Human history is the story of migration.
That's one fact that cannot be disputed. As much as we have spoken about who owns what land, at the end of the day people migrated to pretty much all areas of the planet at some point (with the exception of the East African Rift Valley). Once they arrived, those humans integrated with the people that followed because, frankly and as a general rule, we like sex with other people.
While the individual reasons for migration are many, collectively they haven't really changed all that much over the years -- escaping conflict, seeking prosperity, achieving a better quality of life, and/or leaving areas that are deemed no longer suitable for sustained habitation. In short, survival.
Sometimes migration has been dressed up as invasions, such as the movement of the various peoples of the Steppes region into Europe, and other times it's been framed more as a refugee crisis, such as the narrative of the Vietnamese Boat People or those currently escaping the horrifying conflict in Syria.
At its best, humanity shows why we can have confidence in the future of our societies and species as a whole by throwing open its arms and generously accepting those who have virtually nothing, providing them assistance, and incorporating the migrants into their communities largely without prejudice. At its worst, humanity shows its tribal ugliness with a willingness to de-humanize migrants into a mass of 'others' that threaten and must be pushed away, with force if necessary.
So we come to the current situation of Syrian conflict migrants.*
(* I'm going to refer to this group of migrants as "Syrian migrants" here, but it should be recognized that the migrants involved come from a diversity of geographies including Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, the Caucuses, the Middle East as well as the large number of people escaping the Syrian conflict. It's just easier than writing the above out every time.)
The planet has not seen a conflict-based continental migration such as this arguably since the end of World War II, when millions of "displaced persons" (DPs) had to be supported as Europe and Asia put themselves back together. In that situation, the world moved quickly to ensure sufficient aid was made available to support the DPs where they were found, and to facilitate the immigration of many to nations that had not been destroyed by years of conflict. International aid structures and new lessons about dealing with the needs of DPs were established as a result of that experience. But crucially, the world said that for purely human reasons such a situation was unacceptable. In the post-World War II period where collectively the world was prepared to commit to putting in place the institutions to avoid the sort of conflict and suffering it had collectively just experienced, there was also consensus that every effort would be made to head off the causes of displacement before we ever ended up in a situation where the international community would again face large numbers of DPs.
But that was a very different time than now. Perhaps most importantly, that was a time where conflict was by-in-large ended and aid could be moved relatively freely through troubled areas where DPs existed. What we're seeing now is almost the opposite.
The Syrian conflict is a horrible one. The worst kind of grinding conflict where all sides have long abandoned any pretext of respect for humanity or those caught in the middle of conflict zones. Increasingly, the focus of all sides has been what degree of horrors each can enact against each other and the only option for civilians in conflict areas is to try and escape. UNICEF have estimated that 11.6 million people have been displaced, with 3.9 million having escaped to refugee camps across the Syrian boarder over the past four years, primarily in Jordan and Turkey. However, international aid for those refugees was limited and solutions for the migrants beyond staying in place in giant tent communities and waiting for peace were really not forthcoming from the international community.
So we have migration from Syria. But why is this different from, say, the conflict migration of the Vietnamese Boat People?
Unlike previous generations of displaced persons and conflict migrants, this is the first major instance where the migrants have a capacity to have an independent voice and coordination of their own. Led by the experience of the Arab Spring several years ago, we are now seeing migrants who's most important possession is their smartphones. The Syrian Migrants are social media savvy, aware of how to quickly connect to independent, migrant-generated information sources and able to tap into the support networks rapidly established by sympathetic individuals in both their destination countries and nations of international importance (often leveraging the strength and savviness of their diaspora connections). But perhaps most crucially, the Syrian Migrants no longer feel dependent on international organizations or even national governments to aid their cause. They won't wait for others to speak on their behalf in the international community. They will have an active voice in their own destiny.
The Syrian Migrants have shown time and time again an ability to quickly transmit information about the best routes for movement towards their destinations, friendly/'weak' points of for national crossings, and changes in government positions on aid or assistance towards the migrants. Perhaps most importantly and tellingly, the Syrian Migrants have shown a level of self-awareness not just as individuals but in the power they can wield as a mass population. In the words of one Afghan migrant to a BBC reporter who was among the first turned back at Croatian-Serbian boarder crossing, "Just wait. There are many more of us coming soon, and they won't be able to turn us back then."
Borrowing on the mass gathering techniques used during the Arab Spring and coordinated through social media/WhatsApp messaging, the overwhelming tactic of the Syrian Migrants has been constant, unrelenting movement en masse towards their goal. Unlike so many generations of migrants before, there's been no willingness exhibited to stay-in-place in a large refugee camp or similar set up before they reach their final destination (Germany for now).
While European (and other international) politicians and officials have been talking about holding international meetings to develop strategies to address the Syrian Migrant Crisis, full of "long term goals" and "priorities", they have largely been caught off-guard by the sheer volume of Syrian Migrants moving across their borders in single days. This has resulted in some, like Hungary, temporary reacting with xenophobic laws and fence building, while others, like Germany and Croatia, have temporarily closed their borders while they try and take stock of the situation. In the mean time, the Syrian Migrants continue to move, quickly shifting and passing the information down the migration lines as to the new targets for border crossings and networks for movement.
But it isn't simply a matter of the speed of information passed by the Syrian Migrants or solely their constant movement that makes them different from previous conflict migrations. Equally effective has been the Syrian Migrants' ability to connect with sympathetic networks in destination countries and nations of international influence to effectively advocate for their cause to governments that stand in their way. Again, borrowing on the effective techniques of the Arab Spring, we have seen Syrian Migrants actively working to create images and events that will quickly spread on social media. The Syrian Migrants use social media to ensure that their cause is not relegated to sidelines in the media cycle and allowing the Migrants' advocates in other nations to confront their leaders with the harrowing images and stories that humanize the migrants and make it harder to turn away from their cause.
We have even seen how the cause of the Syrian Migrants is leading those in destination countries to move to independently establish support networks that go well beyond any being established by government officials in a speed that significantly exceeds any official response. Perhaps this has been most visibly demonstrated in the rise of the so-called migrant AirBnB in Germany, almost immediately as the Syrian Migrants started moving towards the country in large numbers. This network self-established and self-connected with Syrian Migrants, directly connecting those in need with those willing to help and giving even greater incentive for the Syrian Migrants to press forward towards their final destinations.
Crowd-sourcing for international relief on an international scale
Perhaps most impressive and most important to understand in this rise of new e-Migrants is that this is being done without any significant centralize coordination by the Syrian Migrants or their allies in their destination countries.
Significant, sophisticated and highly accessible communications networks have been quickly established by the Syrian Migrants, recognizing that it is their only means of levelling their playing field in the face of international actors who have previously demonstrated the plight of Syrian Migrants was a lower priority over the past four years. It is a lesson that was learned directly from the Arab Spring, and one that's likely not to be forgotten by future migrant groups no matter where they are on the planet.
While all this is impressive and will need to be digested by international actors, national governments and international aid groups alike, the problem of how to support the significant number of Syrian Migrants in desperate need -- and those that will follow -- remains. These crowd-sourced networks will provide new means to communicate important information to ensure aid reaches Syrian Migrants, but it remains incumbent upon international aid organizations and governments to leverage those networks.
This will be a new challenge of its own for an international aid and settlement system that was built on the premise of national governments and recognized international aid organizations being the only actors. In many ways, how the international aid and settlement system responds and adapts to the challenge that the Syrian e-Migrants presents will define whether e-migrant groups are perceived as constructive partners or adversarial disruptors in the international aid and settlement system.
One thing's for sure, the e-migrant isn't going away any time soon. We know major conflict is unlikely to stop, and climate change is almost guaranteed to cause major population movements (if it hasn't already.) Understanding how to best leverage these crowd-sourced systems will be an important tool to help alleviate future suffering and better facilitate international migration and settlement issues.