Refuges and death-worlds

Migrants demonstrate, Calais: banner reads Tombent les murs [May the walls fall]

Climate change could displace millions of people, and border politics are a matter of life and death. The first of two pieces looking at climate migration, anti-migrant populisms, and no borders politics.

Part 1 of 2. Part 2 here.

Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy.' For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.1

Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz, that most infamous of Lager (Camp), proposes that the infliction of mass death on those deemed ‘other’ is the logical conclusion whenever the conflation of stranger with enemy is carried to its end. With the rise of anti-migrant populisms in the United States and Europe, recent events remind us that this ‘latent infection’ remains with us, even if the end of that chain seems as yet remote. Indeed, a lethal anti-blackness has formed a constant background, even if it has taken the movement around black lives matter to highlight the ‘system of reason’ behind killings hitherto too easily dismissed as ‘random, disconnected’, a reason which all-too-easily transposes to devaluing the lives of black and brown migrants.

Worryingly, while ‘the people’ who take up this xenocidal logic are increasingly evident, ‘the people’ who could stand for free movement and refuge are not yet actualised: they remain only a latency, glimpsed in the vast efforts to support migrants and, of course, in the struggles of migrants themselves.2

There are a record 65 million forced displaced people in the world today. That is roughly 1 in every 113 people.3 The UN describes our age as one “of unprecedented mass displacement”.4 This figure only includes refugees and people displaced internally by armed conflicts. It would rise further if those moving due to poverty, or displaced by ‘natural’ disasters such as droughts, storms and desertification were included.

The four-year Syrian war has been a major contributor to the current crisis, with around 11 million Syrians living as refugees outside Syria or internally displaced. Meanwhile, the US government recently allocated its first funds for internally environmentally displaced people, providing $48m to relocate the community of Isle de Jean Charles in southeastern Louisiana.5

A 2008 review by researchers from the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University found figures of 24-30 million environmentally displaced people today, rising to 200 million or more by 2050.6 This means environmental migrants already number close to half of those displaced by war (though these categories overlap7); and could number more than three times the current, record number of displaced people in three decades time. On these figures, if the world population is 10 billion in 2050, 1-in-50 people could be environmental migrants. This year, a different group of researchers have suggested that:

the Middle East and North Africa could become so hot that human habitability is compromised. The goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius, agreed at the recent UN climate summit in Paris, will not be sufficient to prevent this scenario.8

The Middle East and North Africa are currently home to around 400 million people. While some cities could adapt to increasingly hostile desert conditions given sufficient resources, this - and displacements in other low latitude regions - could mean somewhere in the region of 1-in-25 people being environmentally displaced through the 22nd century.9

Yet another study found that with the same two degrees of warming, desertification is likely to push north through Morocco and into southern Spain.10 And to repeat: this is with just 2°C warming. If temperature rises go above this point the Sahara desert effectively jumps the Mediterranean. At higher temperatures still (beyond the four degrees forecast for 2100), Mark Lynas uses the concept of ‘zones of uninhabitability’:

...places where large-scale, developed human society would no longer be sustainable in the five-degree world. Looking at the geological evidence of dramatic changes at the start of the Eocene, however, it is clear that even this discussion may be overly optimistic. Instead, we perhaps need to start talking about zones of inhabitability: refuges.11

Much of Europe lies at temperate latitudes likely to form one such refuge. Yet we read that Europe is already experiencing a border crisis. This crisis reflects not only the increase in displaced people, which is modest in light of forecast climate migrations, but also the political decision to scale back search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

When the Italian-led Mare nostrum operation was cancelled, the predictable - and predicted - consequence, was an increase in deaths at sea.12 It's not simply that thousands of people are dying trying to enter Europe - 32,000 dead or missing between 2000 and January 2016 - but that they are being murdered by the EU’s border regime.13

Only a fraction of the world’s migrants try to enter Europe; most are either internally displaced or living in neighbouring countries. Indeed in 2015 Europe as a whole received 1.25 million asylum applications, but 86% of refugees were hosted in “developing regions”, with Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia being the top 5 host states in terms of absolute numbers.14 That this has constituted a crisis has more to do with a barely concealed racial revanchism - a growing feeling that every stranger is an enemy - than the numbers themselves.

Nevertheless, climate change, even under the best case scenarios, looks likely to force dramatically larger numbers of people into displacement. In such a world and absent freedom of movement - real refuge - the toll of thousands of migrants dying in the Mediterranean today could be dwarfed by the that of the habitable zones’ border regimes.

There is a ready-made concept, from the 1970s reactionary ecology of Garrett Hardin, which gives lethal border violence an environmentalist gloss. Hardin proposed a metaphor of nations as lifeboats, always in danger of being swamped by those trying to get in.

Hardin's lifeboats are not refuges. According to him, letting just a few of “the fast-reproducing poor” in will see them soon outnumber the original inhabitants and destroy civilisation (the eugenic, racist subtext is barely concealed). Hardin called this ‘lifeboat ethics’, and it provides a ready rationale for ‘lifeboat states’, where wholesale murder of migrants is considered a moral imperative, an act of racial-national self-defence.

Not only do we find this argument morally repugnant, but, as we highlighted in our critique of Hardin, even the underlying ecological theory for these arguments is empirically and historically incorrect, relying on emotive metaphors and white supremacist common sense. However, this is precisely why these arguments remain ideologically useful to those looking for environmentalist justifications for border violence in an era of mass displacement.

Border imperialism and its death-worlds

To understand what it might take to avert a future of lifeboat states, a solid understanding of existing border regimes is needed. An excellent place to start is with the concept of border imperialism, developed by activists in the No One Is Illegal (NOII) network and outlined in Harsha Walia’s collaborative book Undoing Border Imperialism:

Border imperialism can be understood as creating and reproducing global mass displacements and the conditions necessary for legalised precarity of migrants, which are inscribed by the racialised and gendered violence of empire as well as capitalist segregation and differential segmentation of labour.15

Displacement has typically come through economic shocks and/or IMF structural adjustment programs; or wars, often involving imperial powers. As we have seen, climate change will increasingly become a factor too. Displacement is usually multicausal, and attributing any given movement of people to climate change is difficult (although the UN already says that climate is a factor in 87% of disasters16).

Indeed, states have resisted the category of ‘environmental refugee’ as on paper - although increasingly not in practice - refugees have a legal right to refuge. However, a border imperialism perspective cautions against being drawn into such worthy/unworthy migrant classifications, towards the all-embracing demands raised by migrants, such as “freedom of movement for all!”, “everyone deserves a safe home”, and “no more wall[s]”.17

The notion of border imperialism draws attention to the fact the border is not just the line on the map, but immigration raids on workplaces, surveillance in universities and nationality checks for schoolchildren, healthcare users and renters, and passport checks at transport hubs, as well as, ‘on the other side’, the riot police marauding through migrant camps and the activities of the EU border agency Frontex, which “increasingly policies the EU’s borders by taking its bordering practices directly to the populations it deems to pose the greatest threat.”18 Frontex activities extend as far as interdiction off the West African coast. On the one hand, these bordering practices produce the conditions for the exploitation of precarious, criminalised labour, on the other, they produce death-worlds for those racialised as not fully human, not deserving of life.

Two quotes serve to illustrate this point. The first from the academic Achille Mbembe:

I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjugated to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.19

The second from a Syrian migrant, Abu Jana:

Let me tell you something. Even if there was a [European] decision to drown the migrant boats, there will still be people going by boat because the individual considers himself dead already. Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change peoples’ decision to go.20

Levi’s warning haunts us. The refrains of lifeboat ethics are ready-made to rationalise and naturalise these horrors. Lifeboat ethics beget lifeboat states and the death-worlds of their border regimes. In the second piece of this two-part series, we will try and understand the current anti-migrant populisms in Europe and the US, and what this implies for undermining pro-borders politics while building a no borders politics within the likely habitable zones of the future. The latent infection diagnosed by Levi demands anti-fascist inoculation.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Nov 25 2016 09:57


  • Climate change, even under the best case scenarios, looks likely to force dramatically larger numbers of people into displacement.

Attached files


Nov 25 2016 19:11

Thanks for posting, look forward to reading properly. Just wanted to check the title is not meant to be "refugees"?

fingers malone
Nov 25 2016 20:18

A refuge is a place of shelter, protection or safety. I think it's saying that habitable areas of the planet will become refuges as we will all need to flee the uninhabitable areas to seek refuge in them.

Joseph Kay
Nov 25 2016 21:45

Yeah it's refuge - there's a quote from Mark Lynas in the article which mentions zones of inhabitability - refuges - in a world with 5 degrees of warming.

Dec 3 2016 07:00

Very good stuff. This quote below is so fucking heart-wrenching.

Let me tell you something. Even if there was a [European] decision to drown the migrant boats, there will still be people going by boat because the individual considers himself dead already. Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change peoples’ decision to go.20
Dec 5 2016 11:32

Yeah great article. Apologies for the comment above I should've read it before assuming a typo!

Joseph Kay
Dec 6 2016 12:02