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Museum Manifesto. Migrations

Today, movements between countries are a source of conflict and drama. In Europe, thousands of people drown every year crossing national borders by sea. Although humans have always migrated, as have all species, migrations have become a political issue that inflates the numbers and trends. Against this background, natural history provides a dispassionate overview of human mobility to enable a calm, informed debate to take place.

Dessins de trois hirondelles au dos noir et ventre blanc.

3 espèces d’hirondelles, migratrices intercontinentales, peinture sur vélin, par Nicolas Robert (XVIIe siècle)

© MNHN dist. Rmn-GP

Mobility is essential to maintaining life on Earth. Animals and plants migrate, develop characteristics adapted to their new environment, and then mix with the new arrivals. Once again, the group’s genetic heritage is made richer by this mixing, thus ensuring the evolution and sustainability of species.

Just like other species, "migration has played a major role in human expansion and evolution" from the time our ancestors of the genus Homo appeared on the African continent 7.5 million years ago, right up to the current biological and cultural diversity we see today.

These days, modern forms of transport make it easier to move around and enable journeys to be longer. This does not mean that the number of migrants is on the rise. "Only a tiny proportion of humans wish to migrate. Overall, 97% of humans live in their country of birth."

Dessin d'une branche de téhier avec ses fleurs blanches.

Théier, Camellia sinensis, Chine, elle est cultivée sur tous les continents, peinture sur vélin, par Madeleine Basseporte, (XVIIIe siècle)

© MNHN / Dist. RMN - T. Querrec

Multiple compounded motivations

Homo sapiens appears to have been motivated by a desire to explore, above and beyond the search for resources for sustenance. 65,000 years ago, human populations first reached Australia.

Nowadays, people also migrate to study or work, or to flee poverty, conflict or persecution, etc.; there is typically more than one reason.

In most cases, "migration is not undertaken by the people in the greatest need." Changing where you live demands a certain level of cultural flexibility and financial resources, as well as a network that you can rely on.

"There are very few migrants from the poorest areas of the world [...] and they mainly remain in their regions of origin. In 2017, 84% of refugees remained in countries in the Global South, close to the crisis zones from which they had fled." In a nutshell, when you are poor, you generally migrate to countries that are close neighbours.

Photographie en noir et blanc d'une arrivée d'immigrants en bateau.

Immigrants arrivant à Ellis Island à proximité de Manhattan (1915)

© Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Skewed perceptions

Despite the fact that most of the migration since the 1950s has been South-South, wealthy countries feed fears of invasion. Fear and preconceptions generate racist, xenophobic reactions. There is the fear of competition in the labour market or "the fear of a 'great replacement', [which] is neither borne out by the figures nor by behaviour". For example, in France, two-thirds of children of migrants marry native-born people or people who are not the children of migrants.

Flows of migrants are managed on the basis of security and via crisis meetings, all of which foster anxiety with respect to a long-term phenomenon that in reality is sustainable and which the figures put into perspective: 3% of humans are migrants.

Photo en noir et blanc d'un camp montrant des habitats de fortune sur les versans de collines.

Camp de Kibeho, destiné aux rapatriés du Zaïre et du Burundi (Rwanda)

© S. Salgado

As a result, there are growing tensions at national borders, where physical, police and legislative barriers are reinforced, thus demonstrating that there is no "migrant crisis" but rather a hosting crisis. Yet, in trying to preserve a society’s integrity, such restrictions overshadow our moral responsibility towards others and negates the universal right to leave whatever place one may be.

Natural history reminds us that it is the concept of hospitality that sets human beings apart from other animal species; it thus reframes the debate around the moral and social question of our choice of societal model, between the quest for the necessary stability and human solidarity.

© MNHN
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