Understanding Global Migration

World Science Forum panelists discuss how scientists can better decipher the factors that drive global migration in order to affect policy change.

Nov 4, 2015
Tracy Vence

World Science Forum 2015 banners at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in BudapestTRACY VENCEIn light of the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, Hungarian Academy of Sciences President László Lovász called upon experts from his own nation—which this fall enhanced border-control efforts in an effort to keep additional migrants out after allowing several thousand people to seek asylum in the country—and elsewhere to outline how scientists can better understand what makes some people decide to move, and help those who have recently been forced from their homes. While the agenda of this year’s World Science Forum, underway in Budapest this week, had been set for months, Lovász convened an extra panel to discuss refugee research and resettlement; during the session, held today (November 4), he called global migration “a topic the scientific community could not ignore.”

Indeed, “at no point have the challenges that we face today been as complex,” said Katalin Bogyay, Hungary’s permanent representative at the United Nations (UN), who moderated the session. “Today the international community turns to scientists for answers to some of the most pressing social, economic, and environmental problems.”

Global migration is a current priority among “urgent political issues where science—and science advice—can play a vital role,” said panelist Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She and the other panelists pointed to climate change as one culprit driving mass migrations. “Environmental transformations disproportionally affect those who have contributed least to them and are least equipped to cope with these changes,” Schlegel said.

To that end, panelist Vladimir Rakhmanin, assistant director-general and regional representative for Europe and Central Asia at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and his colleagues are working to establish best practices for agricultural economics in farming regions impacted by the effects of climate change. “We are trying to reduce the impacts of climate change that are happening now and increase resilience for future,” Rakhmanin said.

Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, president of her country’s Royal Scientific Society, said that today’s “climate refugees” signal an insecure future for the rest of the world. (Jordan has accepted more than 700,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the crisis, according to the UN.) Migration can also positively impact recipient nations, El Hassan and the other panelists agreed, and these socially and economically beneficial effects should be considered along with all other data. She pointed to programs aimed at helping displaced researchers integrate into scientific communities within their new countries as a beacon of hope.

But reactionary policies, while welcome in crisis situations, are not enough, El Hassan added. She urged social scientists to collect additional data on the factors that lead to global migration, noting history has shown that “the movement of people is not just understandable, but predictable.”

Lovász agreed. “Approaching [global migration] with scientific tools . . . gives interesting new results [and] new information that we believe governments should take into account,” he said.

Tracy Vence's attendance at World Science Forum 2015 is in part supported by a travel grant from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Elsevier, and SciCom — Making Sense of Science.