Roots and Causes

People have often asked me about the root causes of forced displacement. They often suggest that it would be wiser for us to focus on finding solutions to those rather than focusing on serving refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people.

It is important to identify root causes. But it is also critical for some of us to also focus our attention, energy and resources on helping those bearing the brunt of systemic violence and hatred in the world. We need to engage the issue of forced displacement on multiple levels at the same time – just as we need ambulances, ERs, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and PT professionals while other industries seek out cures to disease and other life-threatening conditions.

While IAFR is committed to helping the church show up in humanitarian space in life-giving ways, we can’t help but often think about the causes behind the flight of the people we love and serve.

Many think that the root causes of forced displacement include war, persecution, failed states and gross violations of human rights. And while it is true that these are the immediate causes that force people to flee their homes and countries, these are not the root causes.

We have to peel another layer off the onion and ask, what are the forces that ignite wars? What empowers governments to single out specific people and/or groups of people to deny them basic human rights and even persecute them? Why do governments fail, losing the ability to protect and serve their own people? I believe that these questions will help us venture further down the path when it comes to identifying and understanding root causes behind forced displacement.

As we reflect on these questions, we will also begin to see the warning signs within our own societies. Signs that we may be embracing, normalizing and strengthening the very things that fuel the hatred and violence behind forced displacement.

The word “root” is very helpful as roots are underground and out of sight. We will only identify root causes of forced displacement if we dig below the surface.

Consider the buckthorn tree

It’s a fast growing and spreading tree that plagues many of us here in USA. It was brought from Europe to the US in the 1800s and used as an ornamental shrub and helpful windbreak. But what was was initially perceived to be pretty and useful has become a plague. The Minnesota DNR identifies the many ways buckthorn is a threat to our habitat:

  • It out-competes native plants for nutrients, light and moisture
  • It degrades wildlife habitat
  • It threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies
  • It contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor
  • It serves as a host to other pests
  • It forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation
  • It lacks natural controls like insects or disease that would curb its growth

There are many websites devoted to “buckthorn removal”. There is no quick and easy say to defeat buckthorn. It turns out that my multi year battle with buckthorn is the norm and complete victory isn’t possible. I’ll be fighting it for as long as I have a yard.

Because it is difficult to uproot, I initially just cut it off at ground level and did my best to damage the stump thinking it wouldn’t survive. It proved me wrong. My attempt to kill it amounted to pruning it and making it stronger. It’s roots went deeper and it began to shoot up new sprouts everywhere.

I was losing the battle. So, I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed a shovel and dug them out, one by one. It became quickly apparent that my earlier attempts at killing the trees simply made their root system stronger and more difficult to uproot. It turns out that it is far easier to uproot a young buckthorn tree than it is an older one.

I am impressed with the way buckthorn sinks and establishes its roots. Not only do they go deep, they also shoot off major root systems horizontally – often somewhere around 6-12″ under the soil. And those off shoots make the trees really tough to uproot. It is often impossible to do without a shovel.

Back to root causes

I mention all of this simply to underline that dealing with root issues may not prove to be a quick and simple solution to the escalating numbers of people being forced to flee their homes and countries. The root issues are not making the news headlines. They lurk under the surface. If we focus on the immediate causes of forced displacement alone, we may later discover we have been unintentionally strengthening the root causes.

I am going to ponder the seeds that give life to the forces of hatred and violence that uproot people. I hope you will too. I welcome your comments and thoughts.

I expect that we will find the roots of much of today’s displacement are centuries old and that they have entangled themselves deep within our own hearts over the generations.

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