by David Meinen


First, a quick caveat for the uninitiated – there is no such thing, officially, as a ‘climate refugee.’ While a relatively new phrase, especially in the wake of recent ecological disasters, the idea that climate change would induce a new kind of conflict and migration in the global South has been gaining momentum since the mid-1980s (see El-Hinnawi, 1985). This narrative became firmly integrated into the collective conscience of UNEP and the UNSC in 2007 (Penny, 2007; Hartmann, 2010), followed quickly by Canadian policy-makers and development practitioners (see DND, 2010; Becklumb, 2013). Since then, the relationship between environmental changes, refugees, humanitarianism, and security has materialized in the notion of ‘climate security.’ This notion perpetuates a crisis narrative of politically unstable Third World peoples – colloquially referred to as climate refugees/migrants – fleeing their uninhabitable homelands and (inconspicuously) posing a threat to international security. The speculative nature of this notion brings the climate refugee into being only through “future conditional knowledge practices” (Gemenne & Baldwin, 2013, p. 267); thus, while there is a notable lack of empirical evidence on the phenomenon of climate security (Kothari, 2014), as the debate becomes further enmired in expressions of insecurity, the more the supposed climate refugee is cast as “something to fear and/or control” (Farbotko, 2010, p. 53).


This type of security reasoning now appears to colour our interpretations and understandings of the role of humanitarianism in ‘undeveloped’ states (Bettini, 2013, p. 68). A cursory scan of the existing Canadian policy documents that are just beginning to address the notion of climate refugees reveals that mitigation strategies are overwhelmingly couched in security rhetoric (DND, 2014), prompting the familiar turn towards humanitarian intervention (see Becklumb, 2013; DND, 2010; Zakzouk, 2010). Geiger & Pécoud (2013) refer to this process as the development-migration nexus, which, true to long-standing views, conceives of migration as a problem and “development aid as part of the control policies and ‘stay at home’ strategies” (p. 369; see Clemens, 2016). As Duffield (2008) cogently observes, for decades Northern countries have mobilized NGOs as a political technology for restricting the movement of peoples on a South-North axis, while reinforcing a politics of containment under the auspices of security (p. 152). Such is further exacerbated by the fact that there is no UN agency dedicated to migration ‘management’ (see IOM 2009a, 2009b), nor is there an internationally binding agreement surrounding migration (Kalm, 2010, p. 23). Thus, while the idea of climate refugees remains under-theorized, their securitization has already led to pre-emptive moves to contain them, simultaneously pushing aside those who seek to recognize, for example, the colonial legacies of ecologically unequal exchange (Kothari, 2014, p. 486).

Related Blog: Sharing Perspectives on Climate Migration: From Narratives, to Language, to Conceptualization by Jay Ramasubramanyam


We should clarify what we mean when talking about security (and its associated neologisms). The understanding of security here is security-as-pacification (see Rigakos, 2016). At its core, pacification requires the destruction and reconstruction of a specific socio-political community via force, discipline, and regulation. Through pacification, we see security as a de-radicalizing discourse, capable of transforming environmental catastrophes “from moments of devastation and suffering to moments of lapsed ‘environmental security’” (McClanahan & Brisman, 2015, p. 423). Moreover, we read security as a constitutive power, and thus as a police mechanism, which is most evident in the police science that came to constitute the foundation of eighteenth-century liberal concepts of security. Policing (as a form of governance, not necessarily the exercise of law) through security became first and foremost concerned with the protection of private property relations, enforcement of the wage labour system, and the establishment of a commodity culture (Rigakos, 2016). Once we see police power manifest in unforeseen bodies (actually and figuratively), we then see the possibility for (climate) security to co-opt the discourse of humanitarianism and prioritize the NGO governance function (see Dyer, 2016); in other words – fashion a neo-police in the interests of Southern containment and minimizing risks to the global market economy (for example, see Klarreich & Polman, 2012).


Aside from the possibility that NGOs might be utilized as agents of (neo-)liberal order-building in the interests of a pre-fabricated security concern, why else might we care about NGOs and humanitarianism at this stage? It has everything to do right now with formulating global social policy. After all, the globality of social policy is very much a product of the challenges to “territorially-based conceptions of social rights posed by the increasing flow of migrants” and associated “best practices” (Béland & Mahon, 2016, p. 1). As of yet, there is no social policy on climate change/migrants, per se (Kalm, 2010). At this precise, even fortuitous, moment we are met with the opportunity to formulate climate migration policy through a politics of anti-security (Neocleous & Rigakos, 2011) that extricates the idea of ‘climate security’ from its false binaries (barbaric [sinking] Other versus civilized Self) that obscure rather than shed light on this pacification.


Following von Glizszcynski and Leisering’s (2016) five factors for the formulation of transnational social policy, we see that (securitized) policy materializing around the notion of climate refugees satisfies them all: 1) the idea behind social policy on a given issue is formulated by an international organization – the IPCC (Murray, 2010) and IOM (IOM, 2014, 2015) have recently begun to incorporate the concept into their reports; 2) the idea retrofits old models for managing the issue – the security tropes of old are leading the conversation; 3) the idea gains legitimacy with empirical and (security) expert approval – ‘climate security’ dominates the policy arena and the academy; 4) the idea is linked to higher, generalized knowledge and to ideas from existing policy fields – the ‘dangerous migrant’ is certainly nothing new; and 5) the name of the model itself is appealing to the public, which will ideally draw on popular discursive practices – i.e. ‘(insert word) security’ (von Gliszczynski & Leisering, 2016, p. 5).


This being said, we are in a rather curious position. At the forefront of this phenomenon, we are concerned with the political technologies that will be used to manage this impending crisis – a potential neo-police consisting of NGOs repurposed by a state that is labouring to translate this humanitarian ‘concern’ into a security ‘problem,’ thereby reinforcing our politics of containment. Yet, as Deacon (2007) and Béland & Mahon (2016) observe, NGOs can be critical in the formulation of social policy. The question at this juncture, then, is whether or not security will completely co-opt the language of humanitarianism and human rights, or whether under a moral imperative to consider human needs (Gough, 2014) NGOs coalesce to negotiate inclusive and fair management strategies external to the grip of security.


David Meinen is a PhD Student at the University of Waterloo and member of the CNHH.




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