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29 October 2021updated 06 Mar 2023 1:35pm

Fears about climate migration are being used to build up borders

Governments, companies and even well-intentioned NGOs are part of the problem

By Samir Jeraj

Back in 2008, an EU report declared “Europe must expect substantially increased migratory pressure” as a result of climate change. The author warned that member states could expect “millions” of people by 2020. It is a prediction that has not come to pass.

Why people migrate, where and with what impact has never been straightforward. Separating out environmental causes from political, social and economic factors is extremely difficult. Even where there are obvious environmental reasons for people to be displaced, the story is different to the prevailing one. “What we’re seeing is sudden displacement caused by extreme flooding, tropical storms, cyclones, hurricanes,” explains Alex Randall, project lead at the Climate and Migration Coalition. These events, he continues, tend to create “short-term displacements” where people move the shortest distance possible to get to safety with the aim of returning home. This pattern holds even with slower processes such as drought and desertification, where people usually try to find alternative work locally before moving to a nearby city and reinforcing the global trend of urbanisation.

However, the spectre of millions of migrants and refugees exerts a powerful influence over politicians in the US and Europe, which have been on a long-term anti-immigration trajectory. An imagined future of conflict and displacement driven by climate change and competition for resources has been used by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to try and draw attention to the existential threat posed by climate change. But this narrative also opens opportunities for governments to adopt anti-migration policies and for companies to sell solutions to help build up their borders, push people back or keep them elsewhere.

“The world doesn’t need to address climate change because people might migrate,” says Richard Black, visiting professor of geography at Sussex University. “The world needs to address climate change because climate change itself is a problem.” Professor Black led a study commissioned and published by the UK government in 2011 on migration and climate change. Part of the reason was that the Home Office was concerned it “ought to be prepared” in the medium term for an “increase in migration associated with climate change”, he explains. The “broad thrust” of the findings was that there was no clear signal climate change would result in more people coming to the UK.

However, security is still driving many states and international organisations when it comes to climate change, and particularly its link to migration. The US Department for Homeland Security published its Climate Action Plan in September, with the head of the department stating in his opening that “we are already experiencing the adverse impacts [of climate change], from [a] sea-level rise, extreme heat, flooding, and drought, to changes in migration patterns and harmful effects on workforce health”. Nato’s 2021 Climate Change and Security Action Plan says climate change could potentially “lead to displacement, migration and human mobility, creating conditions that can be exploited by state and non-state actors that threaten or challenge the alliance”.

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NGOs and campaigners are concerned that climate change and migration will be just the latest reason for states to raise their borders and adopt punitive anti-immigrant policies. A report by research organisation the Transnational Institute (TNI) found 23 companies that it says are profiting from the “border industrial complex”. These include providing border and smart border technologies, deportation and detention. In the UK, the government privatised deportation, handing the process over to facilities management business Mitie, together with the support of some airlines, while detention centres and asylum seeker housing are contracted out to a set of private companies including Clearsprings.

Behind the providers, TNI found, are large financial investors, such as the Vanguard Group, which provide the capital for these companies to set up border infrastructure and meet the high upfront costs of putting it in place. One of the striking findings is the extent to which investors that have disproportionately contributed to climate change through investment in fossil fuels are the same as those seeking to profit from climate securitisation and borders. The Vanguard Group has an investment worth £300bn in fossil fuels and £7.2trn in assets under management.

Another trend is the involvement of tech companies in an industry traditionally dominated by arms and defence companies. These companies are in effect building “smart borders” to complement physical ones. Palantir Technologies, for example, provides profiling and database software to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The company also has a presence in the UK overseeing post-Brexit border and customs data. In 2018, the EU funded and piloted an automated border control system called iBorderCtrl, which used AI as part of a lie-detector system for people wanting to cross borders. According to Emre Korkmaz, a researcher at Oxford University, deploying these new border technologies against refugees and migrants is also a way to test and perfect products, such as border drones, with a view to profitable wider use – in particular by the military.

There are, however, meaningful migration policies that promote human rights and can be put in place in response, according to Randall. He believes that climate adaptation finance should be made available to “facilitate migration” where countries are experiencing both sudden internal displacement and accelerated patterns of internal migration as a result of climate change. This could help make that migration of people a more planned and responsive process, he explains. Adaptation could be about ensuring decent housing and urban environments for people moving into cities from rural areas. It could also be about welfare and education systems that support people whose livelihoods have changed.

Climate change and migration are two different issues that do interact with each other, but in a complicated way. However, in a world where politicians see migration as a security issue, and there is money to be made in selling border solutions to it, the door is open for climate change to be used to restrict human rights rather than ensure them.

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