Catastrophic Migrations

Excerpts from the Introduction of "Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis," edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco

In the first two decades of this century, millions of people have been forced to escape from their homes into the unknown. Humanitarianism and Mass Migration examines the uncharted contours of this mass migration. The volume’s interdisciplinary and compara­tive approach showcases new research that reveals how current structures of health, mental health, and education are anachronistic and out of touch with the new cartographies of mass migrations. Envisioning a hopeful and realistic future, this book provides clear and concrete recommendations for what must be done to mine the inherent agency, cultural resources, resilience, and capacity for self-healing that will help forcefully displaced populations.

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is the Wasserman Dean and Distinguished Professor of Education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. His previ­ous edited volumes include Latinos: Remaking America; Writing Immigration: Scholars and Journalists in Dialogue; Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education; and Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millennium. This vol­ume contains contributions from Jacqueline Bhabha, Richard Mollica, Irina Bokova, Pedro Noguera, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, James A. Banks, Mary Waters, and many others.

Since the dawn of the new millennium, the world has been witnessing a rapid rise in the numbers of migrants in a wide array of categories—voluntary and involuntary, internal and international, authorized and unau­thorized, and environmental—as well as victims of human trafficking. All continents are involved in the massive movement of people as areas of im­migration, emigration, transit, and return—and often as all four at once. Yet migration is as old as mankind.

Migrations elude simple mechanistic models of causality because they unfold in complex ecologies involving demographic factors, economic vari­ables, political processes, cultural models, social practices, historical rela­tionships, the environment itself, and multiple combinations thereof.

In the twenty-first century, mass migration is the human face of globalization—the sounds, colors, and aromas of a miniaturized, interconnected, and ever-fragile world. Today “migration is a shared condition of all humanity.”

While there are as many motivations and pathways for migration as there are migrant families, large-scale migration is not random. It is ignited and then gathers momentum along predictable corridors. At the proximate level, migration is a strategy of the household. Distinct patterns of kinship, household, and social organization carve the pathways for worldwide mi­gratory journeys. The fundamental unit of migration is the family—variously defined and structured by distinct, culturally coded legislative, economic, reproductive, and symbolic forms. At the distal level, immigration is multiply determined by labor markets, wage differentials, demographic imbalances, technological change, and environmental factors. However, up close it is the family that makes migration work. Immigration typically starts with the family, and family bonds sustain it. Immigration profoundly changes families. “Love and work,” Freud’s eternal words on the well-lived life, are useful to think about migration as an adaptation both of and for the family.


Migration is increasingly defined by the slow-motion disintegration of fail­ing states with feeble institutions, war and terror, demographic imbalanc­es, unchecked climate change, and cataclysmic environmental disruptions. Symbiotically, these forces are the drivers of what I will call the catastrophic migrations of the twenty-first century.

Catastrophic migrations are placing millions of human beings at grave risk. In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the world witnessed the largest number of forcibly displaced human beings in history: while precise numbers are both elusive and changing, UN data report that more than sixty-eight million people—the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in Lagos, São Paulo, Seoul, London, Lima, New York, and Guadalajara—are escaping home into the unknown (UNHCR 2019). 

The majority of those seeking shelter are internally displaced persons (IDPs), not formal refugees across international bor­ders. In addition, approximately nine in ten international asylum seekers remain in a neighboring country—Asians stay in Asia, Africans in Africa, Americans in the Americas. While migration is a shared condition of humanity, it is increasing­ly catastrophic: “The majority of new displacements in 2016 took place in environments characterized by a high exposure to natural and human-made hazards, high levels of socioeconomic vulnerability, and low coping capacity of both institutions and infrastructure.” By the end of 2016, there were 31.1 mil­lion new internal displacements due to conflict and violence (6.9 million) and di­sasters (24.1 million), “the equivalent of one person forced to flee every second” (IDMC 2017).


War and terror are pushing millions of human beings from home. Millions of people linger in perpetual limbo in camps far away from the wealthy cities of Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia. The world is experiencing what Sánchez Terán (2017) calls the “forced confine­ment crisis” of the twenty-first century. Millions have been internally displaced, millions are awaiting asylum, and mil­lions more are living in the shadow of the law as irregular or unauthorized im­migrants. The United States, the country with the largest number of immigrants in the world, has an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants and approx­imately five million children with at least one undocumented immigrant parent.

In 2017, just three countries—Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—accounted for more than half of all internally displaced per­sons. Likewise, in 2017, more than half of all international refugees under UNHCR mandate originated in four states: Syria (approximately 5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million), South Sudan (1.4 million), and Somalia (900,000). The conflicts in these countries are disparate and in­commensurable in nature. Yet they share a chronic, protracted quality. These con­flicts have endured longer than World War I and World War II combined. In each case, environmental dystopia and extreme weather patterns antecede and accentuate the catastrophic movement of people.

Syria continues to represent “the world’s largest refugee crisis.” While Syrians are escaping interminable war and terror, in its collapse, Syria also em­bodies the noxious synergies among the environment, war and terror, and mass human displacement.

 “War and terror are pushing millions of human beings from home. Millions of people linger in perpetual limbo in camps far away from the wealthy cities of Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia. The world is experiencing what Sánchez Terán (2017) calls the ‘forced confinement crisis’ of the twenty-first century.”

In the Americas, a new migration map is also taking form. First, by 2015, Mexican migration to the United States, the largest flow of international migra­tion in U.S. history, was at its lowest in over a quarter of a century. Second, for the first time in recent history, more Mexicans were returning (voluntarily and involuntarily) to their country than were migrating to the United States. According to data analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center,

“… more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the end of the Great Recession … The same data sourc­es also show the overall flow of Mexican immigrants between the two countries is at its smallest since the 1990s, mostly due to a drop in the number of Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. From 2009 to 2014, one million Mexicans and their families (including U.S.-born chil­dren) left the U.S. for Mexico, according to data from the 2014 Mexican National Survey of Demographic Dynamics. (ENADID 2014).”

As Mexican migration decreases, uncontrolled criminality, terror, climate change, and environmental dystopia put Central Americans at the center of the new map. Indeed, the Americas gave the new immigration map a new con­tour: mass unauthorized immigration, unaccompanied minors, children forcibly separated from their parents at the bor­der, and mass deportations. The sourc­es of the forced movements of people in Central America have disparate and complex histories, finding their distal origins in the Cold War, inequality, and uncontrolled criminality.


“[Children] are a sign of hope, a sign of life, but also a ‘diagnostic’ sign, a mark­er indicating the health of families, so­ciety and the entire world. Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected, the family is healthy, society is more healthy and the world is more human” (Pope Francis 2014). Crying children are the face of the cat­astrophic migrations of the twenty-first century. Worldwide, one in every two hundred children is a refugee, almost twice the number of a decade ago. According to UN data, in 2016 there were twenty-eight million children forc­ibly displaced. Another twenty million children were international migrants. Their total number is now larger than the populations of Canada and Sweden combined. Millions of children are inter­nal migrants. In China alone there were an estimated thirty-five million migrant children in 2010 and a staggering sixty-one million children who were left be­hind in the countryside as their parents migrated to the coastal cities.

Few of the forcibly displaced chil­dren ever make it to high-income coun­tries. The vast majority of children seek­ing refuge will remain internally displaced or will settle in a neighboring country. By 2015, the world had witnessed a record number of unaccompanied or separat­ed children, with 98,400 formal asylum applicants—mainly Afghans, Eritreans, Syrians, and Somalis—lodged in 78 countries.

“This was the highest number on record since UNHCR started collect­ing such data in 2006” (UNHCR 2016).

By the end of 2016, a new record had been set, with at least “300,000 unac­companied and separated children mov­ing across borders … registered in 80 countries in 2015–16—a near fivefold in­crease from 66,000 in 2010–11. The total number of unaccompanied and separat­ed children on the move worldwide is likely much higher.”

In 2014, the United States experi­enced a significant spike in unaccom­panied children fleeing Central America, and between 2015 and 2016, in North America 100,000 unaccompanied and separated children were apprehended at the Mexico–U.S. border.

Thousands of children, the major­ity of them Central American, were in­carcerated with their parents in harsh and punitive U.S. facilities, according to Jacqueline Bhabha (this volume), “simply because they [could not] demonstrate a regular immigration status, despite a broad international consensus oppos­ing detention of children for immigra­tion reasons.” By 2019, 15,000 migrant children were in government detention. That figure is growing by the day as the number of migrant families cross­ing the southern border reached an 11-year high this February. Of the 76,103 migrants apprehended at the border more than 40,000 were families trav­elling together. Children and newborns continue to be taken from their parents even as the Administration claims to have rescinded the order to forcibly separate migrant families. In Mexico, the United States’ de facto immigration buffer zone, detention of child migrants is even more oppressive and pervasive. The number of forcibly displaced children and youth arriving in Europe and the United States is but a small proportion of the global total. These children, Bhabha argues, face a “protection deficit.”

The twenty-first-century map sug­gests new forms of migration that do not fit existing policy frameworks. The archi­tectures in place to protect the forcibly displaced, refugees, and asylum seek­ers are now out of date and out of touch with the current catastrophic kinetics of forced migration. First, most forcibly dis­placed migrants today linger as internal­ly displaced in their own countries or in camps in neighboring states with weak institutions, often in subhuman condi­tions with few protections. Indeed, mil­lions of human beings now are “lost in transit.” Second, protracted conflicts are sending millions fleeing with no expecta­tion of returning. Third, the architectures in place are generally blind to the de­velopmental needs of children—a topic of grave urgency. Even when tempo­rary protection is possible or desirable, children in flight need more than a safe haven. They need a place to grow up. They need the safety of home. Fourth, the architectures are not aligned with the best evidence and current thinking on physical health, mental health, and trauma; legal protections; or education.

Mass migration and demographic change are, under the best of circum­stances, destabilizing and generate disequilibrium. Catastrophic migrations produce multiple additional layers of dis­tress. The forcibly displaced undergo vi­olent separations and carry the wounds of trauma. Millions of human beings are caught in permanent limbo, living in zones of confinement—Stathopoulou’s “no-man zones.” In these zones, “hu­miliation is re-created in the camp en­vironment when individuals are not al­lowed to work, grow food, or make money.” Catastrophic migrations assault the structure and coherence of fami­lies in their legislative, social, and symbolic functions.

The outright rejection of unwanted refugees, asylum seekers, and unautho­rized immigrants compounds the trauma they suffer.

Catastrophic migrations and violent family separations disrupt the essential developmental functions necessary for children to establish basic trust, feel secure, and have a healthy orientation toward the world and the future.

In many receiving countries, too, we have identified zones of confine­ment where de facto and de jure pol­icies are forcing millions of immigrant and refugee families to live in the shad­ow of the law. In the United States, the country with the largest number of immi­grants, millions are separated, millions are deported, millions are incarcerated, and millions more inhabit a subterranean world of illegality.

Catastrophic migrations and violent family separations disrupt the essential developmental functions necessary for children to establish basic trust, feel se­cure (Erickson 1950), and have a healthy orientation toward the world and the fu­ture. Catastrophic migrations tear chil­dren from their families and communi­ties. Furthermore, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are normative fea­tures of forced migrations, especially when they involve human trafficking and the subhuman conditions that prevail in many migrant camps.

Catastrophic migrations remove children and youth from the pro­scribed pathways that enable them to reach and master culturally determined developmental milestones in the biologi­cal, socioemotional, cognitive, and moral realms required to make the transition to adulthood successfully. Catastrophic mi­grations are life-thwarting, harming chil­dren’s physical, psychological, moral, and social well-being by placing them in contexts that are inherently dangerous.

When immigrants and refugees manage to settle in new societies, they bring new kinship systems, cultural sen­sibilities (including racial, linguistic, and religious), and identities to the forefront. These may misalign with (and even con­travene) taken-for-granted cultural sche­mas and social practices in receiving so­cieties. The world over, immigrants and refugees are arousing suspicion, fear, and xenophobia. Immigration is the fron­tier pushing against the limits of cosmo­politan tolerance. Immigration intensifies the general crisis of connection and flight from the pursuit of our inherent humanitarian obligations concerning the welfare of 

others. Reimagining the narrative of belonging, reclaiming the humanitarian call, and recalibrating the institutions of the nation-state are a sine qua non to move beyond the current im­migration malaise the world over. In the long term, we must retrain hearts and minds, especially younger ones, for de­mocracy in the context of demographic change and superdiversity. We need to convert a dread of the unfamiliar “Other” into empathy, solidarity, and a democra­tizing desire for cultural difference. In this book we endeavor to cultivate the hu­manistic ideal to find oneself “in Another” (Ricoeur 1995) in the refugee, in the asy­lum seeker, and in the forcibly displaced.