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Afloat and Alive


Syrian refugees cross into Hungary underneath the border fence. 3 September 2015.

To deal with climate change Europe must be welcoming, write Andrew Baldwin, Ethemcan Turhan and Marco Armiero.

Climate change policymakers are meeting in Paris for their annual negotiations and many are wondering how future climate change will affect migration – a reasonable question, especially given the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ that has gripped Europe in recent months.

While most people believe that climate change will result in mass migration and, in turn, wars, violence, and humanitarian crises, a growing number of experts view migration as a legitimate way for people to adapt to climate change. This is a much more sober way to think about migration and climate change. Humans are, after all, both migratory and highly adaptive. Consequently, we expect at least part of the discussion in Paris to focus on how migration policy can be developed or reformed in order to ensure that migration contributes to climate change adaptation.

But for us, any attempt to understand migration in the context of climate change must also acknowledge the political dimensions of migration. This is the lesson we take from the current situation in Europe – the movement of people excites extraordinary passions and profound disagreement. Liberal humanists welcome migrants and refugees on the grounds of moral compassion and economic prosperity, while those on the political right repudiate both for pushing down the cost of labour and for the purported burden they place on public finances. And for those on the left, migration and asylum policy are often seen as inherently exploitative and a means for managing global surplus labour.

For our part, we view migration in the context of climate change not as a phenomenon requiring expert management, but as a transformative opportunity capable of reinvigorating transnational solidarity amongst migrants and asylum seekers the world over. We also caution against reducing migration to climate change. Research clearly shows that war, poverty, political instability and violence blend with environmental change, and we know that the dichotomy between nature and society is untenable. Distinguishing people who flee from war, famine, or environmental degradation may work on paper, but can never capture the multidimensional nature of migration revealed in the flesh and blood stories of migrants.

We believe that migration is not a problem waiting for a solution. Instead, we believe that migration is something that defines what it means to be human. It all started when our ancestors began walking on two feet and for several millennia thereafter when they began wandering the planet as political, social and environmental conditions changed.

But with the advent of modernity three things happened. First, European institutions began defining migration as the exception, rather than the norm. Hereafter migrants were said to be different and were thus thought to pose a threat to otherwise sedentary populations. Second, Europeans themselves began to migrate in rather large numbers to the so-called ‘new world’. This would continue well into the second half of the 20th century. And third, Europeans began to buy and sell other human beings as a condition of modernity itself.

Nowadays we live with the legacy of these historical events. Once a defining feature of human beings, migration is now experienced differently depending on whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, or whether you reside in the Northern or Southern hemispheres. How and where we move is the immediate result of our social standing. If you want to understand how power and privilege function in the world today, then look no further than migration policy for an answer. The history of world colonialism, power hierarchies, and white privilege are inscribed in the passport you hold. Wealthy and highly skilled migrants are able to access the world’s most desirable labour markets by plane. Unskilled labour and asylum seekers arrive by boat and are usually greeted as though an invading army.

One astonishing aspect of modern attitudes to migration has been the recent proliferation of walls and fences appearing along nation-state borders. The fence separating the United States and Mexico offers only the most vivid example. But walls and fences are to be found all around the world: the partitions that separate Palestine and the Occupied Territories; the fence erected by the Indian government along its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan; the wall separating Thailand and Malaysia; and numerous other walls. Ostensibly designed to block transboundary migration, walls are, however, incapable to doing what they purport to do. Former US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano once said ‘show me a 50-foot fence, and I’ll show you 51-foot ladder at the border’. Or to paraphrase the American political scientist, Wendy Brown, walls signify the modern state’s powerlessness in the face of the ungovernable movements of people, ideas, capital, goods, contraband and religious affiliation. We argue that walls are meant only to reassure ‘proper citizens’ of their privilege and do nothing to stop migrants on the borders. A xenophobic architecture inscribed onto the landscape, walls cultivate fear while creating illegal migrants for economic and political gain.

Policy makers meeting in Paris have an opportunity to shape the next generation of world-migration in a warming planet. This should not however be about numbers, quotas, and knee-jerk political reactions. It should not be about the world’s rich nations dividing up the world into standing pools of labour to be drawn upon when needed or establishing economies in-exile (as suggested by Oxford economist Paul Collier) to keep migrants out of sight. Nor should we simply let markets decide where and how migration occurs. Any attempt to define migration for the 21st century must begin with a much more basic question: what does it mean to be human in the context of climate change? While there are good reasons to worry about climate change, migration should not be one of them.

Instead, we should approach migration as a universal human quality. How we define migration for the coming century, and indeed, how we define what it means to be human, must be a collective effort not one left to the experts and policy-makers in Paris. If policy makers in Paris want to ensure that migration contributes to climate change adaptation, they cannot do so by containing migration within a narrow set of policy discussions about climate change adaptation or loss and damages. They should admit that migration exceeds their expertise and take migration out of the ‘climate box’. They need to abandon ‘lifeboat ethics’ for the affluent and guarantee a safe, inhabitable planet for all regardless of nationality, passport or skin color. Vision, openness and courage will keep humanity afloat and alive. Fear, passivity and walls will not.

If humans are to flourish in the coming century in the context of a rapidly changing climate, this can only be achieved by embracing migration as a basic human attribute. Perhaps then we can begin to recognise the transformative, even disruptive possibilities that migration represents.

Andrew Baldwin is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Durham University and Co-Director of the Institute for Hazard, Risk and Resilience also at Durham. He is also Chair of COST Action 1101 Climate change and migration, funded by the European Union under Horizon 2020.

Ethemcan Turhan is a Mercator-IPC fellow at Istanbul Policy Center, Sabancı University (Turkey). He studied at Middle East Technical University (METU) and Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (UAB) and was formerly a visiting researcher at Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS).

Marco Armiero is the director of Environmental Humanities Laboratory in KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), Stockholm. Before moving to KTH he has been post-doctoral fellow and visiting scholar at Yale University, UC Berkeley, Stanford, the Autonomous University in Barcelona, and the Center for Social Sciences at the University of Coimbra, Portugal.

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