Monarch butterflies have completed their journey south, and now rest among themselves in the warmth of south-central Mexico, reminding us of the amazing transformation migration brings. Remarkably, one can flip effortlessly between news articles detailing the journey of the butterflies and those showing the human migration movements happening presently.
Obviously, most human migration has not been captured by recorded history. But even in contemporary times as technology began to transmit stories around the globe, geographical distance often meant that details of migration events were lost on all but those immediately affected. Partition in India in 1947, and the accompanying flight of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, was barely captured by cameras or hearts of the time. Adults may remember when such events and their human consequences began to visit them in their homes, perhaps after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 when shocking images of Bosnian Muslims flooded television screens. Even during those recent days, one could turn off the television and remain in their own world.
Now, the world watches closely. The Syrian refugee crisis, waged in the background of our adolescence, is shocking in numbers. To think of how much has changed in our own lives since 2011 puts the sheer length of the crisis in perspective. Today, the Rohingya push from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the hundreds of thousands. These stories play out in real time on phone screens on our way to class; at last, we have gotten as close as possible to experiencing these migrations on the scale of a moment. A photograph of a Rohingya man with his hands clasped together, eyes screwed shut, his anguish not only inferred but highly visible. There is joy in our hearts and real tears in our eyes when we watch children reunite with mothers, crisis averted, it seems. Refugee simulation experiences give citizens across the United States a taste of what psychological and emotional tumult can characterize these experiences. One wonders if it will be enough.
Digital media permits its users to migrate — they see, hear and read to understand and think through modern migration events for themselves. This equipment is a godsend, a revolution that elevates our potential to extend curiosity from beyond our immediate physical environs into the space provided by data, to find something real out there to grasp onto. There is hope that previous failures to stop the violent conflict and socioeconomic instability that often precipitate migration have been due, in some part, to people whose lack of compassion is rooted in ignorance, not apathy. For now as readers’ emotional and attentional centers are seized upon by images and sound, and the information to comprehend the details and historical context of events is available, they are implicated in the conflicts they witness. For better and for worse, as the distance between migrants and their homes grows wider, and the virtual distance between people seems to close, humanity is at a crossroads. Let us hope that the power of individual awareness and the power to act is not underestimated, or worse, brushed past with a flick to the next article.