The world according to climate refugees
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its First Assessment Report in 1990 has warned that human migration – caused by displacements from shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption – could be the single gravest effect of climate change. By 2050, as the widely used estimate goes, the number of climate refugees could total 200 million translating to about one in 45 people displaced by climate change worldwide. Environmentally-induced migration is a hotly contested issue not only for what it defines but even more so for what it indicates.
This essay will examine on-going arguments about climate refugees and what their existence means for the issue of climate change and security. Climate refugees are often doubted as a category vis-à-vis the traditional refugees sector which is well-defined under international law. This essay will trace the climate-security discourse that provides support for the questioned category of climate refugees. Using Foucault’s governmentality as the conceptual framework, this essay will look at what ‘climate refugees’ has come to mean in a globalising world, and how it was used for other agendas apart from climate change.
How the concept of climate refugees is defined, applied and denied speaks a lot about how climate change has been securitised as an issue through the years and how power has operated in this sphere. Here, the contention is less about the existence or non-existence of climate refugees but on how this term is used for various different ends by different political and social actors.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has defined environmental migrants as
‘persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad’ (Brown 2008: 15).
They are people displaced by climate change migrate seeking refuge elsewhere but institutions stop short of calling them ‘climate refugees’ because the label “refugee”, is a well-defined term in international law. The UN 1951 Convention defines a refugee as:
‘a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’ (Brown 2008: 13).
Not falling strictly under this legal definition, climate refugees have been alternatively called environmental migrants, climate migrants or climate evacuees. The main concern for developed nations is that by accepting the term ‘climate refugees’ they might be bound to offer the same protection as with political refugees.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recognises that some migration movements may be prompted by climate change and thus fall within the ambit of the traditional refugee law framework as well as the agency’s mandate (UNHCR 2008) but only insofar as humanitarian aid is concerned. They do not believe that such humanitarian considerations should attach refugee status, as defined in international law, to climate refugees. Blurring such terminologies, they said, will not only undermine the rights of environmental migrants but also sow confusion on the root cause of the refugee problem (UNHCR 2008).
Apart from the contentious labelling, debates also go to the very existence of environmental migrants as well. Many claim that the term and thus the identity construct (McNamara and Gibson 2009) that accompany it simply does not apply to the group. For one, it is difficult to determine what an environmental migrant really is as it is hard to ascertain their motivation for migration. They can be pulled by better economic opportunities in another country inasmuch as they are pushed by environmental degradation (Mayer 2012; Myers 1993). Some political struggles have also been linked to environmental degradation, conflict and the creation of climate refugees. In 2007, citing the conflict in Darfur, West Sudan, the UK government raised the issue of climate refugees for the first time to the UN Security Council using the narrative that the insurgency in Darfur originated from a combination of resource shortage and population pressures(Hartmann 2010).
Michel Foucault has argued that a discourse is a way of producing knowledge and meaning (Hall 2001). The identity of climate refugees and all the criticisms on their existence as a separate sector exist in the backdrop of the climate-security discourse. It is through this discourse that their existence acquires meaning – i.e., a knowledge that supports and also debunks their identity as ‘climate refugees’.
Framing climate change as a security issue portrays climate change impacts as a driver of conflict. Proponents of the climate-security discourse argue that environmental impacts like extreme weather events, severe water shortage, tropical deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, land degradation, disease outbreaks are destabilising factors in states (Dabelko 2009). They also trigger economic and social conflicts like mass migration, border disputes, and aggravating existing tensions (Hulme 2007; Myers 1993; Sindico 2005). In the Darfur example, it was argued that drought caused by climate change underlies the ethnic and religious fighting (Hartmann 2010; Hulme 2007).
Mass migration is one of the problems highlighted in the climate-security discourse. The picture painted is one of a significant social upheaval that threatens the security and peace of nations. Extrapolations from the millions displaced by extreme weather events in Bangladesh, Egypt, China, and India, and those dislodged by agricultural impacts in other countries, plus the populations of the island states of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Maldives and the Marshall Islands who might lose their whole territories to rising sea levels, estimate that some 200 million climate refugees will be displaced from their homelands by 2050 (Myers 1993; Brown 2008).
Apart from the actual cost (about $8 billion annually from the developed world are spent to accommodate refugees) (Myers 1993) the potential political and social costs of mass migration are described as potentially harrowing. A former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Saddrudhin Aga Khan, described this impending influx of climate refugees like a famine or a disease.
‘As the victims move, they carry their famine with them, much as they might carry an infectious disease. They impose intolerable burdens in terms of food requirements on the territory they enter. At the same time, they flood the labour market, creating a slump in wages, and endangering the economic security of the local population. Fuse the two elements, and you have a perfect recipe for widespread human suffering, social disorder and political instability’ (Myers 1993: 759)
This discourse portrays climate refugees as victims, but that the focus is on how they are a threat to security with all the possible conflict they bring.
As an organization trained to prepare for any contingencies, when the military views climate change through a security lens, it also expands the definition of security to cover any and all possible threats brought about by environmental change (Dabelko 2009). In 2004, a UN panel tasked to redefine security to include new threats defined international security as ‘any event or process that leads to large-scale death or lessening of life chances and undermines States as the basic unit of the international system’ (Sindico 2005: 218). Environmental degradation falls under this wider definition. Through a widened security lens, climate change is now considered more as a risk which needs to be managed and defended ahead of an actual threat (Corry 2012), paving the way for exceptional measures to stop climate refugees at the gate.
Criticisms against the climate-security discourse say that it simplifies the case of climate refugees into a cause-and-effect narrative, ignoring serious analysis of power relations and of the complex social, political and economic interactions involved in migration. Putting the blame on climate change for land degradation, for example, is a handy excuse for the failure of governments to intervene through management and investments, and evades the role of institutional responses to the problem (Hartmann 2010; Hulme 2007).
‘Climate refugees’ and other meanings
The case of climate refugees is indeed much more complicated than the climate-security discourse would show. The debates surrounding climate refugees reveal that the identity construct has been used to benefit all sorts of political actors save for the refugees themselves. It has also been used for a host of intentions, very little of which is for climate change.
The debates surrounding this identity construct is better understood using Foucault’s concept of governmentality, or the ‘art of government’ (Faubion 2001: 207), which is associated with rationalities and techniques that shape human behaviour. It is where government exercises power over the individual and society as a whole through disciplining tactics implemented to manage various aspects of life.
As explained above, the climate-security discourse has produced distress over possible mass migration from climate change impacts. The riskification (Corry 2012) of climate change depicted climate refugees as the ‘other’, the threat that would require and legitimise the government’s use of power to manage potential harm, police international migration and prevent potential social conflicts. But the security measures applied towards climate refugees is not because of any actual harm they committed or any danger they pose (Hartmann 2010). In fact, linking climate change to worsening violent conflict is not even supported by evidence (Hulme 2007).
Underlying this need to police the migration of future climate refugees is a state’s concept of race where migrant communities represent poverty and therefore a strain on public resources, and an end to society’s way of life (Foucault cited in Duffield 2006). With most of the poor Global South illustrated to bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, the expected migration flow will consist mostly of the poor entering the borders of rich nations, highlighting the differences between rich and poor, and the divisions of race and colour. This racialized worldview, where human life is categorised in a hierarchy, was used historically as a technology of power to manipulate societies into cohesion (Duffield 2006; Lemke 2001) by creating divides on who is included and who is excluded. During the end of the colonisation era, populations from old colonies started finding their way to the bigger cities legally and illegally and race was used by governments to manage migration flow within their territories. The system of exclusion and inclusion that race provided turned the immigrant into a symbol of poverty (Duffield 2006), that ‘other’ that governments would want to keep out.
Decolonisation is today’s globalisation, and also similarly that future climate change scenario that expects an exponentially high migration flow. Climate refugees become the modern embodiment of poverty, job loss and the source of potential social conflicts that will put populations in danger. They needed to be seen as a security threat so their ‘otherness’ can be used as an apparatus to control migration flow within the state.
That the threat and the ‘other’ is also poor and seen as a danger to the wealth of rich nations also underpins neoliberalism. The rejection of climate refugees is more about their origins from poor nations. Climate refugees are portrayed as victims and unwanted immigrants out to drain wealth from developed countries. The fact that climate change impacts may also make refugees out of rich nations was omitted in the narrative. Many of the climate refugee narratives also wrongly assume that environmental scarcity in poor countries can only result to victims and villains, that they are a society that is incapable of adaptation, and are prone to violence (Hartmann 2010). Comparatively, scarcity in industrialised nations is portrayed as something that leads to innovation and invention.
Where are the narratives that show migration also play a positive role in improving people’s livelihoods and in reducing their vulnerability to climate change? For example, a study in Senegal from 1998-2002 showed that pastoralists driven out of their lands by drought were able to diversify their approaches in managing their herds and in effect, helped the communities on their new settlements through agriculture and trade (Hartmann 2010).
This inequality also has historical significance. For Foucault, inequality comes from dispossession of wealth through either conquest or subjugation, where the rich becomes richer by divesting others of their wealth (Venn 2010). If environmental degradation is the main reason for the migration of climate refugees then this dispossession of environmental wealth can also be traced to the plunders of their former colonizers from the global North. So the climate refugees have been divested of the good use of their forests and agricultural lands for many years, eventually lost their livelihoods, which may have preceded their present internal conflicts that led them to migrate. They are now treated as threats at the border of rich nations for environmental degradation and poverty that is actually caused by these same nations.
In a bid to prevent the migration flow to the rich nations, efforts are also being done not only to prevent the entry of climate refugees at the borders but also to keep them within their own homelands. For this, development aid is the technology of power used as a means of control. This changes the concept of international development from a notion of altruism to reduce poverty in underdeveloped nations into one of containment (Duffield 2006). As a biopolitical tactic, the modern aid industry is used to confine the unwanted refugees within their homelands and out of the territories of the rich nations. Campaigns for sustainable development and development aid all try to inculcate on all potential climate refugees the idea of self-reliance and staying in situ. The idea was that a nation cannot have security without development. Under this discourse, internal conflicts have to be suppressed – not because it threatens their civil liberties or their infrastructure – but in order to protect against the weakening of social cohesion that would lead to potential migration.
It is maybe no coincidence that development aid and assistance have increasingly been put under the auspices of the military. While the military has long been deploying humanitarian aid, recently, the U.S. Pentagon has already overtaken the State Department’s role in development assistance and disaster response. The Pentagon has dispersed 21.7% of development assistance in 2008, a big jump from only 5.6% three years before (Hartmann 2010). Aid distribution is now treated similarly as combat operations.
Apart from managing populations, the constructed identity of climate refugees is also used a mechanism of power (Hall 2001) for the struggle to control the climate change agenda. The narratives about the plight of the climate refugees was first traced in 1988, used by the Worldwatch Institute in a bid to raise the climate change issue in the international agenda and then repeated and supported by other NGOs and the media since (Mc Namara and Gibson 2009). The narrative blamed the high energy consumption of industrialised nations that made victims out of climate refugees, who will be homeless through a problem created by industrialised nations. The narrative persisted as it was useful for advocates of sustainable development to get attention on the impacts of environmental degradation, as well as to claims for financial support from western governments (Hartmann 2010).
If the goal was to increase attention to climate change, particularly on its impact in the global south, then it also created some repercussions to the same group of people it wanted to elevate in the world agenda. First, the concept of climate refugees appealed to the Western ideas of immigration control as the negative view of climate refugees seemed to reinforce the neo-Malthusian beliefs about population, making it more the story than addressing climate change (Hartmann 2010). Second, it also runs the risk of depoliticising people’s displacement thereby jeopardizing a refugee’s claim for political asylum under international law (Hartmann; UNHCR 2008).
The fact that the intended beneficiaries of the category ‘climate refugees’ have themselves been resisting the identity construct lends insight on how far the category has deviated from its intended purpose in the climate change agenda. In 1987, Maldives president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, speaking at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, talked of unprecedented flooding that his country had just suffered. His narrative, however, is different from the climate refugee identity construct that will take over this discourse soon after. He had asked the richer nations for help but resisted the subtext that they are the weak victims of climate change without the capacity to build resilience against it. For them, exodus is not an option. They do not want to lose their land, he said, ‘nor do [they] want to become environmental refugees either’ (McNamara and Gibson: 2009: 479).
Climate refugees in the long run will be a real problem, although toned-down from the exaggerated scenario created by various political actors all running under very different agendas. Framing climate change as a security threat had undermined instead of strengthened calls to address climate change and protect climate refugees. Instead of opening doors, borders were fortified to contain them. Instead of being recognised, they are now doubted as dubious refugees.
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