When we think of migration, the images in our collective narratives are constructed primarily with masses of people on the move, leaving places they belong in for foreign lands. In her latest book, Sonia Shah, an American science journalist and author, critically takes apart the boundaries around human wandering both in our lands and our mind-sets.
The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move (2020) offers a journey through a curated history of what migration has meant for this planet. The core argument of the book lies in deconstructing the idea of migration as "an irregular and disruptive force", a rhetoric that has influenced Western culture over centuries—in the form of America's eugenic and xenophobic policies, the Nazi genocide, contemporary national security and anti-migration policies, as well as strategies of international UN bodies.
Shah begins with observations of the natural world, laying out how migration is ingrained into the way the planet intrinsically works. From here, she unpacks the factors that have shaped human beings' views on the phenomenon. She takes us behind the scenes, revealing where and how the motivations behind certain scientific perspectives were championed as fact. Others were discarded, such as the concrete evidence that human beings have more shared identical traits, that migration is an aspect of history, and that the differences are at best a result of climate and diet only. This birthed the rise of nativism as a political ideology and beliefs about "foreigners infesting our homelands", which in the hands of powerful white men gave rise to "race science" as a legitimate discipline in academia and policies. Eventually, it founded the rationale for genocide in fascist regimes, the whispers of which persist in our contemporary narratives.
Shah's curation of such complex subjects do not come across as rushed or over the surface. Her work deconstructs the academic areas of history, several fields of biology (evolution, hereditary, etc.), and contemporary geopolitics. Yet despite the political and cultural depths she navigates, her storytelling remains easy to follow, helpfully drawing on popular, contemporary examples. She approaches each topic with critical insight and deep empathy, which is reflective of her own history as a child of immigrant parents in America. The latter fuels her analysis of what "belonging" and "foreignness" mean in the face of ideologies that separate and label human beings in an imaginary food chain.
Although she effectively explains these blind spots, there are instances in which she seems to over-generalise certain topics. For instance, Shah uses the migration of animal, plant, and other species to draw examples and parallels, but she does not address the threats to local biodiversity that this causes. In another example, she summarises the Syrian conflict as "the boys' small act of resistance […] sparking one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history". This deflects from the complex geopolitics of the Middle East and the underpinning "otherisation" of the Arab world, which are closely linked to perpetuating the outbreaks of resistance across the region.
What's notable is that these stories all resonate with our realities. This subcontinent shares its own fraught histories of mass movements since the Partition, and more immediate to us are Bangladesh's contemporary narratives of migration—closely tied to the country's identity as a fast growing economy. But this achievement comes with the absence of social, economic, and political safety nets for vulnerable migrant populations, the majority of whom are responsible for making Bangladesh one of the largest recipients of remittance (record of USD 18.32 billion in 2019 according to Bangladesh Bank).
Despite knowing this, our language and rhetoric continue to dehumanise them. The discourses around the legal status of migrants, cases of deportation, hardships of undocumented migrants and, most recently in the wake of the pandemic, the blame game of calling migrants "responsible for bringing the virus into the country"—these are all shaped by a range of prejudices and classist rhetoric. Do we question what makes a person legal or illegal? How much of the problems with documentation, lack of transparency, and accountability in our systems are of the migrants' own making? Shah's book provides the analytical tools and insights which we can apply to mulling over our own local issues regarding migration.
Although she does not directly discuss this, her arguments demonstrate that the "migration equating to disorder" rhetoric is fundamentally an intersectional problem—the battle to rise to power through the dynamics of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, economic inequality, nationalism, and colonialism, spurred on by our growing knowledge of genetics, ecology, geography, and climate change, among a range of other issues. If we are to weaken this power, we will have to have to engage with contemporary issues of migration, locally and globally, through this same intersectional lens. It is important to account for all these factors in making certain migrants, certain people, and even certain species more vulnerable or endangered than others.
In The Next Great Migration, Shah ends on a hopeful note. She introduces the possibilities of figurative and literal networks which are helping to adapt our survival strategies for a drastically changing world.
"Stillness at the centre of our ideas about the past casts migrants and migrations as anomalous and disruptive," she emphasises. Her book makes a strong case for understanding that the "natural order" for things means constant change and movement. These aspects are a core part of who we are and our survival—not just as humans but collectively as a planet.
Ishrat Jahan is an early stage researcher who writes in her free time. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.