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Highlights from the ‘Global Migration Crisis’ Debate

Written by Aly Passanante

November 13, 2019


On 4th November, students, staff and visitors gathered in LSHTM’s John Snow Lecture Theatre to debate the ‘global migration crisis’. The event was part of the 17th annual ESRC Festival of Social Science. Dr Elaine Chase, Associate Professor in Education, Health Promotion and International Development, Centre of Education for International Development at UCL Institute of Education, chaired the event. We were thrilled to have the following panellists:

  • Professor Laura Hammond, Professor of Development Studies, SOAS University of London, Principal Investigator, LIDC Migration Leadership Team, Challenge Leader for Security, Protracted Conflict, Refugees and Forced Displacement for the Global Challenges Research Fund
  • Dr Ala’a Shehabi, Deputy Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL (IGP) and the Data Manager for the RELIEF Centre
  • Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, Founder and Director, Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA)
  • Professor Cathy Zimmerman, Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

LIDC Communications and Public Engagement Manager, Sarah Hambly, began the debate by providing a brief context and highlighting its timely relevance. This was followed by a short film, Life on the Move, created by the LIDC Migration Leadership Team in collaboration with Positive Negatives and directed by filmmaker Osbert Parker. Dr Chase then welcomed each of the panel members and posed the first question:

“According to the 2018 World Migration Report, migrants represent a very small minority of the global population, which means that staying within one’s own country of birth is overwhelmingly the norm. In that case, is it accurate to speak of a ‘global migration crisis’ and what do we mean when we refer to this ‘crisis’?”

Is there a ‘global migration crisis?’

The panel quickly reached a consensus that there is no ‘global migration crisis’, if defined as South-to-North migration flows. Rather, the ‘global migration crisis’ is a foil to the social, political, and economic fractures that fuel fear and anger.


The panellists also discussed the flaws in adopting too rigid of a definition of ‘migrants’. Although framed as a black and white issue, people fluidly transition between various types of migrants. As Professors Zimmerman and Hammond noted, for example, a refugee will quickly transition to an economic migrant out of necessity. Furthermore, we must counter the idea that all migration is necessarily problematic. As Dr Ala’a Shehabi remarked, “migration is a systemic element of our time. It’s a feature of the human condition.” She continued, “The crisis, therefore, isn’t a migration crisis – it’s an identity crisis. […] It’s a crisis around the narratives and the stories we tell of ourselves as states and who belongs and who doesn’t.”

Tackling Myths

Professor Zimmerman took the lead on tackling stereotypes of migrants carrying diseases and placing a burden on social services. She discussed the ‘healthy migrant effect’, explaining that it’s not the sickest people coming to work, but the healthiest. Furthermore, based on her research on trafficking survivors, people often do not seek health services. This can be due to lack of entitlements to health services and an unforgiving pay structure.

To conclude the first phase of the event, Laura Hammond discussed the LIDC’s Migration Leadership Team (MLT)’s mission and different strands of research.

Afterwards, the conversation opened to include the very engaged audience. Questions ranged from climate change’s impact on migration to how we change people’s minds about migration.

Shifting Perceptions

The panel agreed facts are unlikely to shift perceptions, since emotions have fuelled the discourse thus far. As Laura Hammond said, we need to

“address the people’s frustrations such as they are.  If we say ‘it’s not about migration, it’s about something else’, then we need to focus on what else it is […] Let’s think seriously about what the problems really are and then I think people will start to feel that they are being heard and […] stop outsourcing the problem and blaming the Other, the foreigner.”

Following the debate, the audience and panel continued the conversation at the reception, which included videos and poster presentations. It also featured a ‘graffiti wall’ for everyone to share thoughts on the topic. As Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi claimed, “this is really a global crisis, which means there is a need for global cooperation.” Each has an integral role in combatting the myths and negative policies surrounding global migration.

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