Climate Change and Migration

By Bryan Walker 15/01/2012

It’s all too easy for wealthy America and Europe to treat climate-induced migration as a border security issue. Gregory White, Professor of Government at Smith College in Massachusetts, argues in his recent book Climate Change and Migration: Security and Borders in a Warming World that a security-minded response to the phenomenon is both inappropriate and unethical. It’s not a judgment the book rushes to; White provides ample and thoughtfully-presented material in its support.

The dynamics of globalisation have brought with them an increasing preoccupation with border security, particularly in the countries of the North Atlantic. Immigration is a hot electoral issue and the spectre of climate-induced migration adds to the already fraught subject. White writes of how easily deep fears can be aroused and of media-savvy politicians all to ready to play on them, along with the ’media’s panic entrepreneurs’.

He doesn’t downplay the possibility of migration forced by climate change. He is fully aware of   the science and includes a section of the book explaining it in broad terms and stressing the high credibility of climate change models. He surveys the situation of Bangladesh and notes that India’s high-tech ’separation barrier’, originally proposed as a protection against Islamist threat, is today often spoken of in relation to climate refugees. He also writes realistically of the South Pacific Island states, and along the way corrects the myth that New Zealand generously extended immigration to Tuvalu in response to the threat of rising sea levels. That always sounded too good to be true.

In the case of Africa the likelihood of climate refugees becoming a threat to European countries is, in his view, overplayed. African history is a history of migrations, and the bulk of it is local, urban, and/or within a sub-region. ’…the research is persuasive that in most instances of environmental change, people move to nearby destinations as part of household strategies; they also eventually seek to return to their points of origin.’ He grants that climate-induced migration will likely intensify and flows to the Maghreb and Europe will increase, but nevertheless considers that much of the increased African migration will remain regional, rural to urban and south to south.

The heightening of migration security measures in the North Atlantic states has brought into prominence the transit states which adjoin advanced-industrialised countries (or group of countries) or offer reasonable access to them. States such as Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Turkey. The advanced countries’ concern with security has meant their taking steps to thicken their borders, so to speak, by engaging their neighbours in the task of assisting to repel would-be migrants.  The attributes of these transit states make for very interesting reading. They are themselves invariably countries of emigration but are often eager to participate in controlling the non-nationals using their country to transit to an advanced-industrialised country. Such co-operation is seen as a way of advancing their sovereignty claims and their credibility as a trusted diplomatic partner. White shows all this working out in the political life of Morocco which he takes as an example. 2.6 million Moroccans live officially in Europe. 8.6 per cent of its people live abroad but remain significant for its economy. The country is not keen to slow this emigration, but it is willing to aid control of transit migrants seeking to access Europe. White points out that the invasion of transit migrants is easily exaggerated. He refers to estimates that around 120,000 people enter the entire Maghreb each year, not insignificant but certainly not the horde some analysts and media claim.

The securitising of the issue of climate-induced migration is described as misguided. It fails to solve the problem and is actually imprudent because it employs resources against a threat more supposed than real. White also gives welcome attention to the ethics. If outsiders are seeking access because of injustice then the border fence is an especially glaring display of power. Questions of justice must be raised if people on the inside are consuming inordinate amounts of energy, enjoying luxury items, and leaving behind large amounts of waste and pollution. Borders are ethical sites.

Much preferable to the security discourse are alternative approaches which White promotes in his final chapter. He writes of the role of what he calls global governance, a broad concept engaging international institutions rooted in the liberal tradition of international relations. A wide range of institutions provide a kind of toolbox of international responses which centre on constructive assistance for climate refugees, helping with resettlement, accepting a proper measure of global responsibility. He writes also of the importance of addressing the nexus of development and climate. Development solutions need to have environmental implications at their core. The book offers many examples of adaptation measures already proving their worth in the Sahelian region. Policies which address both mitigation and adaptation from local to international levels provide a much more constructive approach to climate disruption than a focus on the security of borders.

White’s book is packed with informative discussions of the ways in which concern about climate-induced migration has impacted on the North Atlantic industrialised nations and their relations with their near neighbours. He advances an argument, but not without carefully exploring the positions that he finally cautions against. I appreciated the thoroughness of those explorations, which made his conclusions all the more telling. High alarm and calls to strengthen border security may go down well with an anxious electorate, but they are a deflection from the real task of constructively addressing climate change and helping with adaptation for vulnerable communities already experiencing its effects. Border security may have a measure of legitimacy but it is a long way from the central and over-riding requirements to assist people in the situations where they are coping with a changing environment and to find ways to cut back on the emissions which are causing the changes.

How far ethical considerations will be allowed to impact on the perceived security of wealthy nations may be moot, but I certainly appreciated White’s readiness to point them out and assume that we can be affected by them. If we lose hold of a sense of justice and global community in the swirl of political life we are lost indeed.

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