A reporter's backstory – finding a way to humanize a global crisis

Seventy million people have been displaced by political violence, war, and persecution, emptying their savings and risking their lives to reach new lands. The Monitor told some of their stories in our series On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration, with 10 journalists covering more than a dozen countries.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Peter Ford speaks to a man in Agadez, Niger, a town on the edge of the Sahara that has long been a hub of people smuggling.

In our continuing series of profiles, let us introduce you to our Paris-based reporter at large, Peter Ford, who coordinated much of our On the Move coverage.

Before returning to Paris, Peter was our bureau chief in Beijing for a decade. Before that, he served as the Monitor’s bureau chief in Moscow and Paris. Peter also worked as our Middle East correspondent, arriving in the region in 1990, just in time to cover the Gulf War from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Why was this the moment to publish such an expansive series on this issue, and is the trend of migration shifting at all?

We chose to focus on migration and its impacts on migrants themselves and the countries (mainly European and the US) to which they are headed, because it is clearly one of the factors influencing national politics in the receiving countries most heavily. Heavy migrant flows in 2015-2016 into Europe sparked a national-populist backlash that has had continent-wide significance, and Donald Trump has made migration into an important campaign tool. The irony is that these effects are being felt with a time lag: migrant numbers in Europe this year are just 10 percent of their 2015-2016 levels, and the number of undocumented migrants entering the US has been falling for several years.

Various regions have seen periods in history when there were significant population shifts. But the current trend seems to be global, from Latin America to Asia to the Middle East. Is there a common thread here?

We should distinguish between those fleeing for their lives, who are refugees under international law, and those seeking to escape poverty, who do not enjoy international protection. Wars and civil strife have created refugees for as long as people have been fighting. But today’s refugees and migrants have one thing in common – their horizons are wider and they look further afield for solutions. Afghans fled their civil war in the early 1980s, after the Soviet invasion, by the millions, but they all sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan; today’s generation of Afghans fleeing war come all the way to Europe because they can. Globalization has made such journeys possible, just as it has made Africans and others seeking a better life more aware of the possibilities that await them in Europe.

Beyond the personal impact on so many people, how has this movement shaped politics in various parts of the world? Even Hillary Clinton is now warning European leaders to “get a handle” on migration. What risks are political leaders facing if they don’t heed warnings like that?

There is a strong current of anti-immigrant feeling throughout Europe and in the United States that certain political leaders have encouraged and used to advance their careers. Politicians who propose welcoming migrants on economic grounds (most European economies need migrants to fill jobs), and even those who advocate fulfilling international law by offering asylum to people fleeing for their lives, risk being voted out of office. For many years, most Europeans and Americans were fairly tolerant of immigrants and their presence was not at the top of the political agenda. The mood has grown less tolerant and the issue of migration is of critical importance.

Have you discovered any perception gaps in what politicians are telling their constituents – such as warnings about increased crime and terror threats in countries that have opened their borders?

The main perception gap concerns numbers: most people in the US and Europe believe the number of migrants and refugees arriving on their shores is going up. In fact it is going down – and very dramatically so in Europe. There is no evidence that migrants have increased crime rates in the countries where large numbers of them have ended up, and politicians’ claims to that effect are misleading. It is true, though, that three of the terrorists who killed over 130 people in Paris in an attack in November 2015 had entered Europe in the wave of migrants taking the Balkan route that year.

A number of the stories being reported for this series are focusing on encouraging at-risk populations to remain in their home countries or discouraging them from migrating to other regions, such as the EU. Is this having any impact?  

It is too early to tell; such programs take a while to take effect. Intuitively, one thinks that if potential migrants enjoyed a better standard of living at home they might be encouraged to stay, and dissuaded from taking the risks inherent in long and dangerous journeys north. But studies in Latin America, where such projects have been underway for longest, suggest this is not true. Increased living standards mean wider horizons and an awareness of possibilities elsewhere as well as more cash available to pay the traffickers who help people get to the US or to Europe. Such programs take at least two generations to have the desired effect.

You and Monitor correspondent Scott Peterson worked together on parts of this series. What’s the experience like when you team up with another reporter? What are the benefits?  

I found it immensely enriching to work with a colleague and friend like Scott, who took the photographs that appeared with the words that I wrote. A friend’s presence is always reassuring in unfamiliar and potentially risky parts of the world. We first met each other in the office of the Syrian government spokesman in Damascus in 1991; our paths have crossed from time to time since then, including a brief period when we worked together in Baghdad in 2003; we have both been around the block several times and we know we can trust each other in dodgy circumstances, which is of supreme importance.

Also, when you are talking to people-smugglers, clandestine migrants, and others who may have their own reasons to tell a story in a particular way – as I was doing in Agadez – it is very helpful to have someone whose judgment you trust to bounce your own impressions off. I did that a lot with Scott on our Niger trip, as we puzzled over parts of the migrant story.

Scott, like other Monitor photographers with whom I have worked, is particularly good at melting into the background as he takes his pictures; that is important on sensitive stories when you do not want a source to take fright at having a camera poked in her/his face. He is the only Monitor photographer with whom I have worked, however, to take his physical fitness so seriously. I shall never forget the sight of him free-climbing the exterior wall of the Hamra hotel in Baghdad 15 years ago – he rock climbs for fun. And in Agadez, when he had finished his dawn run, he would do umpteen pull-ups on the steel pergola supporting shade-giving creepers in the hotel garden. He put me to shame.

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