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19th April – From the Migration and Climate Change Working Group

April 20, 2010

The first day of the Climate and Migration Working Group finished today after four hours of comments, proposals and questions around the existing text. It began by ‘electing’ a bilingual International Secretary and two Presidents, one man and one woman, from the audience. While there were around 400 people registered online as part of the working group, there were around 50 people here today, and we were all given an opportunity to present ourselves. The group included academics, activists, representatives from social and environmental organisations, unions, farmers, community activists and local students. Countries of origin included all parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Panama, Italy, The Basque Country, England, Scotland, Norway, US and Switzerland. It was noticeable that there was no one from Asia, Africa, Australasia, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East. It’s not clear if the participation would have been wider if it were not for the volcano cancelling flights, as we know this has affected both Europeans and those travelling from Asia who would have had to transit through Europe.

The International Organisation for Migration or IOM were visible from the moment that we arrived. Their logo is on the poster advertising the working group, they have a banner in the doorway of the meeting room, and there are two Bolivian employees in the audience.

We have always expected that they would be here, and because of our understanding of their activities and what they represent, we have been concerned about the implications of their presence for the outcomes of the working group. Having worked on raising awareness of this organisation and campaigning against them it feels uncomfortable to be in a space where they are sitting in the row in front of us.

The IOM manage migration, for the benefit of nation states, particularly those of the global north. Their policy of managed global migration is not concerned with the well being of people, despite how they might at first appear, but the well being of economies. One of their main activities within the UK is the management and provision of so called Voluntary Returns programmes. People are offered flights and financial incentives to return to their country of origin, and a welcome provision of basic housing and sustenance until they leave. Although there are some cases where this is indeed a choice, the overwhelming majority of “voluntary” returns are in fact a result of well planned and executed coercion. States are actively encouraged to make the conditions intolerable for those who are refused permission to stay and therefore the carrot of the IOM only works with the stick of the UK Border Agency’s policies of enforced destitution (no housing and no money) and indefinite periods of detention. In a powerpoint presentation on their website they explain that voluntary returns  are cheaper, less administratively cumbersome, and more palatable to the wider population than forced removals, as well as laying out the conditions necessary to make people choose to leave in this way. While it is a few years old, you can read more about the IOM here.

Don’t fear though, we were hardly going to leave them unchallenged. Another European No Borders activist got in before us and spoke about structural causes of migration, the development of Frontex in Europe, and the role the IOM has in training some of the world’s border police with the worst human rights records. We followed with a question to the organisers of the working group about the role of the IOM here, and our associated concerns. While it is clear that there is some relationship between the IOM and the Bolivian state, we wanted to know if their support of the working group went as far as financing, and highlighted the fact that many of the social movements in Europe are struggling against the IOM and the policies that they are responsible for. This certainly caused a little bit of tension, and was responded to by both one of the organisers of the working group, and an employee of the IOM. In short, we were told that the entirety of the conference was funded by the Bolivian government, and that the IOM work for the Bolivian government and not the other way round. While we weren’t able to further expose the real nature of the IOM, and who they really represent, it was clear that a point had been made and aside from this response there were no interventions made by their employees within the debates that were had throughout the day.

The nature of most of the discussions today were for the most part really quite exciting and engaging. It seems so strange to be at a state sponsored event with a genuine political space opened up for social movements to meet, debate and find common ground. Further, our No Borders political position has not before been aired and engaged with in a global south context and we have not been sure what the nature of migration related discourses would be here. The context and position is so very different to that of ours in Europe. A clear difference for us to think more on is the way in which our northern borders are used to keep out and “protect” us from the poor of other countries, while here in one of the poorest nations of the world there is a border policy that aims to keep out the rich, the speculative, and the capitalists. Nonetheless, the majority of the early interventions had us nodding heads vigorously, and restraining ourselves from doing “wavy hands”.

People spoke of the fact that climate related displacement and associated migration is not a new thing, especially here in Bolivia. During the early 1980s there were a series of droughts that forced many Quechua people from the Potosi region into the cities. What was spoken of was the need to make these displacements visible, and one of the major debates that will continue to be had is that of the pros and cons of defining climate migrants within a legislative framework, as well as the inherent problems of categorisation.

For some, finding consensus around definitions and terminology for people migrating as a result of climate change is fundamental. A need to name what is happening at both a national and international level. However, many know that any attempt to label a new class of migrant is likely to be limiting, and asserting a definition within a legal framework could be an error. Will a “climate refugee” or “climate migrant” classification include those people who are forced to move as a result of economic problems. Within a climate justice framework there could be space to include people who move as a result of forced displacement, a lack of work opportunities, a lack of food and water sovereignty, and impoverishment as a result of capitalist models of production that are the root cause of climate change. However, if we are to narrow merely to those affected by natural disasters, the category will never be satisfactory, and will only serve to exclude the majority of affected peoples. Capitalism itself is disastrous, and any actions must be to open up spaces to discuss all people who are forced to migrate, both internally and across borders.

Another key debate was had around the use of projected figures for just how many people are, and may be on the move as a result of climate change. Discussions were had as to where the figures used in the current working group document have come from, and how they can exist at all if there is no shared definition of climate migrant/refugee. There was also debate about the uses and risks of such figures. Some stated that they are necessary to make the issue visible, while others pointed out that the figures could easily play into the hands of states and authorities who can use them as an excuse to tighten their borders and immigration policies.

Nonetheless, it was clear that equally the work is to name and have clarity on the structural causes and consequences of climate change, namely neoliberalism and industrial capitalism. Further, within a discourse of historical climate debt it is the most polluting countries of the north that must take responsibility for the futures of displaced peoples. The struggle must be located against the current economic and political systems of the most powerful countries, against private property and against multinationals. It was felt strongly that our work is not solely about “picking up the pieces” with regards to forced displacements, but about tackling the root causes and within this promoting peoples right to stay in their home lands. While it was generally felt that there was a need for social movements to force governments to take concrete actions around these issues, it was strongly felt that the proposals need to come from the grass roots, that the process of change does not come from technical people and officials. The struggle must be not only to protect the planet, but to construct societies based on principles of solidarity, respect, integration, sovereignty and cultural recognition of different communities.

While class has not been discussed explicitly, one person spoke of the need to build movements and affinity between campesinos, migrants and indigenous communities. Another person stating, “for indigenous communities, borders do not exist.”

The other thing here is the 10th South American Conference of Migration, also including some IOM involvement, which is going to take place here tomorrow. This isn’t something we had heard of before but with a quick look at the declaration from last years summit in Ecuador it seems to be looking for some regional integration of migration policy. The language of freedom of movement is used, perhaps within a programme of regional integration like we have in the EU.

Tomorrow the working group is not reconvening until later in the afternoon, as the morning is filled with the Inauguration Ceremony and is followed by a panel specifically on climate migration on which one of us will be speaking of the European context. It will  be interesting to hear from the other speakers who appear to have very similar politics to us…. the IOM, it appears, actually have the minority position.

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One comment

  1. Hello Ayya team,

    A friend of mine Naomi Hogan from Australia is also at the conference and sent me this link to your blog. I’m doing my phd on migrants and climate change, and though I haven’t began my fieldwork yet (so cant provide a ‘voice from the field’), I’d love to reflect on your comments if I may?

    First, I think this issue of categorisations is crucial. Categories are never neutral – they reflect a discourse, or narrative and they simplify (or hide) a complex story and set of assumptions. One of the consequences of categorization is that inevitably it separates the migration act from its wider context as people seek explanations for population movements in terms of predefined ‘causal’ categories such as ‘number and severity of natural disaster’ or ‘urban employment growth’. I personally don’t think this is very useful, at least from the perspective of understanding how climatic changes might affect existing migration patterns, and communities (as you point out, mostly in the South).

    You talk about making the issue visible. Yes, but for whom? For me, the key voice that is missing in a lot of this discussion, is those of migrants themselves. Seasonal migration for example is a well known tactic used by rural peoples seeking to diversify their income in the face either natural risks such as drought, or structural changes in the rural economy (brought on by capitalist modes of production) e.g. through the mechanisation of agriculture. Hardly any research has been done on the impacts of this kind of migration on sending communities – there are mixed reports about the benefits of remittances for example. Some research has found that returned migrants bring back progressive ideas for example on gender relations.

    What I’m trying to say is that there is a meta-narrative going on here – it says mobility is not ideal. It says, people being ‘rooted’ and in one place is equated with a stable maybe ‘sustainable’ relationship. This is actually historically a highly conservative view which perceives people on the move as suspicious, vagrant and threatening (witness anxiety about gypsies, so called wandering jews, and more recently refugees and terrorists). Another narrative that we see is mobility is a wonderful thing- the idea of nomads etc – both have ideological assumptions in them. I think we need to be careful about that.

    I think we also need to be careful when talking about migration being ‘forced’ or ‘voluntary’ – surely this is something that is really difficult for anyone to be conclusive about – (perhaps even by migrants themselves!?) Migration is one of the most complex manifestations of socio-ecological relations. We need to find ways to understand it, from the perspective of migrants.

    Ok thats probably enough for now. I’m really interested to see how the discussions progress. Well done you guys for going all that way to meet with people to discuss this really important issue.

    Hedda Ransan-Elliott



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