The story of humanity is, in part, a story of human migration: of vast and continuing movements of people across borders, seas and continents. These movements have been driven by conflicts, climate change, the hope of finding a better life, and perhaps also by simple human curiosity. Four thousand years ago a tribe of tartan-clad Celts reached Xinjiang in western China, perhaps seeking the Bronze Age equivalent of Shangri-La. Today more than 244 million people are migrants, a population that would rank as the world’s fifth largest country.
Migration enriches human culture by intermingling peoples, ideas, outlooks and cultural traditions. Voluntary migration is age-old and continuing.
Throughout history, there have also been significant migrations which have replaced another dominant group by forceful usurpation in the form of invasion or colonisation. Reasons for such takeovers tend to be politically and resource-motivated rather than flight from oppression or climatic events.
But migration can be stressful and traumatic, particularly when it is involuntary. By 2015 there were 38 million internally displaced people worldwide, 21.3 million refugees and 2.3 million asylum seekers. Many of the latter are fleeing the threat of imprisonment, persecution, torture or death in their native countries. The United Nations’ 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees sets out the obligations of signatory states towards refugees and asylum seekers. These include a prohibition on forcing asylum seekers to return to countries where their life or freedom would be at risk on account of their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social or political opinion.
In recent years many countries including Australia have toughened their stance on asylum seekers: Australia’s stand is particularly ironic given that over 97% of the population are descended from migrants, many of whom were fleeing persecution in Europe, South-East Asia, Africa and elsewhere.