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Human migration and cultural exchange represent progress, not peril, argues a journalist

The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

Sonia Shah
400 pp.
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It is ironic to be reviewing Sonia Shah’s latest book, a thoughtful and thought-provoking defense of migration, under coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown. One irony is that this is the perfect time to be reading her excellent earlier book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. Another is that migration—at least by people and across borders—has virtually come to a standstill. But this is no reason to shelve The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move. International migration will rebound.

Shah would probably contend that this is because people have never been fixed in place and that their migration is natural. One of the more original aspects of her book is that it depicts human migration in the context of migration by plants, animals, and even viruses. My analysis is more prosaic. I believe that the forces of globalization that drive migration—inequality; disparities in development, democracy, and demography; the global jobs crisis; segmented labor markets—will be exacerbated by COVID-19 and government responses to it.

I also disagree with the book’s premise that, the current global standstill notwithstanding, climate change will trigger a new great migration. Most sensible scholars agree, of course, that the effects of climate change will accelerate migration. But there remains little consensus concerning how many people will be forced to move, where they will move from and to, or how soon this migration will happen. But whatever the numbers, Shah is right to assert that we need to start respecting the rights of migrants and seizing the opportunities of migration.

Some of the book’s most powerful sections reflect on the author’s own migrant heritage: 50 years after her parents’ arrival in the United States, she recounts, their migration remains the central fact of their lives. She also shares the stories of migrants whom she has met around the world in the course of her research. She speaks, for example, with individuals who have fled Afghanistan and Eritrea and taken the precarious journey across mountain ranges, deserts, and the sea to Europe, as well as with Latin American migrants who have made it to the United States without authorization. Shah does not overdramatize or sentimentalize their stories. Instead, the reader is left with an overwhelming sense that people who migrate out of desperation are resigned to experiencing great hardship as a means to improve their lives.

Shah seeks to normalize human migration by situating it within the broader context of other species’ migratory behavior. Humans, she contends, do not belong in a particular place any more than do butterflies, fish, or trees. She demonstrates how migration has been integral to the evolution of humankind, by injecting change and innovation into cultural practices. The mixing of people from different places represents progress, not peril.

Shah methodically dismantles the racial “science” that still underlies certain attitudes toward those who migrate and rejects arguments for controlling migration on the grounds that it could potentially lead to overpopulation, an idea that originated in the work of Thomas Malthus. It is not particularly groundbreaking to take such attitudes and assumptions to task, but Shah does so in an engaging manner, weaving history with geography and storytelling with science.

Still, I think Shah overestimates the importance of such ideas and beliefs in explaining the xenophobia, discrimination, and antimigrant sentiment and policies that abound today, which I believe are more driven by perceptions about the economic impact and security implications of immigration. I do, however, agree with her pessimistic prognosis that unless we shift attitudes, our default response to more migration will be to build more walls and enact more stringent border controls.

Her closing chapter is a grim litany of migrant deaths and the detention of immigrant children.
Countless scholars, analysts, and researchers have produced evidence that migration overwhelmingly benefits economies and societies and that there is a higher rate of criminality and violent extremism among nationals than among migrants, but seemingly to little effect. Perhaps Shah’s more fundamental plea—that migration is normal, that we are all migrants, and that, like nature, migration can be both beautiful and terrifying—will have more traction.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht University, 6211 AX Maastricht, Netherlands.