To leave in place ‘hostile environment’ migration policies, on top of the hostile environment of global heating, goes far beyond victim blaming, and is an ultimate form of victim intimidation and punishment.
Yet discussion of migration has been so contaminated by manipulative, right-wing, fear mongering that vast misconceptions persist. The size, nature and consequences of migration, its benefits and burden sharing, are very poorly understood.
Hence, good policy is hard to make and xenophobia is easy to stoke. That’s why it helps to step back and take stock of what is actually happening.
The invention of borders
The world of borders between nation states restricting human movement is a surprisingly modern invention. Nations often project themselves as timeless and permanent, but more typically are unsettled and ever shifting, famously termed ‘imagined communities’, and therefore prone to endless re-imagination.
Only one hundred years ago, in 1922, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) looked back at the previous century and lamented: “Migration was generally speaking, unhindered and each emigrant could decide on the time of his departure, his arrival or his return, to suit his own convenience.”
The upheaval of the war in Europe between 1914 and 1918 accelerated and broadened the use of passports. But many governments introduced them with some reluctance, at least publicly, and regarded them as being a strictly temporary necessity until the world restored itself to peace and order.
The League of Nations conference to regularise passports was held in 1920, just after the war. But, right up until the 1960s, heads of state were still discussing plans to withdraw and ban the use of passports.
A world on the move
Given the fevered debate that surrounds it, remember again that migration is normal, a natural response to a range of circumstances, and not a crime.
Around one in 30 people are migrants, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN body, but interestingly it points out that there is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a migrant settling for the general description of, ‘a person who moves away from their place of usual residence for a variety of reasons’.
While there will always be arguments over definitions, what we do know about the human reality is striking. The most recent estimate indicates that in 2020 there were 281 million international migrants, a huge increase of 128 million on the number for 1990, three decades earlier.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) provides numbers of those moving not under circumstances of their own choosing.
They estimate that in 2020 at least 82.4 million people were forced to flee their homes. This figure rose to 89.3 million in 2021. Nearly 26.4 million of these people were refugees, and half are described as extremely vulnerable, being under the age of 18.
It’s at the next stage of unpicking this picture that a gap grows dramatically between reality and the depiction of the issue by the populist press and nationalist politicians in wealthier countries.
The impression given is that rich nations are left to deal with the great majority of people seeking to move, and shoulder a disproportionate burden of refugee crises. But the truth is the very opposite.
The vast majority, 86 percent of refugees, are hosted not by wealthy nations but in countries like Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan and Uganda. Among rich countries Germany is a relatively humane outlier in the rankings, welcoming more refugees than any other EU country.
Yet another piece of the jigsaw that is often overlooked is the huge number of people who do not cross a national border, but are internally displaced. The main push factor for internal displacement is shocking.
The rise of the climate migrant
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) there were 38 million internally displaced people in 2021. The majority – 62 percent, or 23.7 million people – were forced out of their homes by disasters, with the remainder due to conflicts.
When you look at the pattern of disasters over the past ten years more than eight out of ten – 83 percent – were caused by a range of extreme weather and climate-related events such as floods, storms and heat waves.
The number of these incidents has been steadily increasing since the 1960s and has risen by over a third in the last three decades.
The proportion of all disasters that are climate and extreme weather related has also gone up, from 76 percent of the total during the 2000s to 83 percent in the 2010s.
During the first six months of the global coronavirus pandemic, as the world was distracted, that share was even higher, rising to 93 percent of disasters.
This situation creates a massive challenge for which we are utterly unprepared, despite the fact that the writing has been on the wall for a long time.
And this is how Antonio Figueres, the current UN Secretary General, put it when he was UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2011: “Climate change [is] now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement.
“Most of the people affected will remain in their own countries. They will be internally displaced. But if they cross a border, they will not be considered refugees. These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily…
“As forcibly displaced not covered by the refugee protection regime, they find themselves in a legal void… There is a protection gap in the international system that needs to be addressed.”
The likely future scale of an already large crisis can be illustrated in a number of ways. The World Bank estimated that without action, by 2050 there will be 143 million internal climate migrants across three regions, Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.
But this could be a significant underestimate. Recent research by Professor Tim Lenton and colleagues suggests that in the next 50 years somewhere between 1.2 billion and three billion people could find themselves facing a climate that is too hot to live in. In those circumstances their only option is to migrate or, basically, die.
Professor Marten Scheffer, one of Lenton’s co-authors, put it like this: “You’d have to move or adapt. But there are limits to adaptation. If you have enough money and energy, you can use air conditioning and fly in food and then you might be OK. But that is not the case for most people.”
An impossible situation has been, and is still being, created for billions of people who have not been its cause. Yet, in most cases, the nations who carry most responsibility for creating these crises, do not see themselves as being responsible for the plight of the victims.
The UK as catalyst for breakdowns
The UK leads the field of nations reluctant to even acknowledge he mess it makes, let alone clean up after itself. This applies to its domestic and foreign policy, and its role as a major polluter.
A combination of historic carbon emissions, arms sales, reneging on aid pledges, colonialism, selective treatment of migrant workers and the UK’s major role in the global economy, all combine to paint a picture of a nation that starts fires and then runs away from the consequences, and worse, then intimidates those trying to leave their burning building.
First of all, you’ll often hear domestic politicians downplaying the scale of current UK emissions, which is at around one or two percent of the global total depending on how it is measured.
But that neatly avoids the fact that the UK is eighth in the all-time league table of all countries in the world historically for pumping out the largest cumulative amount of carbon pollution, whether measured in absolute terms or according to population.
The UK is also part of the club of rich countries that has repeatedly failed to deliver on the international pledge to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance to help countries in the Global South adapt and protect themselves.
You see how paltry even that sum is when you realise it’s the amount spent by the international community on fossil fuel subsidies in less than a week – every six days in fact.
In terms of what might actually be needed, a slightly dated estimate from the UN Environment Programme suggested that the cost of adaptation to climate change has been around $70 billion per year, rising to anything from $140 – $500 billion per year in developing countries between 2030 and 2050. Current global aid budgets are in the region of $160 billion.
It is worth remembering that all these figures are dwarfed by money going to fossil fuels in subsidies and investments, and the future of climate finance and adaptation funding doesn’t look good.
In the 2020 spending review, the then UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he was reneging on the UK’s legally binding overseas aid target of 0.7 percent, despite this also being a manifesto promise by his party.
The move triggered the resignation of a Foreign Office minister in protest, and development experts were quick to point out that this would almost inevitably hit funds for international climate action.
But, being a major historical polluter that has contributed disproportionately to climatic instability is only one of the ways in which the UK creates conditions that drive migration and create refugees and asylum seekers around the world.
Fuelling conflict as well as a climate emergency
The UK is also a major global arms dealer. In fact, for the decade 2010-2019, the UK government was the world’s second biggest arms exporter behind the United States.
Companies based in the UK signed contracts for a staggering £86 billion worth of military equipment and services – £11 billion in the single year of 2019. Down from the £14 billion worth in 2018, but still the second highest amount since 1983.
And, it’s not just that the UK is a major arms dealer, it’s which countries the UK sells arms to. In this period the UK sold arms to 39 of the 53 countries on a list of those with a record of abusing political and human rights.
Since 2010 the majority of UK defence exports (60 percent) has gone to the unstable and conflict ridden Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being the biggest recipient. These arms are used to protect the world’s largest oil reserves.
The recent cuts in UK aid fell on precisely the countries riven with conflicts partly armed by purchasers of UK weapons. This appears to be either wilful neglect or calculated callousness. In either case, the UK’s role in fuelling both climate and political instability doesn’t stop with emissions and arms sales, it grows with the way the government walks away from its responsibilities.
In early 2021 the reality of these cuts emerged. Yemen, which has been almost totally destroyed by conflict, is now facing falls of nearly half of its aid budget from the UK. Syria, which has also been devastated, is suffering a cut of two thirds. South Sudan, Libya and Sudan also face major reductions in aid.
Saudi-led attacks within Yemen have been called war crimes, and in March 2022 the UNHCR estimated that 4.2 million people were internally displaced. At the same time, asylum seekers from Yemen have been told by the UK’s Home Office that it is safe for them to return home.
Afghanistan, long a playground of Western power struggles, is facing a climate ‘calamity’ in which environmental change has been described as a ‘death sentence’. Yet Afghan asylum seekers have also been rejected by the UK, and the country’s delegates to the crucial Glasgow COP26 climate talks were refused accreditation to the conference.
Everywhere there is the sound of doors slamming: on the past, on the plight of those displaced through no fault of their own, and on the truth of who is responsible for creating the conditions for a large and rising scale of human movement.
The second part of this essay will look at deeper contradictions still, and what might be done to create a world to welcome those who are forced to flee their homes.
Read the second part of this essay here.
Andrew Simms co-authored the pamphlet Environmental refugees: the case for recognition in 2003. He is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, and the Cool Down – sport for climate action network, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.