Humans in period of unprecedented mobility

More people are on the move nowadays than ever before. A migration expert explains why...
17 November 2020

Interview with 

Oli Brown, Chatham House


Walking along a road with a suitcase.


More people are on the move nowadays than ever before. The climate is changing, but the world is also becoming more globalised and urbanised. Oli Brown is a former UN migration expert who now works for Chatham House, and took Chris through the different factors...

Oli - It might not feel like it with 2020 and COVID lockdowns, but we live in a period of unprecedented mobility. 750 million people are migrants within their own countries, typically moving from rural areas to urban areas, and another 250 million people live outside the country of their birth. So collectively, globally, that's one in eight people are migrants. And it's a hugely important driver of development - it spreads ideas, connects the world, offers opportunity to individuals and families - but there are also millions of people who've been forced out of their homes and off their land as refugees or displaced people.

Chris - And who are we actually talking about here? And where, specifically?

Oli - It varies around the world. So two thirds of all refugees at the end of 2019 came from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Myanmar. But all of those people who are displaced by natural disasters and industrial accidents, again, that can happen all around the world. Numerically India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and China have the most people who are displaced by disasters in 2019; but it's not just countries who you might think of being as being a little bit poorer that have this. The fifth on that list is the US.

Chris - And if we wind back the clock a bit, we began this part of the program with that wonderful story of those footprints in Arabia, a hundred thousand-plus years ago, and those individuals were lured there by what we were told was an oasis at the time; it wasn't a desert then. Are the same sorts of factors luring people across the Earth today, or equally pushing them away from their homeland?

Oli - Yeah, absolutely. I think people have always moved, as we heard, in response to the climate, and to find better living conditions elsewhere. What's different now is that the speed and the scale of the change has accelerated so much, and that humans are the root of the changes we're seeing. Basically human activity has changed the environment, and reshaped the environment so significantly that many scientists agree that we've entered what they're calling a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. And just to give you some examples: since pre-industrial times the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 50%; human activity now moves three times as much earth every year as all of the world's rivers combined; and we're on track to have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. So human activity is redrawing the map of the world. It's redrawing where rain falls; where you can grow crops; how hard storms, droughts, and floods hit. And that's having a real impact on where people can live.


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