The Intertwining of Migration and Ethnic Conflict

Jehu J. Hanciles 02 May 2014

Editor’s Note: This article was written ahead of Cape Town 2010 in response to Samuel Escobar’s ‘Migration and Ethnic Conflict’. In highlighting this piece for Lausanne’s Best Of series, some updated statistics are due, which further ratify the points made in the article: in 2019, the UN estimated the number of international migrants to be 272 million, comprising 3.5% of the total population (as opposed to 2.8% in 2000), or about 1 in every 29 persons. At the end of 2018, the UNHCR estimated there were 41.3 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs) around the world.

A Response to Samuel Escobar’s ‘Migration and Ethnic Conflict

Since the 1960s human migratory flows have remained at historically unprecedented levels due mainly to decolonization, economic globalization, global demographic trends, environmental disasters, armed conflict and political upheaval. By 2005, according to UN estimates, one in every 33 persons on the planet (a total of roughly 192 million people) was an international migrant. For the vast majority, movement is a matter of survival.

Another major migrant group is internally displaced peoples (IDPs): those displaced by violence or conflict within their own countries. In 2008, IDPs numbered 26 million, with the majority in Africa. The lines between international migrants and IDPs are often blurred in the developing world; but the most important fact to note is that, globally, the vast majority of migrants, regardless of category, are non-white and non-Western.

Ethnic conflict involves confrontation between groups distinguished by cultural identity, language, race and/or religion; and it can be violent (marked by use of force) or non-violent (involving active discrimination, rejection, tacit abuse and threat of violence). The latter form is more pervasive. The causal links between migration and ethnic conflict are complex: one often triggers the other, and vice versa, yet, in many instances, either one can be accounted for without the other. Still, it is sobering that the last half century has seen both a phenomenal rise in human migration and a worldwide proliferation of ethnic conflicts. Where and how religion contributes to this volatile relationship is nearly always complicated.

When people move they take their religious beliefs and practices with them. Indeed, for many people religious life is enshrined in cultural identity and therefore inseparable from social existence. For this reason, religious observance can exacerbate the normal tensions between immigrants and home-grown groups. In highly secular Western society, religious distinctiveness typically factors in efforts to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of new immigrants—as indicated by the palpable frictions generated by the burgeoning Muslim population within European societies.

In his thoughtful piece, Samuel Escobar outlines the key role that migrant movement of various kinds has always played in Christian expansion, and he highlights numerous examples from the New Testament. Curiously, though he identifies significant challenges that migration poses to ‘mission-minded Christians’ today, he offers little on the correlation between migration and ethnic conflict. Escobar’s basic point is salutary. The extraordinary increase in the volume of global migratory flows should prompt Christians (those who take missions seriously) to pay close attention to the biblical record.

The Bible depicts every significant form of migration and its narrative is extensively shaped by human mobility. The Old Testament patriarchs (and matriarchs) were frequently migrants and the story of the people of Israel is dominated by large scale migration, including Jacob’s journey to Egypt with his entire clan, the Exodus, Babylonian Exile, and Diaspora existence thereafter. In the New Testament, Jesus’ life (including his parents’ flight to Egypt) and ministry reflects constant movement, displacement and alienation. And, as Escobar demonstrates, the existence and expansion of the early church was marked by many instances of migration and the decisive actions or ministries of migrant believers.

But the biblical record is also replete with illustrations of the conflicts inevitably generated by migrant movement. As foreigners in Egypt, the Israelites faced hostility and oppression, and the migrations that mark their long journey toward nationhood were marred by recurrent conflict with other nations or ethnic groups. In the Book of Acts, conflict between Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews (who in the Palestinian context were essentially immigrants) threatened shared existence within the new community of faith as the cultural and social divisions of the wider context intruded.

A biblical perspective, however, points to larger abiding truths. Scripture reveals a profound interconnectedness between human migration and divine action (or the unfolding of divine purposes related to human salvation). For instance, it is striking how many of the heroes of faith identified in the Letter to the Hebrews were migrants—indeed, they are described as ‘strangers and pilgrims.’ Moreover, Yahweh’s special cognizance of the outsider/foreigner is also captured in the specific provisions for aliens and immigrants enshrined in the Law (Leviticus 19:33–34). In the New Testament, it was the disorderly refugee movement triggered by the martyrdom of Stephen that ushered in the spread of the gospel to Gentiles. Not only does the ‘Christian’ label emerge out of the experience of dispersion, the church is also subsequently identified as a community of ‘aliens and strangers.’

All of this has far-reaching implications for a 21st century church that exists in an ‘age of migration.’ Already, the rising tide of international migrations has stimulated an extraordinary missionary movement from the non-Western world into Western societies, while the church in the West finds itself increasingly confronted by tough questions related to the plight and impact of massive immigration. A biblical perspective calls for attentiveness to the issues surrounding immigrant populations and responsive engagement in situations where ethnic conflict or cultural tensions add to the complexities. This is an area where evangelical Christian witness has, generally speaking, been sadly lacking. Perhaps what is needed is a renewed understanding of the church as ‘strangers and pilgrims on earth.’

Jehu H. Hanciles was born in Sierra Leone and is Director of the Center for Missiological Research and associate professor of history of Christianity and globalization in the Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies. His most recent book is Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)