Forced migration

These talks were presented at the National Library on 21 April 2016 as part of a series of talks on issues related to cartography, jointly presented by the National Library and Victoria University of Wellington.

Kate McMillan of the Political Science and International Relations Programme at Victoria University looked at the drivers of forced migration in the 21st century Asia-Pacific.

Simone Gigliotti from the School of History at Victoria University examined different institutional approaches to mapping the displacement of refugees in 1945/46 and 2015/16, focusing on the movements of postwar displaced persons within and from Europe, and those of Syrian refugees to Europe via Mediterranean islands and the Balkans.

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Download the talks by Kate McMillan and Simone Gigliotti (mp3, 72MB)

Mapping forced migration in the contemporary Asia-Pacific

Kate McMillan

First of all, welcome and thank you all for coming along tonight. I look forward to our discussions at the end of my talk. I’d also like to thank the National Library for the invitation to come and speak here this evening, and, in particular, to Keith Thorsen and his team for working with Simone and me to make it all happen.

I am going to shift the geographic focus from Europe, which Simone has been talking about, to the Asia-Pacific, increasingly imagined to be a ‘region’, and to be New Zealand’s region.

We have been invited here tonight to ‘unfold the map’, and to think about what maps and mapping might do for our understanding of forced migration flows. For a geographer or cartographer – and I am neither – this question might invite an answer that highlights the ability of digital geographic information systems to create layered maps capable of showing the multiple drivers of forced migration, and the technologies that use crowdsourcing to map conflicts, disasters and other events, along with the people movements they precipitate, on the ground, as they happen.

For a political scientist like myself, the challenge is to build on the information provided by our cartographic colleagues: to think about how our disciplinary knowledge of political regimes, institutions, processes and values might be used to influence the contours of future migration maps. We can expect technological developments such as open source geographic information systems, combined with drone and satellite technology, to facilitate the creation of maps – by amateurs as well as specialists – that record and even predict migratory movements in ever more exquisite and accurate detail.

What we cannot rely on is that politicians and the publics they govern will respond to this information with public policies designed that respond to the causes and consequences of forced migration ever more constructively. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which quite the opposite is true.

At their most fundamental level maps are designed to place the map viewer in some kind of context – to tell them where they are in relation to places they are not. This is the most common reason for us to unfold a map – to help us understand where we are now, to see where it is we want to go, and to identify the best route for getting there. This three part ‘map logic’ provides the format for my talk.

I am going to begin by showing you a series of maps that help answer the ‘where are we?’ question as it relates forced to migration in the Asia-Pacific region.

Second, I am going to ask where are we going? Here I want us to think about imaginary maps of the future Asia Pacific. If someone were to give this talk in ten, twenty or fifty years’ time, what kind of migration maps will cartographers to be showing us? What kind of maps would we like them to be showing us?

And third, I will ask how are we going to get to where we might like to be? What is likely to be the best route to these imagined cartographies? Is there a route to where we want to go?

But, to start with, some definitions.

I have used the term ‘forced migration’—what is meant by this term?

Here, I am using it to refer to all of those migratory movements that are involuntary, and to include those who are forced to leave their homes because of conflict, persecution, natural or environmental disasters, famine, extreme poverty, or development projects. It also includes those who are deceived into leaving home by traffickers.

The defining characteristic of forced migration is the involuntary nature of the movement. For forced migrants staying at home is not a viable option.

Forced migration can lead to both internal displacement, and cross-border migration. Thus, the category of ‘forced migrants’ includes refugees, asylum seekers (those who claim refugee status but whose claim has not yet been verified), internally displaced people, people who are in a state of labour bondage or servitude within or outside their own country, and people forced to leave home because extreme poverty, environmental degradation or natural disaster means they cannot support themselves or their families at home.

Some may have been smuggled or trafficked across international borders, others may have travelled through legal channels, but find themselves unable to return home, or, find themselves working in conditions akin to servitude.

Forced migrants are usually the most vulnerable of migrants, but they are also those whose migration causes the most controversy in the communities to which or through which they move.

All migration, however, occurs somewhere on a continuum between forced and voluntary. The ‘choice’ to move often has elements of involuntariness about it: most migrants move as a result of push factors, as well as pull factors. Conversely, even forms of migration that clearly have a high degree of coercion to them usually involve a degree of choice. People make decisions about the best place to seek protection and which route to take there.

The line between forced and voluntary migration may be drawn in a different place by different people. Individuals’ and countries’ willingness to help those who move is dependent in part on where they draw that line. The act of drawing a line between forced and voluntary migration is, therefore, an intensely political one, as from that decision flow all sorts of subsequent decisions about whether those who have moved are worthy of protection and assistance, and to what degree.

But, let’s leave those questions aside for the moment and turn to the first part of my talk tonight: Where are we now? What does the picture of forced migration in the Asia-Pacific look like?

If conceived of as stretching from Iran to Japan, and including the island nations of the Pacific, the Asia Pacific region has more than half the world’s population. Around 95 million of the world’s 231.5 million migrants in 2013 are from the Asia Pacific region, and around half of those are intra-regional migrants. (UNESCAP, Asia Pacific Migration Report 2015, p9)

In 2015 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated the region to include 3.5 million refugees, almost 2 million internally displaced people, and 1.4 million stateless people. (UNHCR, Asia and the Pacific: 2015 UNHCR regional operations profile-Asia and the Pacific)

There are several features of the region that make it particularly vulnerable to forced migration.

First, conflict and internal repression have generated large refugee flows from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and, in earlier decades, from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

The first map I am going to show you uses UNHCR refugee data between 1975 and 2014 to graphically represent the number and source countries of refugees over that time.

World map, indicating source locations of refugee and events causing large migrations.The refugee project.

The map highlights Afghanistan’s role as a major source country of refugees, as well as the growing number of refugees generated in the Asia Pacific region as a whole over that 40 year period. Until the recent exodus of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan was the largest source of refugees in the world, and had been for many years. Almost all Afghani refugees (96%) live in either Iran or Pakistan, both of which have been hosting Afghani refugees for over three decades, as well as also being significant source countries for refugees as well. Another major source country of refugees in the region is Myanmar.

Using the same data, this map by Brian Foo, who describes himself as a ‘programmer, artist and joyologist’ puts refugee flows to music.

What I like about this map is not only how well it conveys the growth of refugee flows, and the increasing distances refugees now travel, but also how it reminds us of how the growing ‘noise’ that refugee issues make in our public discourse demands our attention.

This map uses UNHCR data to identify the world’s most populous refugee camps. Three of the world’s ten largest refugee camps are in the Asian region: Tamil Nadu camp in India is the 6th world’s largest refugee camp, housing mainly Sri Lankan refugees. The 9th most populous camp is the Nanian camp in Pakistan, which houses primarily Afghani refugees. Old Shamshooto, also in Pakistan is the 10th biggest refugee camp in the world, again housing mainly Afghan refugees.

Detail of a map of Pakistan, showing the location, satellite view, and basic information of one of the largest refugee camps in the world.Fifty most populous refugee camps.

The UNHCR, however, estimates that 63% of refugees in the region are living outside of refugee or IDP camps, and thus outside the protection of the UNHCR or the International Organisation for Migration.

Communal violence and conflict has also caused large-scale internal displacement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, and smaller scale displacement in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand and Indonesia. (Norwegian Refugee Council and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Overview 2015, pdf, 4.3MB) While the UNHCR now includes IDPs within their ‘populations of concern’, there is no agreed international framework for how to deal with IDPs, and, if the country within which they are displaced is not able or willing to help them, they remain in a very vulnerable situation.

A second feature of the Asia Pacific region is a very uneven level of economic development among the countries in the region, and the presence of some enduringly poor countries. This map colours the world according to their human development index (HDI) ratings. (Scroll down past the graph to find the interactive map).

World map, colour coded to show the human development index in 2012.Human development index visualisation.

The HDI is a more nuanced way of assessing national wealth than GDP. It averages out life expectancy, average years of education and Gross National Income, to reach a HDI score. (United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Index 2015) As we can see on this map, Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Papua New Guinea all fall into the lowest HDI category. India, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia are all in the second-lowest category.

Poverty and lack of economic opportunity in some of these countries generates huge flows of labour migrants. Those who unable to support their families on the wages available at home leave home in order to find work, often in what are described as ‘3 D’ jobs – those that are dirty, dangerous and demeaning.

According to UN data, the Philippines sends nearly 2 million workers abroad each year; Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Indonesia each send around half a million people, while Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam send over 100,000 each year. (Human Development Index 2015)

Almost all of the temporary labour migrants from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka leave to work in the Gulf States, and a good proportion of those from the South East Asian countries as well.

For a number of reasons temporary labour migrants can find themselves in highly vulnerable positions, including susceptibility to human trafficking.

Those who move to work in one of the Gulf States, such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia, usually to work in the construction industry, in the case of the men, or as domestic workers, in the case of the women, do so under the Kafala system, that ties a worker to their kafeel, or sponsor, under whose grace they enter and remain in the country. A worker who wishes to change employers is dependent on the permission of their sponsor, and if the sponsor does not agree, the worker faces the choice of having to stay with their sponsor, face deportation, or, become an illegal worker.

The kafala system thus facilitates and perpetuates exploitative working conditions that, in a disturbingly high number of cases, are akin to slavery. Qatar has come under enormous pressure from the international community to reform its Kafala system as it employs over a million temporary workers in construction in the lead-up to the 2022 FIFA world cup. (Human Rights Watch, World Report 2015: Qatar; Owen Gibson, How have conditions changes for labour migrants in nine key areas?, The Guardian)

In 2015 it announced it was going to replace kafala contracts with labour contracts. (Al Jazeera, Qatar promises to reform kafala labour law; Gulf Business, Qatar to introduce electronic visas for migrant workers) But, even if it does – and that still remains to be seen – all of the other Gulf states continue to operate kafala systems.

The wealthier Asian states also act as a magnet for labour migrants from the rest of Asia. Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, China. Korea and Japan are all migrant-receiving countries from their poorer Asian neighbours.

Labour migrants who seek work within the region can also be vulnerable to trafficking. Many thousands of Cambodians and Myanmarese, for example, have been attracted to Thailand because of the availability of jobs there, but have been tricked or kidnapped and trafficked into the fishing industry, often working for months or even years without pay, usually under absolutely appalling conditions. (Ian Urbana, Sea slaves: the human misery that feeds pets and livestock, New York Times, 27 July 2015; Sam Jones, Trafficked into slavery on Thai fishing boats, The Guardian)

Other factors compound the vulnerabilities faced by those who are trafficked: low levels of education that make them more easily deceived by traffickers; corruption among the enforcement agencies who should be protecting them; low levels of state capacity and willingness to deal with both the causes and consequences of human trafficking, and to enforce existing labour and anti-trafficking laws.

The main international legal instrument to protect labour migrants is the International Convention on the rights of migrant workers and their families. While a number of the labour sending states, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Nepal have ratified this convention, none of the Gulf States have done so.

Alongside these human drivers of forced migration are a number of natural hazards to which those in the region are exposed. According to the UN, a person in the Asia Pacific region is twice as likely to be affected by a natural disaster as someone in Africa, six times as likely as someone in Latin America or the Caribbean, and 30 times more likely than someone living in Europe or North America. (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Overview of natural disasters and their impacts in Asia and the Pacific 1970-2014, pdf, 1MB)

A number of countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, lie along or on top of active tectonic plates, making them vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. (Overview of natural disasters and their impacts in Asia and the Pacific)

Map of the Asia-Pacific region, showing fault lines and volcanic zones.The ring of fire in the Asia-Pacific region.

As this map of the so-called ‘ring of fire’ shows, the whole region is tectonically active, something that has been once again brought home to us this week with the major earthquakes in Southern Japan and in Ecuador. Nepal is still trying to rebuild after a major earthquake there last year.

The region is also particularly prone to tropical cyclones, typhoons, landslides, flash floods, and avalanches.

Looking ahead, the region’s vulnerability to extreme weather events is likely to be exacerbated by the predicted effects of global climate change. (The World Bank, South Asia and climate change; The Global Mechanism, Climate change impacts in the Asia/Pacific region; University of Adelaide, Flinders University, University of Waikato, Climate change and migration in Asia and the Pacific, pdf, 509KB)

Map of the world, indicating risks to locations caused by climate change.Mapping the impacts of climate change.

This map shows four aspects of climate change: extreme weather events, sea level rise, loss of agricultural productivity, and overall vulnerability.

You’ll see that there is a difference between a country’s direct risk from climate change and their overall vulnerability. This reflects the different resources available to countries to manage and ameliorate the risks presented by climate change.

Looking first at the risks associated with extreme weather events, with the darker colours representing higher levels of exposure to extreme weather events, we can see that all of the most highly vulnerable countries are in Asia. China is ranked at number one, India at number 2, Bangladesh at number 3, the Philippines at number 4, and Myanmar number 5. The rankings change a little when capacity to manage such events is taken into account, with Somalia emerging as number one.

Asia is also highly vulnerable to sea level rise, as are, of course, the Pacific Islands. Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau predicted by some to be completely submerged with future sea level rises, although some scientists dispute this. (Kennedy Warne, Will Pacific Island Nations Disappear as Seas Rise? Maybe Not, National Geographic) And, in terms of agricultural productivity as well, we see among the Asia Pacific countries among the most affected nations, with Myanmar the second most vulnerable after Somalia.

The extent to which these predicted climate-change related impacts will result in forced migration will depend on the capacity of the state’s concerned to manage the risks associated with potential climate change impacts, and to build resilience in the local populations. The populations that are going to be the most vulnerable are those where multiple push factors exist: where, for example, poverty co-exists with low levels of education, violence, inadequate protection of human rights, and few alternative possibilities for people to generate sustainable incomes.

So, those are some of the existing and potential push factors for forced migration. If these push factors remain in the coming decades they will do so in the context of an overall growth in all forms of migration over the next decades. Levels of migration within, from and into the region have increased dramatically over the past 25 years. We can expect these levels of growth to continue, in part because the region is predicted to experience economic development, and economic development tends to lead to migration, simply because it provides more individuals with the financial and social capital necessary for migration.

We can see from the Human Development map that over the past few decades many of the countries in the region have been moving up the HDI rankings. Compare the region’s HDI rankings in 1980 with those in 2013.

With the creation of the ASEAN economic community in December 2015, a number of the ASEAN countries in the region are predicted to experience strong economic development in the next few years. If this happens, we should expect growing levels of outward migration. And, if China continues to grow, although there is some doubt about that, as its population ages it is likely to transform from a migrant-sending country to a migrant receiving country.

The maps we have looked at tell us something about where we are in relation to forced migration in the Asia Pacific. They show us that the region has large numbers of forced migrants, and the drivers of both forced and more voluntary migration look set to remain in the region for some time to come.

I want now to think about what cartographers’ migration maps might tell us about migration in ten or twenty years’ time.

It is not difficult to summon up a dystopic vision of a future map of migration in the region. We might characterise the emerging security-focused, deterrence-based approach towards dealing with forced migrants, led by Australia, as another kind of 3-D: demonise, detain, deport. In the absence of any significant change in the way the region currently deals with forced migrants, we can expect future maps to include more immigrant detention centres, more internally displaced camps, more refugee camps, possibly floating refugee camps, as was experienced this time last year for the Rohingya who, abandoned by the smugglers who they’d paid to take them to safety in Malaysia or Indonesia, and refused landing in either or those countries, and Thailand, ending up floating on their rickety craft for weeks on end. The photo which introduced this presentation showed the men on one boat scrambling for the water and food that Thailand dropped from the air after having denied them landing.

A network of immigrant detention centres has already grown up across the wealthier countries of the Asia Pacific. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia join Australia in incarcerating irregular migrants for indefinite periods of time. Conditions in these detention centres are reportedly deplorable, (Global Detention Project, Indonesia Immigration detention; Suaka Secretariat, Supporting Systems of Refugee and Asylum Seekers in Indonesia, Suaka, 9 July 2015; Steve Chou, ‘Q & A: Malaysia’s refugees and asylum seekers’, Al Jazeera; Alice M. Nah, Illegality and its uncertainties, in Nethery and Silverman, Immigration Detention, 2015; Antje Missbach & Frida Sunanu, Life and death in immigration detention, Inside Indonesia; MEDAN, Poor conditions in Indonesia’s immigration detention centres fuel violence, IRIN) and as none of these countries is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, many of those who would meet the refugee criteria are incarcerated for long periods of time. In Indonesia, it has become legal to detain an immigrant for up to ten years without charge. (Antje Missbach & Frida Sunanu, 2013)

These are not future scenarios anyone would wish for.

I invite you all to imagine a different cartography of migration in the region; one in which those who are forced from their homes do not find life after leaving home is almost as intolerable as staying put. Where the vulnerability of being forced from home is not compounded by the frustration of being stuck indefinitely in a refugee camp, with no viable future for a family. Where it is not the case that the only alternatives to being warehoused in a refugee camp are to work illegally in a host country, hoping to avoid detention and deportation, or to take a further dangerous journey in search of a viable life.

It is important that we imagine these alternative migration destinations so that we can progress with the important work of thinking about the best routes to get to where we might like to be.

Some basic principles might guide us when we think about what the best routes to a more positive future for migration in the region might be.

First, migration more likely to have positive outcomes for the migrants themselves, and the sending, transit and receiving countries, is if the migration is voluntary, planned, legal and welcomed by the migrants and the destination society. We need, in other words, to prioritise policies that move involuntary migration further towards voluntary migration on that continuum I discussed at the beginning, that moves unplanned migration further towards planned migration, transforms illegal migration into legal migration, and unwelcoming environments for migrants into welcoming ones. We can think of three L’s that might help with this: legitimate, legalise, and leadership.

Second, forced migrants are more likely to settle, resettle, or to reintegrate back home successfully if they are given the opportunity to work or train, and if their children are given education, during their period of displacement.

Third, people are more likely to settle well and to flourish in a new country if they and their children have opportunities and can see a better future ahead of them, either in a first country of refuge, a third country, or back home. Warehousing forced migrants in places where there is no prospect for a better future is an invitation for those people to find irregular routes to further migration destinations.

Current policies by countries in the Asia Pacific are unlikely to lead to these outcomes. As the maps I have shown you this evening show, migration will continue to be a driver of transformation in the Asia Pacific region, as around the world. However, the growing capacity of cartography to help us understand the drivers of migration and the experiences of migrants needs to be matched by a willingness by governments and publics to stop seeing lines on a map as a reason for denying the humanity of those trapped by such lines.

So, let’s not refold the maps available to us. Let’s use them to better understand the reality of forced migration in our region, and be inspired – and possibly frightened – by their creative potential to imagine and work towards destinations we might actually like to get to.

Humanity on the move: Mapping refugees' journeys (summary)

Simone Gigliotti

Topics covered

Making and unmaking the map

  • Mark Monmonier, How to lie with maps
  • Maps as an artful science
  • Humanist cartography
  • Margaret Wickens Pearce, emotions in landscape
  • Liisa H Malkki, "Speechless emissaries"

Displacement in postwar Europe

  • United National relief and rehabilitation administration
  • The Harrison Report
  • UN convention on refugees (1951)
  • Allied occupation of postwar Germany
  • Jewish 'illegal' immigration to Palestine

Visual storytelling and humanist cartography

European migrant crisis: Syrian refugees

The Balkans route

Websites mentioned

Crisis mappers


The Harrison Report (pdf, 132KB)

International organisation for migration

Island of all together

Missing migrants project

Relief web


United States Holocaust memorial museum

The uprooted

By Kate McMillan & Simone Gigliotti

Kate McMillan is from the Political Science and International Relations Programme, and Simone Gigliotti is from the School of History at Victoria University.

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