Global migration policy has started to move in a more humane direction in response to the invasion of Ukraine. While many states are welcoming displaced Ukrainians, this is a far cry from how those states typically treat refugees. Activists and scholars have lamented the lack of similar response to people displaced from south Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The uneven global response to migration on display sets a chilling precedent for the displacement that is likely to come with the climate crisis.
Race plays a defining role in how states think about their borders and who gets let in. In the 19th century, racial politics shaped the formation of international law – including how we understand concepts like sovereignty – and legitimized exclusionary policies whose impacts reverberate today. We can see the impact of race on the way in which refugee policy was developed. Drawing on research by T Alexander Aleinikoff, philosopher Serena Parekh explains that refugee flows were primarily east to west (rather than south to north) in the first half of the 20th century. During this period, resettlement was the standard way of helping refugees. When refugee flows from non-European countries increased (from the global south to global north), states changed their policy: instead of resettlement, voluntary repatriation was preferred.
What this meant in practice is that refugee camps became the standard way to “rescue” refugees while they waited to return home via voluntary repatriation. It soon became clear that refugee camps did not make voluntary repatriation easier or faster – only about 2% of refugees are voluntarily repatriated annually. But western states chose to keep the practice. Why? According to Aleinikoff, the goal was to “keep third-world refugee problems from inconveniencing the developed states”. Parekh notes that Aleinikoff is not alone here: other scholars, such as Guglielmo Verdirame and Barbara Harrell-Bond, have argued that donor states’ support for refugee camps is intended to protect the boundaries of “Fortress Europe” or “Fortress Australia”.
The racial stratification of border policing and migration law is not simply an ignoble history of 20th-century politics, but of our present as well. The Bulgarian prime minister, Kiril Petkov, was straightforward about the double standards of migration policy when he said last month that Ukrainian refugees are “not the refugees we are used to; these people are Europeans”, adding that “there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees”.
Usually, bigotry wears a few more clothes. As the activist and author Harsha Walia points out, xenophobic border politics usually express themselves in ostensibly race-neutral language, engineering or exploiting fears around sexual violence or terrorism. But all the careful rhetoric in the world cannot obscure the plain facts of the matter: however impolitic the statement by Petkov and similar ones by news anchors may have been, they match the actual policy choices that powerful states are making in response to the invasion. Last month, the European Union voted unanimously to accept Ukrainian refugees for up to three years without requiring immediate application for asylum, and US policymakers are likewise considering fast-tracking admission for Ukrainian refugees. The more than 3 million Ukrainians and up to 7 million who may benefit from this policy face a political environment in stark contrast to the ones long felt by African, south Asian and Middle Eastern refugees.
Refugees from the “wrong” parts of the world face an increasingly well-resourced system of violence. As American University researcher Tazreena Sajjad details, Europe’s borders now feature more than 1,800km of walls across land and sea to restrict access to the vaunted “freedom of movement” enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights to the kind of people who do not scare Petkov. Such policies are often coordinated across governments. The EU’s support of the Libyan coast guard encourages deadly militias and a nightmarish “shadow immigration system” in northern Africa, while the US similarly pressures Central American governments to more actively police migrants. Across the world, border surveillance and policing are not merely the province of the state, but also of business: private military security companies extend the reach of state security apparatuses with the help of huge and increasing investments in data management and surveillance technology.
This is the climate policy of the powers that be: to funnel money to border militarization, insulating political elites from dealing with the world created by their ongoing refusal to confront the climate crisis, while positioning a few of their number to profit handsomely.
We shouldn’t expect the ruling class’s response to future climate-based displacement and migration to be any more equal than their responses have been to migration thus far. Across the world, rightwing politicians fan the flames of xenophobia, sometimes in explicit link to green energy and other climate issues. France’s Marine Le Pen once likened migrants to wind turbines, since “everyone agrees to have them, but no one wants them in their back yard”. In the US, Arizona’s attorney general sued the federal government for failing to protect the environment – by treating immigration as a source of pollution. If these elements of global politics continue to rise in prominence and power, we could end up with “fossil fascism”: a nearly worst-case climate scenario where continued fossil fuel extraction meets heightened ethnonationalism.
We need serious climate mitigation and adaptation policies to make sure that people everywhere have resilient support systems, and aren’t immiserated or displaced by disaster in the first place. The more serious we get about that, the smaller the displacement problem.
But it is unlikely that we will be able to totally eliminate displacement from our world, so we will also need to have humane and minimally fair global systems of response to migration. How a displaced person is treated and the quality of support they receive should not depend on racial or geopolitical factors. If we have learned anything from the response to the war in Ukraine, it is that we do have the capacity to care for more displaced persons.