The Dangerous Journey: Indigenous peoples and migration

by Kevin Dance, C.P.

“If I forget my native speech, and the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears, what use is my mouth?

If I forget the smell of the earth and do not serve it well
What use are my hands why am I living in the world?

How can I believe the foolish idea
that my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words were in Evenk?”

--Alitet Nemtushkin, Indigenous person Russia
“All the old people know the meaning of the story for their own country....Aboriginal people have stories about land, sea, animals and people from the beginning when the world was soft.....These stories teach you everything. How to live in the country and how to respect each other...They tell you about important places we have to look after.”

--Joe Brown, Walmajarri Elder
Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, Australia.

It was the children of the modern, fragmented world who invented the notion of identity and “identity crisis.” Indigenous people, the children of living tradition, draw their identity from belonging to the group. It is grounded in the land, often called mother earth. Their identity is deep but it is also fragile.

Migration affects millions of people, but bites more with indigenous people. Because they so often live at the margins of society, are more often poorer and more vulnerable, they are like the ‘canary in the coal mine’ — they show us the likely costs of unmanaged globalization and ‘development’ that place profit before people.

Women in festive dress

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recognized that indigenous peoples are too often invisible and so at risk. It called for a workshop on ‘Migration and indigenous women,’ to highlight the urgency and the size of the problem, including the alarming trend of trafficking indigenous women within and across national borders. A Workshop took place in Geneva in 2006.

There is a growing body of information on global levels, trends and patterns of migration, but little information on the causes, dynamics and effects of migration on indigenous people. Such data is vital to devise policies that can protect indigenous peoples.

Migrants — forced or free?

Because of their deep attachment to the land, migration is often forced rather than voluntary for indigenous people. Military conflict, land dispossession, natural disasters, climate change and rising temperatures, all threaten their continuing links with the land that have nurtured them.

Women tending garden

The greatest biodiversity of trees, plants, insects, birds and various life forms is to be found on indigenous lands. Whether in the Amazon rainforests, remote parts of North America, the arctic region or in Pacific islands, migration can have a disastrous impact on the traditional knowledge they hold. The diversity they protect is threatened by things like mega-dams, mono-crops or the clearing of huge tracts of land for bio-fuel production.

How do communities and households deal with the emigration of their members? How do families fare when key family members migrate temporarily or permanently?

Communities are not only damaged by people moving out. They can be damaged by people, non-indigenous people, moving in! Their presence on indigenous lands usually leads to the people’s loss of control over their land and other natural resources. When opportunities to return to their traditional land arise, many migrants seek to go back. But return is often not possible because their land has been taken by others.

Some questions that are relevant to indigenous migration might be:

The borders, drawn by colonizers, often separate many indigenous people from their kin. In Colombia, for example, 50 per cent of indigenous people live in border areas and there is considerable movement back and forth across borders. Cross-border movements are also common in the Mekong region in Asia, and in Africa. But when they cross borders for contacts with communities, they often experience arrest, abuse or deportation.

Forced migration from indigenous communities usually relates to the loss of land. Globalization, economic development and modernization also result in indigenous lands being taken over for business development.

As countries rush to overcome extreme poverty through development projects, their indigenous people risk being uprooted from their land, traditions and way of life that gives them meaning and purpose. Such things as mines or huge hydroelectric dams encroach on indigenous lands and forcibly displace resident communities.

Push Factors

Indigenous migration is often tied to structural economic factors. Poverty closes doors to education and decent work, especially for the youth. Volatile agricultural prices mean smaller incomes which deepen poverty and become another of the “push factors.” High rates of disease and mortality, especially among mothers and young children, drive them to move in search of better health opportunities and survival.

People on the moveBut in needing to move, indigenous people often have fewer contacts in destination communities and fewer avenues to get sound information. Lacking knowledge of how to obtain visas or travel documents, they are likely to end up as undocumented migrants. Women are thus more open to become victims of trafficking.

Community and family life in home communities are the big losers to migration. Those migrating out often start a cycle of continued migration. In Guatemala, the flight of men to cities to find work led their women to follow to be reunited with their husbands.

Meanwhile, they often find discrimination in destination communities. Their skills and unique languages and cultures are often not valued and this is a recipe for marginalization. Often the only jobs to be found are in the informal sector and are not protected by labor laws. Like so many migrants they are fair game for exploitation, abuse and discrimination.

Girls and women often suffer three-fold discrimination --- they lack documents; they are female; they are indigenous. So the unscrupulous prey on them through violence, rape and other forms of sexual exploitation.

The Main Problem

The main problem is not the absence of international law, but weakness in implementing it at the national level. States must honor existing obligations under international law. Countries that have ratified CEDAW must work to protect indigenous migrant women. States should try to provide opportunities for temporary migration to lessen the damage done by permanent migration. Guatemala and Mexico have an agreement to better address indigenous migration between the two countries.

Indigenous people must be active players in developing policies and programs affecting their migration experience. Indigenous youth should also be involved. It is important to remember, in planning and legislation, that migration affects the collective rights of indigenous people and so impacts entire communities.

We must not limit our discussion of migration to economic and social consequences. At stake are the health, meaning and identity and survival of the people. Migration’s spiritual and cultural impact is real and lasting.

If a country is to be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then a fair deal for our indigenous sisters and brothers, as they face displacement and further impoverishment, will be a moral victory for us all.

Fr. Kevin Dance, C.P. represents the worldwide Passionist Community at the United Nations. Helpful information is available at
in this issue
The Passionists

Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Mary Ann Strain, C.P.
Kevin Dance, C.P.
Suzanne Thomas
James Fitzgerald
Joseph Jones, C.P.,
Eastern Province
Cover by
Mary Ann Strain, C.P.

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