Leaving Home

The issue of "illegal" immigration is a hot number for politicians and the press. But they rarely mention why so many people are pulling up stakes. Last year, over four million new refugees fled their homes. A new paper from Worldwatch, The Hour of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants, details why the world's official refugees now number 23 million. In addition to refugees, the report notes that the world's migrant population--mostly people who leave home to seek jobs abroad--has grown to more than 100 million. Behind these rising numbers, reports author Hal Kane, are rapid population growth, environmental decline, widespread civil war, political persecution, disease, and pollution. Civil war ranks as by far the largest creator of refugees, but behind the warfare stands additional pressures that contribute to fighting, like land scarcity and rigid political systems. And massive public works projects that build dams and road systems oust more than 10 million people annually in the developing world. Traditionally, relief agencies respond to the flow of refugees primarily with emergency rations and tents, while governments attempt to curb immigration with laws and border controls. Although short-term measures are crucial, the need for assistance overwhelms the help available, making the current system of disaster relief seem incredibly ineffective. More importantly, whatever success they do have is only temporary. Kane makes a case for increased spending on "economic insurance policies" to help prevent food and employment shortages by investing in agriculture education and community development. For instance, in Bangladesh, small-scale lending to entrepreneurs and poor families has enabled the poor to earn a living wage, thereby stemming the tide of people leaving home to find work. And in Thailand, a program that builds small factories in rural areas has helped create self-sufficiency. Still, many who are forced to leave will find homes in countries that are able to absorb new refugees and immigrants. "If intolerance towards foreigners can be reduced," Kane concludes, "many countries will continue to benefit from newcomers in myriad ways. The goal should be to improve stability in all regions so that people who want to remain home can do so." Papers are available through WorldWatch at 202-452-1999.

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