• Professor Angela McCarthy of the University of Otago's Department of History and Art History is director of the new Centre for Global Migrations

Global migration is becoming a deeply contentious, even toxic, issue, especially when it comes to the vexed question of refugees. It is being held responsible for Brexit, the coming to power of United States President Donald Trump and a rise in hate crimes.

In light of statistics being bandied about, one could be forgiven for believing human mobility is unprecedented. In 2015, for instance, there were 244 million migrants, compared with 93m in 1960. But such statistics overlook the parallel increase in the world's population, which has risen from three billion to almost 7.3b during the same period.

Just 3.3 per cent of the world's population today, as during the past 60 years or so, live outside their country of birth. The proportion of migrants worldwide is therefore remarkably consistent, even if absolute numbers have increased. It is still the case that most people remain in the land of their birth.


What else does history reveal about today's migration flows?

Much is made of the numbers of migrants in the US. Certainly the US has more migrants than ever, but its foreign-born population today is 13.5 per cent, lower than its all-time high of 14.8 per cent in 1890.

These percentages pale in comparison to the foreign-born in Canada (about 21 per cent), Australia (about 27 per cent) and New Zealand (about 25 per cent).

History also shows that areas of traditional outward migration such as Europe " from which about 60m people emigrated in the 19th century - now attract more immigrants. Even so, this overlooks the fact that most mobility takes place within Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Anxieties today are also connected to assumptions about the type of migrant relocating. Media reports suggest there is a "refugee crisis", with the UN Refugee Agency estimating about 65.3m people worldwide have been forcibly displaced, of which refugees number about 15m.

Yet global population displacement during and after World War II was much larger, comprising about 165m throughout Europe, South Asia and the Far East.

And although the media presents images of refugee "swarms" invading Europe, most displaced peoples are internally displaced within the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere across the African continent.

What is clear is that today's migrants are more diverse than at any stage in the past and include a greater number of females.

But statistics tell only part of the story. Reactions to today's migrant flows also have an eerie - and troubling - resonance with previous mobility. Donald Trump's efforts to implement legislation to restrict migration to the US from certain Middle Eastern countries recall early laws which sought to exclude groups such as the Chinese.

In New Zealand, immigration legislation was also implemented, not just to keep out certain so-called ethnic "undesirables" but also those perceived as mentally and physically defective.

The routes that migrants take to new lands also have echoes with the past, particularly the hazardous sea voyages today from Africa to Europe.

During 2016, at least 5000 migrants died at sea. In the first three months of 2017, more than 500 met a similar fate.

During the mid-19th century, many thousands of Irish Famine migrants lost their lives on the "coffin ships" bound for North America. More than 17,000 documented migrants died in 1847 alone.

Even if migrants manage to reach new lands, they continue to be perceived, as in earlier times, as taking jobs from locals, putting pressure on infrastructure, pushing up house prices, bludging off the welfare system and committing crimes. While more research is required, worldwide findings contradict many of these assertions.

Migrants still also encounter moral panic about their cultures and beliefs, as they have done in the past. Anti-Islam rhetoric, for instance, finds parallels with the enmity that Irish Catholics encountered in previous times. These examples highlight the need to study global migrations with an eye to history while remaining alert to contemporary contexts.

The University of Otago's new Centre for Global Migrations seeks to do just that. It will interrogate past and present assumptions about migration to question the myths and develop more public awareness of the realities of global population mobility.