Europe has helped to create the conditions for ecological breakdown but is accepting fewer and fewer victims of it through migration says Thomas Perrett
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At the COP27 conference on climate change, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged world leaders to address the humanitarian consequences of mass migration induced by climate change. Advocating for a “transformational” approach in the treatment of climate refugees by States, he argued that “we cannot leave millions of displaced people and their hosts to face the consequences of a changing climate alone”.
The escalating consequences of ecological breakdown have seen increasing numbers of people flee their homes following rising incidents of extreme weather and shocks to supply chains. 89.3 million people were displaced by climate change during 2021, double the figure from the previous decade. This increased to 100 million in 2022, as climate-related disasters displaced more people than conflicts.
Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum, the number of people living in coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels during the past three decades has risen from 160 million to 190 million, 90% of whom live in developing nations and small island states. Global South nations are particularly affected; in Pakistan last year, 33 million people were displaced, and 1,500 killed, by flooding caused by a record-breaking heatwave, which scientists said was made 30 times more likely by climate change.
Yet the response from Western countries, whose historic emissions have played a significant role in exposing poorer nations to the ecological devastation now turning millions into climate refugees, has been to adopt an increasingly punitive approach to migration from countries disproportionately affected by climate breakdown.
The Right Wing Response
Back in 2014, the French far-right party the Front Nationale launched its ‘New Ecology’ initiative, which aimed to provide a “realistic and patriotic” response to climate change. Its then-leader, Phillipe Murer, told a Party Congress in Lyon that “respect for the environment and ecology is very important to the NF”.
The Front Nationale’s embrace of a localist, conservationist approach to climate change which, while remaining sceptical of mainstream environmentalism, sought to criticise the modern vulgarities of industrialisation and ecological decay which were responsible for mass immigration, advocating instead a closer harmony with nature.
Spanish political party VOX has embarked on a similar strategy; departing from a more traditional model favoured by the European Right of overt climate science denial, it pivoted in 2020 towards an embrace of what leader Santiago Abascal termed “true ecology,” predicated on the creation of “national energy autarky” and undergirded by an idealisation of traditional values and ties to the land.
Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, Director of Communications at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), told Byline Times that “the vast majority of emissions are from the global north whose economic successes are built on years of utter disregard for the environment. Their actions are now disproportionately and devastatingly impacting those in the global south, who are now forced to flee the impacts of climate change”.
“The only moral response is for our governments to open safe routes so that climate refugees can make their way to safety without further risking their lives,” he added.
‘Fortress Europe’ and the Outsourcing of Migration Policy
In response to the increased volume of migration induced by climate change, the EU has sought to suppress the flow of new arrivals by brokering deals with reactionary regimes across the Middle East and North Africa. Its ‘Fortress Europe’ policy was strengthened earlier this year as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to “act to strengthen our external borders,” which saw the Commission agree to “immediately mobilise substantial EU funds and means” for the suppression of borders, such as “surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment.”
Despite having formally denounced former President Donald Trump’s propositions for a wall along the US-Mexico border, the EU has itself engaged in measures to deport and detain migrants. The controversial EU – Turkey deal in 2016, in which Turkey received 6 billion Euros in exchange for the return of migrants looking to enter Greece, was brokered on the false premise that Turkey provided effective protection for refugees.
In fact, according to Amnesty International, Turkey “denies full refugee status to non-Europeans and the conditions in the country have shown it is unable to provide effective protection as required under international law. This means that the three million refugees in the country, virtually all of whom are non-European, have no way to be self-reliant”.
The EU has also collaborated with Egyptian authorities to adopt a stringent approach to “irregular migration” through a 2016 law which, while intended to combat human smuggling, was criticised by human rights advocacy network EuroMed Rights, which in 2019 published a report claiming that “EU-Egypt cooperation negatively impacts the human rights of migrants and refugees in Egypt, and arguably those of Egyptians as well”.
The report found that “the EU cooperation with Egypt on migration strengthens Egypt’s policing capacities, e.g. via trainings on border management or funding for the national coordinating committee for combating and preventing illegal migration,” adding: “it also provides Egypt with much sought after political legitimacy, regionally and internationally, while most of the involved institutional bodies are part of Egypt’s oppressive state apparatus known for perpetrating human rights abuses”.
EuroMed Rights called upon the EU to “re-assess the political and human cost that reinforcing the institutional capacity of an authoritarian state may have in the short and in the long run, in particular the impact on the rights of migrants and refugees in Egypt, in a wider context of crackdowns against civil society organisations and arrests of dissidents”.
The Great Replacement
As EU member states and nationalistic Arab and North African regimes collaborate to implement coercive restrictions on migrants fleeing the consequences of wars and ecological breakdown, the ‘Great Replacement’ rhetoric common to the European far right has proliferated elsewhere.
In a speech to the National Security Council on February 21st, Tunisian President Kais Saeid stated that “there is a criminal arrangement that has been prepared since the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia”. “There are parties that received huge sums of money after 2011 in order to settle irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia,” he continued.
Accusing vaguely- defined, nefarious economic forces of attempting to undermine a country’s social fabric by deliberately importing migrants from a supposedly hostile culture is a central element in the conspiratorial thinking which drives Great Replacement rhetoric. Originally coined by French philosopher Renaud Camus, the theory, which holds that the dominant ethnic group in European societies is under threat from Third World immigrants, inspired the Christchurch mass shooter, who killed 52 people in a New Zealand mosque back in 2019.
Tunisia has followed in the footsteps of several European nations including Italy and Hungary in escalating anti-migrant sentiments; increasing numbers of migrants, predominantly from Sub-Saharan African backgrounds, find themselves at risk of violent retribution from Tunisian nationalists, who seek to intensify campaigns to report and deport them.
As the climate crisis continues to displace millions from their homes, compelling the West to reckon with both the humanitarian and economic consequences of escalating natural disasters, a nationalistic, exclusionary approach toward climate refugees is likely to intensify. The EU’s ‘Fortress Europe’ policy, already implicated in human rights abuses resulting from deals brokered with despotic, militaristic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, has been expanded and deepened by reactionary rulers elsewhere in the world. A just political alternative, based on the humane treatment of migrants, must be articulated if this surge in reactionary fervour is to be resisted.
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