Immigrants and Refugees as Geographers

Who is a geographer? What are the competencies necessary to practice geography?

The impact of geography on our lives is so powerful and pervasive, that often we do not think about the geographic decisions that we make every day in our personal lives.

‘Hmmm…I’d like another beer, but first I want to finish watching this football game until the third quarter ends. Then I know I’ll have a couple minutes of commercials to get that beer from the fridge, but I’ll also use the time to take the trash out and bring the mail in.’

There – I’ve made a handful of space-time related decisions and practiced geography without conscious thought. We each make many space-time decisions every day of our lives, related to where we live, who we visit, where we go to school and work, vacations, shopping trips, etc.

But I think that we under-estimate a class of people most profoundly impacted by geography and who practice geographic analysis to make truly life changing decisions – immigrants and refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counts almost 80 million refugees worldwide in 2019, and there are as many as a quarter-billion foreign-born immigrants or expatriates in 2015. Together – a third of a billion people worldwide do not live in the country of their birth. Only two countries – China and India – have larger populations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently published their 2019 Goalkeepers Report, Examining Inequality which identifies many geographic factors as predictors of a healthy and productive life. The report examines how geographic factors enable or hinder people through the course of their lives.

The geographic factors in the 2019 Goalkeeper Report fall into five categories. These factors are obvious when we think about them in the abstract of our affluent world, but most of us have little motivation to think about them in our daily lives. But these factors are critical to motivate emigration, and perhaps they are life or death for those who become refugees.

A group of people around each other

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DFID – UK Department for International Development – Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, northern Jordan (CC BY 2.0)

What are these five factors and how would potential immigrants and refugees think about them?

Geography – is all encompassing. We live our lives in a geographic environment that is the stage of our lives. Within this geographic stage we need to secure the necessities of life: a home, a livelihood, food, family, safety, and a secure future. Geographic factors that impact our ability to thrive include the classics, like climate, soils, transportation, natural resources, and infrastructure. Mobile communication technology now allows people anywhere in the world to compare their location with other geographies, over the horizon or around the world. The types of factors that vary by location include…

Demographics – What is the population make-up and density related to the natural environment? Does my family face limitations of opportunity because of race and religion? Because of gender? Does age restrict opportunities? Can my family use our abilities to their full potential?

Shocks & Fragilities – In 2020 there are at least three dozen countries worldwide where there are zones of armed conflict which impact innocent people. Will my family be caught in the front line of conflict? Periodic natural disasters including hurricanes and typhoons, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and disease, as well as the ongoing shock of climate change, are ever-present threats. Will the next natural disaster threaten my family’s well-being?

Socio-economic – Do I have potential here, where I live now, to increase my income in the future? Do I have access here to the education that I know will be the key to a better life for my children and grand-children? And are there a range of services (health-care, farm-services, transportation, basic utilities, Wi-Fi, banking, etc.) where I live to support personal progress and community sustainability?

Governance – Do I have a voice in the governance of my community? Can I depend on the rule of law? Are regulations reasonable and are they administered efficiently, or do they create undue burdens on me and my family? Do I get value for the taxes that I pay, or do they fund corruption and waste?

I can imagine my grandparents 120 years ago in Austrian Galicia considering many of these same factors in deciding to migrate to America. Now, imagine a young couple today, living in some country on the edge of the Sahel, and talking one evening…

‘…our two young daughters face a difficult future life. People of our tribal origins always face discrimination by the corrupt governing elite in the regional capital because of our race and religion. Our crops are often poor and our sheep lack grass because every year there is less rain. Plus, we have no near-by school or health services. And I fear that the armed militias will return to our province next year. But maybe there is hope. Your brother in Italy tells us that life can be much better there, if somehow we can make the difficult journey and join him…’

Worldwide, a third of a billion people have done critical geographical analysis that led them to make one of the most important family decisions imaginable. Immigrants and refugees know that geography matters!

Greg Babinski is Marketing and Business Development Manager for the King County GIS Center in Seattle, where he has worked since 1998. Previously he worked for nine years as GIS Mapping Supervisor for the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland.  He holds an MA in geography from Wayne State University. At Wayne State, Greg was influenced by William Bunge and his pioneering work with the Detroit Geographical Expedition.

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