In June this year I was among pan-African panellists invited to the annual RightsCon convention in Costa Rica. This was the 11th edition, and at least 8,000 people from 174 countries were expected to attend.
The theme of my panel discussion was “Organising Towards Anti Colonial Digital Futures”.
Addressing the colonial and post-colonial domination of the Global North is the core of my activism. As an African migrant in Germany, I have experienced first-hand the racialised systems that profile our existence. As a migrant from Kenya with German residency, I was required to go through immigration control at the start and end of my journey, and every time I changed plane. Berlin, Madrid, Panama, Costa Rica: an exhausting process for anyone. It is worse for a Black person with a non-European passport.
At the border controls in Panama and Costa Rica, my weariness peaked. My hope that perhaps I was headed through countries where my race wouldn’t define my presence was shattered by the disrespectful and belittling behavior of the immigration officers.
The officers singled out around 300 individuals including myself who, despite having obtained clearance from their respective countries, ‘didn’t fit the profile of legitimate travelers’. These officers subjected us to impromptu security checks and photographed our passports using their personal mobile phones. One particularly arrogant officer loudly derided the idea that an attendee had been able to afford the air fare to the conference. Those who protested were threatened with detention and fines. Meanwhile, white travelers were allowed to proceed through the regular immigration channels without hindrance.
For some people, the racial undertones could have been invisible, but it was in plain sight for those of us who deal with racism every day.
The prevailing militarisation and monetization of border policies largely enhances the colonial rationale of migration control. Where data collection and border controls intersect, personal privacy, security and civil liberties are taken away. The EU’s asylum fingerprint database, Eurodac, its border police, Frontex, and Artificial Intelligence deployed at borders combine to create a racialized system to hunt down Black and Brown people. This does not offer protection. Rather, it feeds a rationale which ignores inequalities accrued over centuries through colonialism, exploitation and, most recently, carbon capitalism, as reasons which are driving people’s movement.
The climate crisis as a reason for migration cannot be ignored. According to the UNHCR, over 70% of refugees and internally displaced people already come from the most climate-vulnerable countries, and 1.2bn people are predicted to face climate-driven displacement by 2050. Europe has reported one of the hottest summers in recent years and wildfires, floods and heatwaves increasingly affect many countries across the world. Still, ‘natural disasters’ only appear to happen in the Global South. So while refugees are defined as people fleeing ‘war, violence, conflict and persecution’, large numbers of people in the Global South displaced by climate change are denied the privilege of migrating to the Global North, which is accountable for the majority of carbon emissions driving climate change.
The invisible violence wreaked for years by the Global North has led to the current crisis. People who seek admission to another country to escape the ravages of climate change, or even for simple travel, are subjected to invasive data collection, and made vulnerable to illegalisation and criminalisation. Criminal prosecution and/or deportation are possible consequences.
The Global South should not participate in climate change discussions as mere victims needing to be spoken for. Instead, their participation should stimulate meaningful change in critical discourses on migration and climate justice, and tangible action.
The ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ system of global accountability is vague and not fit for purpose. What responsibility should a farmer in Africa displaced for environmental reasons share with a manufacturing company in Europe? How do ‘feel good interventions’ such as Fairtrade help a flower farm worker in Kenya, who has no water because a fossil fuel company has sucked it all up to produce ‘green energy’? How does that fit into common but differentiated responsibility? How about the displacement of people from acres of fertile land that could feed thousands to pave the way for large-scale flower farming? The Global South does not have these privileges and cannot ‘grow bio food’ as a way of taking responsibility.
Currently, Europe is building fortresses to prevent migration from the Global South because there is ‘not enough money’. Its migration systems are designed to keep out the ‘dangerous poor’ while ignoring its historic and continued contribution to poverty and environmental degradation. All the while, the Global North continues scrambling to excavate wealth from impoverished countries. This scapegoating and racialized capitalism intensifies economic inequality and hastens catastrophic climate change.
Climate change is a global crisis that calls for collective solidarity. Addressing its challenges through a just and inclusive framework requires a decolonised approach that acknowledges the role and injustices perpetrated by the Global North.
Attempts by the Global North to take responsibility through successive frameworks, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement and the Conference of the Parties (COP), have yielded no tangible action towards addressing carbon capitalism. In fact, in some instances, the adaptation and mitigation measures funded and deployed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions have displaced racialized communities in the Global South. Instead of erecting walls and investing in technologies that serve to amplify deep-seated fears and stereotypes of migrants, a holistic approach is needed to create a just and inclusive framework that addresses the interconnectedness of climate change, immigration and representation.
Equity, justice and reparations must be at the center of climate action. Affected communities and civil society must lead a collaborative effort to shift policies and practices to ensure a justice-centered framework for climate change action. The voices of marginalized groups, including women, indigenous people, migrants, and refugees, must be represented in leadership roles because these people, who are least responsible for climate change, are the most affected. Goods produced through exploitative labour in countries in the Global South can freely enter Europe, but not its people. This must change. International refugee conventions must explicitly acknowledge the right to a safe environment, the right to migrate, and the right to live free from discrimination. The border walls which reinforce the injustices of climate capitalism will not prevent the climate crisis.
Jennifer Kamau is the spokesperson and co-founder of International Women* Space – an organization founded in 2012 from the Oranienplatz Movement in Berlin. IWS is an anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial Feminist Organization that consists of refugees and migrant women.
Additional resources on the topic provided by Janna Frenzel:
Background and legal frameworks for climate refugees:
Frontex and the militarization of EU borders
The “Dublin regulation” and freedom of movement
Externalization of migration controls
Tech and migration
Climate refugees sharing their stories