Course 5 Where to survive?

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You are wrong!

When staying means starving, migration becomes the only option.

Famine and migration go hand in hand. People often leave their homes in search of work and food. Or they may get displaced because of conflict or eviction. In some cases, staying behind can mean death whereas migration offers a chance of food, labour, or opportunities elsewhere.

However, migration is exhausting and not without risk: deadly diseases can spread on the road and at sea. Opportunity is also necessary for migration, such as accessible routes or even being allowed to leave. During conflict and repression, free movement is often prohibited. Restrictions on movement often make famines worse—as was the case in Ukraine and Greece, for example. Although migration is hard and the journey can be risky and difficult, it can save lives.

However risky, people move across the country, sea, and borders in search of food and survival. Sometimes they are helped, other times they are actively stopped, as you can see in the examples below.
Children transports

To save children in the west of the Netherlands from famine, they were transported to the rural northeast of the country. The relocation of 40,000 children was made possible by individuals, social groups, churches, and relief organisations, as well as the Dutch and German National Socialist authorities. In Greece, arrangements were made in 1942 to transport 25,000 Greek children from areas hit by famine to Egypt. However, this was cancelled at the last minute as the Axis powers refused to let the children go.

Map based on Ingrid de Zwarte
The Hunger Winter: Fighting Famine in the Occupied Netherlands, 1944–1945
(2020: 243)

This map shows the movement of child evacuations in the Netherlands. They were moved from the city areas in the west to the countryside in the east and north.

Photograph by Menno Huizinga
(March 1945)
© NIOD collection

The children were transported by cargo boats, trucks, trains, buses, and even bikes.

Forbidden movement

Without the option to migrate and look for food and work elsewhere, famines become much worse. During times of oppression, war, or conflict, people might be stopped from moving, making the food insecurity even more severe.

Photograph by Alexander Wienerberger (1933)
© Samara Pearce

In the winter of 1932, Soviet authorities closed Ukraine’s borders. In 1933, they also banned moving from the countryside to the cities. Despite this, many starving farmers tried to reach the cities to find food. For instance, they waited at train stations to get on a train or walked long distances, sometimes without shoes.

Photograph by James Abbe (1932)
© James Abbe Archive 2024

Crowds of rural residents near the Kharkiv railway station waiting for a chance to take a train. The photographer James Abbe was arrested for taking this picture.


Famine does not stop at national borders, and neither do people. A well-known example is the Irish famine, where about 1 million Irish left their country to find food, safety, and better chances in life.

Map showing emigration from Ireland.

They moved mainly to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The journey was not easy for everyone; many faced tough travel conditions and died from diseases on the way or soon after they arrived.

Forced migration and fleeing

Migration can be a consequence of famine, but this can also be the other way around. When masses of people flee or are forced to leave their home, it makes it difficult for them to access food or shelter, leading to increased food insecurity.

Bundesarchiv Bild

After World War II, 12 million ethnic Germans were either forced to leave or ran away fearing the Red Army and partisans. Possibly once beneficiaries of Nazi privileges or even perpetrators of Nationalist Socialist violence, they now had to face an often-violent displacement themselves. Seeking refuge in Germany or neighbouring nations, many experienced food insecurity. This 1945 photo in a Danish refugee camp captures a moment of food relief.

In conclusion

Migration often happens because of famine.

Sometimes, moving helps reduce deaths since people can find food and chances for a better life elsewhere. However, moving has its dangers: it might help spread diseases related to famine, and travelling can be risky, especially for those who are already weak.

Migration requires opportunity. During wars or conflicts, people are often not allowed to move freely. This usually increases suffering and death. In other cases, people do not have enough money to move or there might not be any existing routes to travel.

Moving away from home can lead to hunger and famine too. When people are forced to leave their home, livestock, and goods, they face a higher risk of hunger and food insecurity. Conflicts often force people to move, indirectly causing more food insecurity.

What’s this like today?

Food insecurity remains both a driver and a consequence of (forced) displacement. In mid-2023, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that 110 million people around the world were forced to leave their homes due to conflict, violence, and persecution. Droughts as well as the global impact of the war in Ukraine has increased both food insecurity and displacement. In South Sudan, years of conflict, floods and local droughts have led to mass displacement. Currently, 2.2 million people are displaced within South Sudan and another 2.3 million have fled to neighbouring countries. Since the siege and bombing of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army starting in late 2023, almost the entire population of 2.2 million people has been displaced. The inaccessibility of food and humanitarian aid has led to starvation and famine.

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