Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Global forced migration and the entanglements of race, state power, capitalism and environmental change

By Hossein Ayazi

When people think of forced migration today, what might they think of?

Most might think of the “European refugee crisis.” And why would they not? In 2015, over 1.3 million people arrived at Europe’s borders by way of the Mediterranean Sea, the largest wave of forced migration in nearly a century. Most might also think of the particular makeup of the “European refugee crisis.” Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis — primarily fleeing war and conflict, political and economic instability and environmental change — had comprised 78 percent of all refugees and migrants arriving in Europe by sea that year.

Still, a timely and in-depth report by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley entitled, Moving Targets: An Analysis of Global Forced Migration, asks us to shift the scale of our understanding of the present crisis and consider a few pertinent facts:

First, and concerning global forced migration more broadly, all of the top 10 refugee-producing countries are in the global south. Second, the 10 countries with the greatest number of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) are also located in the global south (77 percent of the world’s IDPs are located in these countries). Third, despite the current refugee crisis being framed as primarily impacting countries in the European Union and North America, 86 percent of the world’s displaced people are hosted in the global south. And fourth, many displaced people who do seek asylum in the global north have been met with inhumane responses. Against the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, for example, Syrian and other asylum-seekers across Europe have been deported back to Turkey, Libya, and elsewhere, and held in dismal prison-like conditions in Greece.

Thus, while the “European Refugee Crisis” might paint a picture of Europe and other parts of the global north as the only places in turmoil, Moving Targets posits that there are a number of crises at hand, new and old, and of which the situation in Europe is only one part. The other parts to look at include the disproportionate, longstanding and presently exacerbated mass displacement of people from countries in the global south in particular; the fact that countries in the global south host the vast majority of forcibly displaced people, despite their relatively limited capacity to do so; and the disregard some countries within the global north have toward the terms and norms of international refugee conventions.

The task then becomes developing an explanatory model for such crises of forced migration. Moving Targets asks us to consider this as one: The experiences of displacement across the globe (both in home countries and host countries) and the set of norms that define who is a refugee, the rights to which that person is entitled, the norms surrounding who is expected to support that person, and the support that person actually receives, are all inseparable from not only historical and contemporary formations of colonialism, imperialism, and militarization, but also momentary and ongoing environmental changes. Further, these formations of global forced migration, colonialism, imperialism, and militarism, and the uneven impacts of environmental change, are collectively underpinned by processes of Othering — whether along markers of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, geography or a combination of these dimensions.

The history of the 'refugee'

Moving Targets traces across the 20th and 21st centuries how global forced migration has been linked to formations of colonialism, imperialism, and militarization, and underpinned by processes of Othering.

chart showing refugee admissions to the US For many Europeans, World War II was a divergence from the histories of violence that were typically reserved for those areas outside Europe. Specifically, the war reflected the inward movement of European colonial violence and dispossession, racialized expropriations of many kinds, and policies that undermined the capacity of colonized countries across the world to provide social and economic security for the vast majority of their populations.

In response to Europe’s experience of mass displacement, a set of international refugee protection mechanisms and norms were consolidated. Yet this global refugee regime had not and could not shed the racial, colonial, and imperial histories and power differentials within which it was forged. A major stipulation of the 1951 Refugee Convention was that it was limited to protecting European WWII refugees from only before January 1, 1951. Although the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed both the temporal and geographic restrictions of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Protocol gave those states that had previously ratified the 1951 Convention the option to uphold such restrictions.

While the 20th century saw shifting geographies of mass displacement globally, the fall of the Soviet Union and the diminished political utility of honoring and expanding international refugee protections ultimately highlighted the racial and colonial limits of the global refugee regime itself. Specifically, until the mid-1980s, more than 90 percent of the refugees that the U.S. admitted came primarily from countries in the communist bloc, including Cuba, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, Vietnam and China. In contrast, those who sought asylum after the fall of the Soviet Union largely came as a result of the 1991 Gulf War, the Balkan wars, the Rwandan genocide and famine and conflict the Horn of Africa and West Africa. Though they also faced a great deal of racist and xenophobic sentiment, they ultimately received drastically less support than the asylum seekers who entered the country prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Contemporary dynamics of global forced migration

These racial and colonial dynamics of global forced migration have taken on new forms since the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Moving Targets argues that they can be conceptualized as three distinct yet interrelated dynamics — neoliberalization, securitization and the climate crisis.

Neoliberalization, which began in the late 20th century and continues today, is the extension and dissemination of market economy values to all institutions. It is visible in the disciplining of governments in the global south not yet fully integrated into the regime of free trade and open borders, and has led to sharp shrinkage in government funds for education, health, and infrastructure while exacerbating existing resource and power conflicts — all fueling displacement. In the global north, neoliberalization has manifested in cuts to, and the privatization of, state-furnished public services (i.e., austerity).

map of top 10 refugee host countries These transformations across the global north and global south have been intertwined with securitization, which refers to states’ ongoing needs to strategically manage the resource and power conflicts, and displacements, linked to neoliberalization itself. It is visible in the militarization of national borders in the name of security; the proliferation of surveillance technologies; the reorganization of social space; and the legal formations that undergird the dispossession, expropriation, and rejection of asylum-seekers and economic migrants.

Climate change and its effects — sea level rise, desertification, unpredictable and intense weather patterns — predominantly affect countries in the global south and have triggered new conflicts in such countries given their relative reliance upon natural resources and limited resilience to environmental shocks and long-term transformations. Thus, the climate crisis, the third dynamic of global forced migration, describes both climate-induced environmental change and the hardship faced by certain communities because of such change.

The case-in-point for all three contemporary dynamics of global forced migration is that of Syria. Beginning in 2006, Syria suffered its worst drought in centuries. While the resultant high food prices and mass rural displacements helped precipitate the uprising that broke out in 2011, it was years of colonial and neo-colonial influence across the region — which exacerbated existing resource and power conflicts and created new ones, and helped undercut the capacity for Syria and its neighbors to provide adequate education, health, and infrastructure — that were its condition of possibility. At the same time, Syrians seeking asylum in Europe and elsewhere in the Global North have faced militarized borders, heavy surveillance, and a barrage of xenophobic, racist, and Islamophobic resistance, all justified by national security concerns and the austerity-laden sentiment that “there is not enough to go around.”

A global refugee regime for the 21st century

While stopping global forced migration is an ideal end goal, Moving Targets points to how these insights offer ways to help humanize refugees, and account for the factors that have both caused mass displacement and that have undermined the potential for more comprehensive and equitable responses to such crises by community, state, national, and international actors.

These might include policies that undermine U.S. and European political, economic, and military influence in the global south, and that reverse the effects of neoliberalization in particular. These might also include policies that expand resettlement in the global north (e.g., in accordance with economic capacity), that redistribute resources within the global north toward resident refugee populations (e.g., through commitments from large private sector firms in conjunction with other financial mechanisms), and other, new, more equitable, burden-sharing mechanisms in the global north.