In neighborhoods and villages around the world, tens, hundreds, and in some places, thousands of people, inspired by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, are engaged in activities that aim to “build community.” In their efforts, we can already see signs of the emergence of new patterns of collective life: a village coming together regularly at the hour of dawn to summon divine assistance before the day’s work; a group of people combining skills and knowledge to carry out a reforestation project; neighbors consulting on ways to establish classes for the spiritual education of their children; a population beginning to shed age-old prejudices and build new patterns of interaction based on justice and unity; young adults, in rural and urban settings, initiating small-scale agricultural projects to support their communities—examples like these and many more are springing up from every continent and multiplying.
The current global crisis has raised awareness about the importance of human solidarity and collective action. Within this context, it seems timely to ask ourselves: What is the place of community in our modern world and what is the kind of community towards which we aspire?
The image that is evoked by the word community can be quite different from one person to the next. Some think of a community simply as those who live in the same geographic area, regardless of whether its members interact; others use the word to refer to a collection of people who share common interests or are motivated by the pursuit of a common goal; and, for many, community is seen as a population that shares a common ethnic identity and set of traditions. We also come across people who believe that the sense of togetherness that we need as human beings can be fulfilled through virtual networks, and some thinkers even predict that the whole concept of a community as it has been traditionally known will eventually disappear.
Although certain aspects of the conceptions above may be valuable, the relationships that sustain society are also being reconceptualized by many in light of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Our understanding of community, then, will need to move beyond anything humanity currently knows or has experienced. To build a common vision of community, we turn to the messages of the Universal House of Justice. For instance, in 1996, the House of Justice described a community as
a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families, and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.1Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 1996. Available at www.bahai.org/r/045175659
The House of Justice has also written about “vibrant communities,” describing them as being characterized by “tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will” and explaining that they provide an “environment in which the capacities of all components––men, women, youth and children––are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.”2Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 26 December 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/864076551
Over the past decade, Bahá’í community-building efforts have unfolded in smaller geographic areas like neighborhoods and villages. This process has been very similar to the organic processes that take place in nature. Indeed, creating something new in social reality is, like the growth of a tree, an organic process that begins by planting a seed in fertile soil.
The process begins with a group of people inspired by a hopeful vision of change who take action together within the context of a neighborhood or village. The initial steps they take are not random or haphazard but rather unfold within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community. The various elements that cohere to advance this process include classes for the spiritual education of children; groups of junior youth who, together with an older youth, support one another, study together, and carry out acts of service; the opening of homes and community centers for collective prayer and discussions about the progress of a neighborhood or village; regular visits by neighbors to meet with one another and strengthen bonds of friendship; educational programs for youth and adults in which they reflect on the spiritual dimension of life and prepare themselves for a life of service; and in some places, initiatives that seek to enhance the social and material well-being of a population. Whatever the form and arrangement of activities, however, the process of community building is a process of transformation in which a population takes ownership of its own spiritual and social development.
The fruit of the process of community building is a unit of civilization that is characterized by the principles and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. The House of Justice has explained the long-term nature of these efforts:
The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Bahá’í endeavour to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.3Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2010. Available at www.bahai.org/r/178319844
We are, of course, too early in these efforts to know exactly what the entire process looks like, what stages we will have to pass through, what obstacles we might face along the way, and what capacities will need to be developed at each stage of development by the members of the community, individually and collectively. These are questions we must ask ourselves in the years and decades to come, and answers to these questions will become clear to us as we engage in a systematic process of learning.
Much has already been learned about the early stages of community building: A group of people turns to the sacred Writings and the guidance of the Universal House of Justice and takes action within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community; it draws insights from the existing body of knowledge and reflects on experience; it has regular conversations in which questions are asked and ideas are clarified; and, as understanding advances, the group adjusts its plans, approaches, and activities. The result is that its efforts become more and more effective, and the process it is trying to promote advances. In this way, the Bahá’í community is gradually developing its capacity to operate in a mode of learning and, as an organic global community, is advancing collectively.
As people learn more about the process of community building and how to effectively contribute to it, certain questions arise. For instance, what is my conception of community and what contributions can I make to the development of my community? What are those qualities, skills, and abilities that need to be developed in individuals and in groups to build vibrant communities? What are the things that are needed to enhance the relationships in a community? In seeking answers to these questions, we turn to the guiding and operating principles involved. As we understand these principles better and internalize them, they begin to find expression in our actions. They influence how we see ourselves in relation to others which in turn influences how we interact with others.
There are many principles that are relevant to the process of community building. Foremost among these is the oneness of humankind. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, talked about the principle of oneness as “the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve.”4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/264008982 He said that it cannot be seen as a “mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope” and that it cannot be merely identified with the “reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men.”5Ibid. It has profound implications for every aspect of the organized life of society. Having the principle of oneness in mind as the guiding and operating principle sheds light on the process of community building and gives direction to our efforts as participants.
In His letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh writes: “Regard the world as the human body.” This metaphor of the human body, or a living organism, was also often used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He wanted to illustrate the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. Like any analogy, there are limits to how much it can explain. Nevertheless, like the elements of the human body, “all the members of this endless universe are linked one to another.” He urged us to act as the members of one body, each connected to the other with “a linkage complete and perfect” 6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/189063524 and contributing its part for the benefit of the whole. He said that “man cannot live singly and alone. He is in need of continuous cooperation and mutual help… He can never, singly and alone, provide himself with all the necessities of existence. Therefore, he is in need of cooperation and reciprocity.” The House of Justice, in commenting on this metaphor, has further explained:
In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “has endowed each humble being with ability and talent”7Universal House of Justice, letter of September 1994 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding subject of universal participation. Bahá’í Reference Library. Available at www.bahai.org/r/874127903
Some characteristics of the living organism suggest where to focus our efforts as individuals. For example, the cells of the body are intimately connected to each other; their existence is purely in relation to the whole body. There is no possibility for the cell to live without its connection to the rest. The purpose of the cell is to maintain the health of the body and, at the same time, its life depends on it. In this regard, a characteristic that stands out is the necessity for the basic units of the organism to be selfless. Cells, in their very essence, are selfless. They are made that way. They adapt their functions in order to respond to unforeseen needs or emergencies or to protect the organism. The cell also takes only what it needs from the organism. The behavior of healthy cells in the body illustrates well the high standard that the individual whose purpose is to work for the common good aspires to as a member of a group or community. This implies, for instance, giving of one’s time and energy generously, sacrificing when the situation requires it, being detached from the results of what we do, and carrying out our actions with sincerity and purity of heart.
This concept of selfless service and the responsibilities that everyone has in accomplishing the collective aim have many implications for the way we relate to others and to our work. It adds significance to various roles and responsibilities that we undertake. To see ourselves like the cells of the body implies that each of us gives our very best in fulfilling our responsibilities; each one is conscious that everything he or she does influences the functioning of the community. And since each of us is responsible not only for his or her part but also for the functioning of the whole, cooperation and reciprocity should characterize relationships. In such an environment, everyone strives to draw out the best in people and to help others develop their full potential and takes joy in the progress of others.
This concept of selfless service also has implications for the manner in which we approach the acts of service we undertake and our various roles and responsibilities in a community. Serving with selflessness and diligence requires making choices, because, unlike the cells, we have free will. To put the interests of the collective before our own and to devote ourselves to doing things with excellence; to be ready to collaborate; to prefer our brothers and sisters over ourselves; to orient ourselves toward that which brings about the well-being of the community; to move beyond the inertia that sometimes holds us back from working to the best of our ability––all of these are individual choices that have to be made consciously. To give of ourselves is embedded in our nature; it is a capacity within us that can be developed and strengthened through constant effort, prayer, reflection, and the acquisition of knowledge. Maybe a word of caution is also needed here: To put the interest of the community before our own does not imply that we lose our individuality. We do not become dissolved in the community. There are many references in the Writings that shed light on the question of serving the common good.
O My Servant!
Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/261142065
Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge.9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/574361742
How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfil his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages.10Ibid.
In these early stages of building this new kind of community that reflects the divine teachings, we have to learn how to manage the apparent tension between pursuing our own interests and contributing to the common good. It is a very real tension within human beings. Undoubtedly, this will always be the case, since it is part of human nature. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained:
Man is in the ultimate degree of materiality and the beginning of spirituality; that is, he is at the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection. He is at the furthermost degree of darkness and the beginning of the light. That is why the station of man is said to be the end of night and the beginning of day, meaning that he encompasses all the degrees of imperfection and that he potentially possesses all the degrees of perfection. He has both an animal side and an angelic side, and the role of the educator is to so train human souls that the angelic side may overcome the animal. Thus, should the divine powers, which are identical with perfection, overcome in man the satanic powers, which are absolute imperfection, he becomes the noblest of all creatures, but should the converse take place, he becomes the vilest of all beings. That is why he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Available at www.bahai.org/r/265818142
Although this tension will always be there, the Bahá’í writings also explain that the desire to do good is inherent in human nature because we are created noble. This desire to do good, however, needs to be cultivated and strengthened. It is through faith and our spiritual alignment with the will of God that we are enabled to do this.
The image of the functioning of the human body also gives us insights into the quality of the relationships that should exist within a healthy community. In the human body, we can appreciate how healthy interactions take place and how they contribute to maintaining unity and harmony among the diverse parts. Different organs, each with their own assigned functions, work together to allow new capacities to emerge––capacities that are manifested only when all the parts are functioning properly, each in its own sphere, and in perfect synchronization. Some of these capacities are associated with a specific organ while others do not belong to any particular one; the emergence of such capacities requires cooperation and reciprocity among the parts of the body. Whenever this cooperation breaks down or is replaced by competition, the body’s ability to manifest these capacities is inhibited.
The intention of this presentation is not to present a thorough analysis of the process of community building. It is simply to share a few ideas for reflection on the efforts of Bahá’í communities worldwide to bring about a new kind of community and ultimately contribute to the emergence of a peaceful and just world civilization envisioned in the sacred Writings. In this connection, we have spent some time examining the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. The analogy of a human body was used to see how the principle of oneness is foundational to our conception of a community and guides our choices and our actions.
The Bahá’í world is still in the early stages of the process of community building, and there is a great deal to be done before the process reaches fruition. In light of the challenges facing humanity, the task before us may seem daunting indeed, but we are committed to this process over the long term and are inspired to make constant efforts to better understand the relevant principles and to reflect this understanding in our approaches. We draw on spiritual forces to assist us and to propel us forward, and the most powerful force binding us together is the force of universal love. ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses us: “Strive to increase the love-power of reality” and “to make your hearts greater centers of attraction and to create new ideals and relationships.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy, (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 107. Love, He writes, is “the magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms” and “the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407306067
In recent years, the scale of migration and displacement across the world has generated a sense of crisis in many societies. In 2015-2016, for example, Europe experienced the largest influx of migrants since the Second World War. Many of these were asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, seeking security and well-being in Europe; over one million people applied for asylum in 2015 alone.1https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_statistics The European “migration crisis” received tremendous attention in news outlets around the world, yet the most dramatic consequences of displacement were arguably happening elsewhere. That same year, over 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.2UNHCR 2015. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Available from: < https://www.unhcr.org/576408cd7.pdf > The vast majority of refugees were not hosted in Europe, but rather Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan. Beyond those who count as forcibly displaced were a far greater number of peoples moving for other reasons, including education, work, or family. In 2015, there were over 244 million international migrants worldwide.
Although large-scale population movements are nothing new – global international migration rates have remained surprisingly stable, hovering around some three percent of the world’s population since at least the 1960s3Zlotnik, Hania. 1999. “Trends of International Migration since 1965: What Existing Data Reveal.” International Migration 37 (1):21-61 UN. 2015. International Migration Stock: The 2015 Revision. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. – the sense of crisis that present-day migration generates provides an opportunity to reflect on the root causes of this movement, to see the ways in which migration and displacement are expressions of deeper processes of integration and disintegration transforming our world.
In response to a letter seeking guidance about how to respond to the migration crisis in Europe in 2015, the Universal House of Justice wrote to one National Spiritual Assembly, “It is all too easy to be swept up in the immediacy of the crisis and echo the cries arising on one side or another of the contemporary debate surrounding the flow of refugees and migrants, seeking a rapid solution to a problem which is but the latest symptom of a much deeper and far-reaching concern.”4Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly, dated 1 October 2015 The message goes on to suggest that, rather than becoming enmeshed in the political divisiveness migration-related issues are now generating, a more productive line of inquiry is to consider the underlying drivers of migration and displacement and the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith that address them.
This article aims to make a modest contribution to the task suggested by the Universal House of Justice by examining the root causes of migration in the contemporary period. First, it reframes migration as a consequence of social transformation, a perspective that shows why migration is an intrinsic part of humanity’s collective life, and why any fundamental shift in patterns of migration will require transforming the very fabric of global society. Second, it describes elements of a Bahá’í view of the present moment that can help us see beyond the tumult of today and look with hope towards a future of global integration. In doing so, this article argues that migration provides a lens to better understand the social forces shaping our world order, and the depth of transformation required to realize peace and prosperity for all of humanity.
Migration and Social Transformation
In debates about migration, there are two common yet polarized perspectives. The first sees migration as a problem to be solved, a temporary response to “push” and “pull” factors that may be remedied as socioeconomic opportunities become more equal between places. This perspective assumes sedentary life as the normal human condition, and migration as an aberration requiring explanation or intervention.5Bakewell, Oliver. 2008. “‘Keeping Them in Their Place’: The Ambivalent Relationship between Development and Migration in Africa.” Third World Quarterly 29 (7):1341-1358. doi: 10.1080/01436590802386492. Malkki, Liisa. 1992. “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1):24-44. It is often from this vantagepoint that governments and non-governmental organizations seek to address the root causes of migration. If livelihood opportunities can increase, development policy assumes, less people should need to leave their homes. A second perspective alternatively emphasizes that human beings have always moved, and that there is nothing unnatural about migration. “Ours is a migratory species,” the author Mohsin Hamid reminds us.6“In the 21st century, we are all migrants”, National Geographic, by Mohsin Hamid. Available from: < https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/08/we-all-are-migrants-in-the-21st-century/ > Indeed, almost everyone can find a story of migration in their family history. Rather than a problem to be solved, this perspective emphasizes that migration is the means by which human beings throughout history have solved their problems, explored the world and improved their lives.
Both perspectives contain a kernel of truth, yet both obscure important realities about migration trends today. The first perspective, for example, neglects a growing body of research that shows rising levels of income, health and education in poorer countries are associated with greater emigration.7de Haas, Hein. 2007. “Turning the Tide? Why Development Will Not Stop Migration.” Development and Change 38 (5):819-841. Clemens, Michael A., and Hannah M. Postel. 2018. “Deterring Emigration with Foreign Aid: An Overview of Evidence from Low-Income Countries.” Population and Development Review 44 (4): 667-693. Clemens, Michael A. “Does Development Reduce Migration?”, in Robert E. B. Lucas, ed., International Handbook on Migration and Economic Development, Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 152–185. The pursuit of “development” in the modern period appears to stimulate, rather than reduce, migration. In particular, development ideologies that emphasize the free movement of goods, capital and ideas also seem to propel the movement of people. Similarly, the second perspective, which emphasizes the naturalness of migration, can fail to appreciate how and why migration patterns have changed over time. Indeed, people have always moved, but the forces driving and shaping migration patterns have changed in rather dramatic ways across the ages. Further, a singular emphasis on migration as “normal” can risk ignoring or even naturalizing the unjust social structures that widen inequalities between people and places and also motivate population movements.
Dissatisfied with prevalent framings and theories of migration, a group of researchers associated with the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford and later the University of Amsterdam began articulating a “social transformation perspective” for the study of migration.8Castles, Stephen. 2010. “Understanding Global Migration: A Social Transformation Perspective.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36 (10):1565-1586. Van Hear, Nicholas. 2010. “Theories of Migration and Social Change.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36 (10):1531-1536. Castles, Stephen, Derya Ozkul, and Magdalena Cubas. 2015. Social Transformation and Migration: National and Local Experiences in South Korea, Turkey, Mexico and Australia: Springer. de Haas, Hein, Sonja Fransen, Katharina Natter, Kerilyn Schewel, and Simona Vezzoli. 2020. “Social Transformation.” IMI Working Paper Series. International Migration Institute, University of Amsterdam. Available from: < migrationinstitute.org > This theoretical approach assumes that the ways in which people move and settle transform in patterned ways whenever social transformation, defined here as a “fundamental shift in the way society is organized that goes beyond the incremental processes of social change that are always at work,”9Castles, Stephen. 2010. “Understanding Global Migration: A Social Transformation Perspective.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36 (10):1565-1586, page: 1576 occurs. Migration is not inherently “good” or “bad” – indeed, examples abound of both – but rather reflects how humanity organizes its social life. A core implication of a social transformation perspective is that to understand the underlying causes of migration, we must look to the nature and transformation of society itself.
The relationship between migration and social transformation is easier to discern from a historical perspective, when one can step outside the complexities and sensitivities that surround migration today. Taking a long-term perspective, there are at least three fundamental turning points in the migration history of humankind, each of which corresponds to important shifts in the deep structure of humanity’s collective life. The first occurred when human beings first ventured off the African continent. It is perhaps no coincidence that these new ventures overlapped with another new development: speech, which emerged sometime between 90,000 to 40,000 years ago. Speech gave unprecedented advantages for survival by enabling heightened levels of collective organization. While we cannot be sure of the exact causes of our early human ancestors’ first great migrations, historians note a remarkable dispersal of human beings out of Africa across the globe relatively soon thereafter, between 40,000 and 10,000 BCE.10McNeill, John Robert, and William Hardy McNeill. 2003. The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Another turning point in humanity’s migration history began to take place around 10,000 BCE. Innovations surrounding the storage of food, and later the domestication of plants and animals, enabled and encouraged human beings to live together in larger groups, giving rise to the first agricultural villages. This Neolithic Revolution brought profound mobility consequences: it allowed human beings to settle down, seasonally or more permanently. The very act of settling created the conditions out of which the first cities, and later civilizations, emerged. In the several thousand years thereafter, the possibility of settlement gave rise to three distinct yet interlocking ways of life: the rural agricultural, the nomadic pastoral, and the urban complex—each playing distinct and important roles in the emergence and spread of civilization throughout the centuries to come. The political strength and economic diversification possible in urban centers rested upon the acquisition and production of rural hinterlands, and pastoral communities played a crucial part of “trade and raid,” twin drivers of human movement and exchange.11McNeill, John Robert, and William Hardy McNeill. 2003. The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. New York: WW Norton & Company. During this time, urban centers were often perceived as the seats of civilization, yet the vast majority of humanity lived in rural settings.
Over the last several centuries, another fundamental shift in our collective migration history has been unfolding: urbanization, that is, the gradual displacement of rural and pastoral livelihoods by urban-centric social and economic organization. This process of urbanization, from a global perspective, has witnessed the mass movement of humanity from rural areas to urban centers, within their homelands or outside of them. While in 1800, only 15-20 percent of humanity lived in urban areas, this share increased to 34 percent in 1960 and by 2007 humanity reached a tipping point; the majority of humanity now lives in urban areas, a share that is projected to increase to 68 percent by 2050.12UNPD. 2018. 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects. Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations. Available from: < https://population.un.org/wup/ > Transformations in recent international migration trends may be seen as an integral part of this global urbanization process. While a relatively high proportion of international migration in the 17th through 19th centuries was directed towards settling or conquering less population-dense territories – a kind of “frontier” or “settler” migration – today a growing share of international migration is directed towards “global cities” and large urban areas in wealthier countries. Humanity is thus in the midst of another migration transition,13Scholars tend to examine “migration transitions” from the perspective of states or regions. I apply the concept here to speak in very broad strokes about shifts in humanity’s mobility patterns. For more on “migration transitions”, see: Skeldon, Ronald. 2012. “Migration Transitions Revisited: Their Continued Relevance for the Development of Migration Theory.” Population, Space and Place 18:154-166. and the causes and consequences of these new population movements are what we are grappling to understand today.
The social forces driving humanity’s urban transition are complex. Technological innovations in manufacturing and transport led to the wide-scale displacement of traditional systems of economic production, which often relied on producing goods by hand, with machine-based systems of production that tend to concentrate production processes in urban areas. This Industrial Revolution is intimately tied to a range of other social shifts: new conceptions of work based on wages rather than subsistence; the expansion of formal education designed to prepare students for the specialization and division of labor in industrial and post-industrial societies; rising levels of consumption and changing notions of the good life; investments in infrastructure to facilitate heightened levels of connectivity, to name but a few. As societies around the world experienced the political, economic, technological and cultural changes associated with industrialization, more people began to leave rural ways of life to work in neighboring towns or cities elsewhere.14de Haas, Hein, Sonja Fransen, Katharina Natter, Kerilyn Schewel, and Simona Vezzoli. 2020. “Social Transformation.” IMI Working Paper Series. International Migration Institute, University of Amsterdam. Available from: < migrationinstitute.org > And as the world becomes increasingly connected, the destinations potential migrants consider become increasingly distant.
Globalization, what has been described as the “widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life,”15Held, D., A. McGrew, D. Goldblatt and J. Perraton. 1999. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Cambridge: Polity: page 2 is thus another important process of social change shaping the nature and direction of migration trends. As processes of globalization accelerate, international migration flows follow global geopolitical and economic shifts. Consider the rise of the Gulf States after the discovery of vast reservoirs of oil in the mid-20th century, and the 1973 Oil Shock that suddenly increased the price of oil. This generated new financial resources to undertake major development projects in the region, as well as greater demand for foreign workers to carry out the work. While there were only some two million migrant workers in the Gulf region in 1975, some 68 percent of whom were from other Arab countries,16Thiollet, Helene. 2011. “Migration as Diplomacy: Labor Migrants, Refugees, and Arab Regional Politics in the Oil-Rich Countries.” International Labor and Working-Class History (79):103-121. the scale of migration increased dramatically over the following decades. By 2017, Saudi Arabia alone hosted some 12.1 million migrants, comprising some 37 percent of its total population, and making it the second major migration destination after the United States.17Migration Policy Institute tabulation of data from the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2017). Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Destination and Origin (United Nations database, POP/DB/MIG/Stock/Rev.2017). Most migrant workers now come from countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The incomes migrant workers can earn in Saudi Arabia far exceed any opportunity available to them at home, while in Saudi Arabia, the work they provide is considered “cheap.” Economic globalization has contributed to the emergence of new “migration systems” across long distances, to such a degree that a young woman in rural Ethiopia, for example, may find it easier to migrate to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker than to find sustainable work in her home region.18Schewel, Kerilyn. 2018. “Ziway or Dubai: Can Flower Farms in Ethiopia Reduce Migration to the Middle East?” IOM Migration Research Series (55):2-14.
Given the uneven nature of globalization in the modern period, particularly the growing divide between the richest and poorest countries and peoples, it is perhaps not surprising that, from a global perspective, migration scholars Mathias Czaika and Hein de Haas find that international migration occurs from an increasingly diverse array of origin countries, but concentrates on a shrinking pool of destination countries.19Czaika, Mathias, and Hein de Haas. 2014. “The Globalization of Migration: Has the World Become More Migratory?” International Migration Review 48 (2):283-323. While theorists once hoped that globalization would “flatten” the world and reduce levels of inequality in opportunity and welfare, globalization has thus far been a highly asymmetrical process, favoring particular countries, or powerful groups within these countries, at the expense of others.20See Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Sassen, Saskia. 1991. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Stiglitz, Joseph. 2002. Globalisation and its Discontents. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. Migration patterns, it seems, have followed these asymmetries.21See Czaika, Mathias, and Hein de Haas. 2014. “The Globalization of Migration: Has the World Become More Migratory?” International Migration Review 48 (2):283-323.
Because of these asymmetries, the drivers of internal and international migration should not be analyzed separately from patterns of displacement and refugee migration. The widescale displacement of populations around the world – due to conflict, natural disasters, or livelihood constraints – are also part of the social transformations of the modern period. The modern transformation has forged a global civilization, and today, more than ever before, “the welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole.”22Letter from the Universal House of Justice addressed to the Bahá’ís of the World, dated 1 March 2017 Yet, despite this reality, individuals, companies, and countries continue to prioritize their own well-being in isolation from their neighbors’. The gap between the humanity’s richest and poorest is widening as unprecedented quantities of wealth are amassed by a relative few.23https://inequality.org/facts/global-inequality/The pursuit of power and economic gain continues to overrule concern for how the environment, which sustains all of humanity, is affected.24Letter from the Universal House of Justice addressed to the Bahá’ís of the World, dated 1 March 2017 These social ills nurture the conditions within which prejudice, insecurity, and conflict take root. In this light, it is easier to see why, although common discourse and legal pathways for migration often make a hard distinction between “refugees” and “economic migrants,” the reality is much more blurred. People’s movement in response to these shifting forces may be conceptualized as occurring along a spectrum of “forced” to “voluntary,” with much contemporary migration occurring somewhere in the middle.
Humanity’s response to migration and displacement
Many governments remain ill-prepared to respond to the opportunities and challenges migration presents to their societies. Migration policies in many countries tend to favor the entry of the so-called “highly skilled” while restricting the entry of “low-skilled” workers, asylum seekers and refugees.25Castles, Stephen. 2007. ‘The Forces Driving Global Migration’, Journal of Intercultural Studies 34(2): 122-140. FitzGerald, David. 2019. Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers: Oxford University Press. Yet, as one migration researcher Stephen Castles observed, “the more that states and supranational bodies do to restrict and manage migration, the less successful they seem to be.”26Castles, Stephen. 2004. ‘Why Migration Policies Fail’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 27(2): 205-227, page 205. Stronger border controls, because they do not address the underlying reasons why people leave, push many migrants into more dangerous and precarious trajectories.27Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Karen A. Pren. 2016. “Why Border Enforcement Backfired.” American Journal of Sociology 121 (5):1557-1600. doi: 10.1086/684200. Development aid that does seek to address migration’s root causes is simply not large enough to meaningfully stymie the complex forces driving people’s movement,28Clemens, Michael A., and Hannah M. Postel. 2018. “Deterring Emigration with Foreign Aid: An Overview of Evidence from Low-Income Countries.” Population and Development Review. doi:10.1111/padr.12184. nor eliminate the persistent demand for immigrant labor in wealthy countries.29Piore, Michael J. 1979. Birds of Passage: Migrant Workers and Industrial Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Further, millions of refugees now live in precarious situations, and despite unprecedented levels of generosity, the gap between needs and humanitarian funding is widening.30Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Global Compact on Refugees. United Nations General Assembly Official Records (A/73/12 (Part II)). Available from: < https://www.unhcr.org/gcr/GCR_English.pdf >
Recognizing that contemporary migration patterns stem from the structure of society complicates the hope that addressing its root causes is an easy task. On the contrary, it points to the depth of transformation required to fundamentally reshape the drivers and dynamics of migration in the world today. As humanity grapples with the opportunities and challenges posed by migration, the Baha’i Writings provide a perspective from which we can situate our reading of the present reality and orient long-term approaches to migration and social change.
First, concerning the present: implicit within the Baha’i teachings is the assurance that we are living through a period of global transformation, in which humanity is progressing towards its collective maturity, characterized by the unity of the human race within one social order. In this period of transition, Bahá’ís are “encouraged to see in the revolutionary changes taking place in every sphere of life the interaction of two fundamental processes. One is destructive in nature, while the other is integrative; both serve to carry humanity, each in its own way, along the path leading towards its full maturity.”31Letter from the Universal House of Justice addressed to the Bahá’ís of Iran, dated 2 March 2013 As humanity proceeds through its collective adolescence and into maturity, all of humanity is affected by these twin forces of integration and disintegration simultaneously, and migration is but one of innumerable social processes affected by them.
In this light, the patterned relationships described above between industrialization and urbanization, or globalization and international migration, are not inevitable in any absolute sense. After all, the pursuit of industrialization and globalization have been highly political and ideological processes, often shaped by narrow economic conceptions about how “modernization” or “development” ought to be achieved. While these processes most likely cannot be reversed, they can evolve in new directions. “However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future,” the Universal House of Justice writes, “and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity’s stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples.”32Letter from the Universal House of Justice addressed to the Bahá’ís of the World, dated 1 March 2017 To fundamentally reshape patterns of migration or to alleviate the structural drivers of displacement, then, will require long-term approaches to social change that strive for the material and spiritual prosperity of all of humankind while recognizing our global interconnectedness.
Second, concerning the future: the Baha’i Writings envisage a future global society unified in all aspects of its political and economic life, where “the flow of goods and persons from place to place is vastly freer than anything which now obtains in the world as a whole.”33From a letter dated 13 November 1985 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer As Bahá’u’lláh wrote in 1882, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” The task Bahá’u’lláh set before humanity is to recognize its fundamental oneness and transform its collective life in light of this reality. The principle of the oneness of humankind is, as Shoghi Effendi declared, “no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope.” Its implications are deeper: “its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. […] It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced.”34Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 42-43. This perspective suggests that debates surrounding migration must go far beyond the question of whether countries should open or close their borders. Only when the earth functions as the common homeland of humankind can the full benefits of migration be realized and the drivers of displacement eliminated.
The magnitude of transformation the Bahá’í Writings envision could lead to a sense of paralysis in the face of the immediate and weighty challenges associated with migration: the needlessly lost lives of migrant men, women, and children seeking opportunities for a better life (in the Mediterranean Sea alone, more than 18,500 people have been recorded dead or missing since 2014)35Migration Data Portal, Migrant Deaths and Disappearances, 17 March 2020, Available from: < https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/migrant-deaths-and-disappearances > the strength of anti-immigrant sentiment and the flourishing of prejudice and racism that eclipse any opportunity for meaningful public debate about migration; the reality that young generations in many societies around the world can no longer envision building a future where they are. These challenges cannot be addressed by a single country or movement, no matter how benevolently motivated.
And yet, alongside these manifestations of disintegration, promising signs of global solidarity and new forms of international cooperation provide hope that processes of integration are also gaining strength. At the local level, examples abound of individuals and communities organizing in ways that increasingly reflect the counsel ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave to humanity over a century ago: “Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines.”36Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pages 1-2. This is not only the case in Europe or North America, whose immigration dynamics receive the bulk of scholarly and public attention, but also in countries like Uganda, which in 2018, hosted the largest number of refugees after Turkey and Pakistan. While migration brings many social and economic challenges in a country where poverty levels remain high, many Ugandans are proud of their country’s welcoming stance towards refugees. “They are our brothers and sisters” is a common sentiment..37“Can Uganda’s Breakthrough Refugee-Hosting Model Be Sustained?” Migration Policy Institute, 31 October 2018, by Tessa Coggio. Available from: < https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/can-ugandas-breakthrough-refugee-hosting-model-be-sustained > One might also consider the way the inhabitants of small Mexican towns fed, clothed, and sheltered thousands of Central American migrants traveling North in 2018. “This is a poor town, but we still did all this,” one city councilwoman in Pijijiapan expressed. Another woman serving food explained, “We know that we are all brothers. What God gives us, we should share.”38“Mexicans shower the caravan with kindness — and tarps, tortillas and medicine” The Washington Post, 26 October 2018, by Joshua Partlow. Available from: < https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/mexicans-shower-the-caravan-with-kindness–and-tarps-tortillas-and-medicine/2018/10/26/b2f828b4-d7b0-11e8-8384-bcc5492fef49_story.html > Although the media and public discourse often suggest rising levels of social strain or xenophobia associated with migration around the world, examples of everyday kindnesses and solidarity, motivated by consciousness of our common humanity, are everywhere if one looks for them.
At the institutional level, an increasing number of spaces are also being created for national governments and international organizations to go beyond a focus on crisis management to consult on the positive potential of migration, and the need for greater policy coherence and global cooperation. The 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is one such example. It is the first-ever United Nations global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions, endorsed by 164 countries. Its objectives highlight the global cooperation required to alleviate the adverse structural conditions that hinder people from building and maintaining sustainable livelihoods in their countries of origin.39Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Available from: < https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/migration-compact > At the same time, many countries that express strong fears about immigration in public and political discourse also experience a strong economic demand for immigration as their native populations age. Nation-states and international organizations are considering new ways to facilitate migration that can realize migration’s powerful potential for good, for migrants themselves as well as origin and destination societies.40For example, see efforts to expand Global Skills Partnerships: https://www.cgdev.org/page/global-skill-partnerships
Nevertheless, all actors involved recognize that such compacts and other promising developments will fail to achieve their aims without concerted effort on the part of individuals, communities, and institutions around the world to realize more profound transformations in the fabric of society and the relationships that govern it. This will require an approach to migration, development, and international cooperation that recognizes our common humanity and global interconnectedness and that the well-being of one place cannot be pursued in isolation from the well-being of the whole. This is the direction towards which the Bahá’í community and like-minded individuals and organizations are striving. Migration, then, is but one lens to better understand Baha’u’llah’s injunction that, “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”41Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, page 286