protect coastal areas from storms and flooding. Their loss will add to the devastation of sea level rise.
All of these trends point to the tragic reality that the world community will be facing an ever-increasing stream of refugees that we must look upstream to resolve.
This all relates back to another ominous statistic. As a species, humans consume at a rate of 1.6 Earths. Yet we have only one Earth. As we poison our water supplies and render our lands infertile, ever larger areas of Earth’s surface become uninhabitable. And as people compete for the remaining resources, the social fabric disintegrates, and people turn against one another in violence.
The basic rules of nature present us with an epic species choice. We can learn to heal our Earth and shift the structures of society to assure that Earth remains healthy and everyone has access to a decent livelihood. Or we can watch the intensifying competition for Earth’s shrinking habitable spaces play out in a paroxysm of violence and suffering.