Five years ago I spent a few days with National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek, a writer who is walking around the world, retracing the journey begun when modern humans first left Africa. Salopek’s walking 21,000 miles; I joined him for five miles I’ll never forget.
In Şanlıurfa, a dusty town in southern Turkey that is reputed to be the birthplace of Abraham, we found ourselves in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. Everywhere we looked, we saw Syrian refugees—in throngs on the streets, in small apartments crammed with multiple families. We saw people unable to find work of any kind, no matter their skills or education. We talked with people scared and scarred by their country’s brutal civil war; we heard stories of suffering, rape, torture, and other horrific crimes.
At the time, the United Nations reported that 51 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced, for reasons ranging from war to economic hardship. That report declared the 2013 refugee count the highest since World War II. Unfortunately, the record’s been broken every year since. The latest UN report says 68.5 million people had been forcibly displaced by the end of 2017.
Humankind has always been on the move, fleeing a peril or searching for something better. In this month’s issue, we focus on those migrations, past and present. Writer Andrew Curry takes us inside a new science—paleogenetics—and explains what it’s revealing about the migrations that have shaped the populations of modern Europe.
Salopek journeys by choice, unlike many of the migrants he meets. His cover story describes the desperation of those trying to escape war, starvation, disaster: “How strong is the push to leave? To abandon what you love? To walk into the unknown with all your possessions stuffed into a pocket? It is more powerful than fear of death.”
The World Bank says that by 2050, the effects of climate change will spur some 143 million people to migrate. As one global threat compounds another, we will continue to provide thorough and meaningful coverage of these human journeys.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.