Moving Targets: An Analysis of Global Forced Migration

Part 2: Dynamics and Colonial History of Contemporary Forced Migration

Part 2: Dynamics and Colonial History of Contemporary Forced Migration

In this section, we extend our analysis of the unevenness of forced migration into the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. We offer three central dynamics of forced migration in the present day: neoliberalization, securitization, and the climate crisis. These dynamics build upon colonial and imperial histories. Neoliberalization enacts and extends colonial histories of accumulation; securitization enacts and extends colonial histories of militarization; and the climate crisis operates as a trigger and feedback loop and is greatly exacerbated by neoliberalization and securitization. These particular dynamics structure not only the mass displacement of people from the Global South,47 they also structure the anti-refugee and xenophobic response and sentiment in the Global North.

Dynamic 1: Neoliberalization

The first dynamic of global forced migration is neoliberalization. A term often used but rarely defined, neoliberalism or neoliberalization is the late twentieth century reinterpretation and exercise of state and political power modeled on market-based economy values. Political theorist and scholar Wendy Brown describes neoliberalism as the extension and dissemination of market economy values to all institutions and social action, causing the state to further lose its role as the supposed universal representation of people.48 Sociologist Saskia Sassen furthers this analysis by describing how neoliberalization strengthens the particular dynamics that expel people from the economy and from society, dynamics that are now hardwired into the normal functioning of these spheres.49

The historical and institutional rupture in global political economics and governance known as neoliberalism has changed the cause, form, and management of forced migration around the world. Neoliberalism has fomented the further erosion of state support and protections afforded by citizenship within both the Global South and Global North, leading to expulsions of various people within each region. Although a new phenomenon in some ways, neoliberalization has historical roots in the colonial systems of appropriation, expropriation, exploitation, and expulsion. 


While it is a global phenomenon, neoliberalization since the 1970s has affected the Global North and the Global South in different ways. As David Lloyd and Patrick Wolfe argue, in the Global North, neoliberalism has manifested in the register of austerity—cuts to, and the privatization of, state-furnished public services, from public utilities, education, healthcare, to social welfare, public space, and other services. This new mode of accumulation reflects the “enclosure” of those public goods historically wrested from the state by social movements during much of the twentieth century—public goods that were fundamental elements of the welfare state itself. To the neoliberal state, according to Lloyd and Wolfe, these public goods “represent vast storehouses of capital, resources, services, and infrastructure” but are now targeted for expropriation and exploitation.50

The outcomes of this enclosure for the general public within the Global North have been far reaching. As Sassen argues, unemployment, out-migration, foreclosures, poverty, imprisonment, and higher suicide rates have become central outcomes of neoliberalism in countries within the Global North. These outcomes can be understood as their own displacements of sorts: displacement from ones’ home and neighborhood vis-à-vis the foreclosure and real estate crises of the 2000s, and from society more broadly vis-à-vis the exponential growth of the prison population in recent decades.51

While many parts of the Global North have experienced austerity measures, the Global South has experienced its own version of neoliberal policies. According to Sassen, the imposition of debt repayment priorities and the opening of markets to powerful foreign firms weakened states throughout the Global South. Such measures ultimately impoverished the middle class and undermined local manufacturing, which could not compete with large mass-market foreign firms.52 These acquisitions were made possible by the explicit goals and unintended outcomes of the IMF and World Bank restructuring programs implemented in much of the Global South in the 1970s, as well as the demands of the World Trade Organization (WTO) from its inception in the 1990s and onward. Sassen argues the resulting mix of constraints and demands “had the effect of disciplining governments not yet fully integrated into the regime of free trade and open borders, and led to sharp shrinkage in government funds for education, health, and infrastructure.”53

There have been many consequences of neoliberalism in the Global South. Principal among them is the exacerbation of resource and power conflicts, which have often taken the form of war, disease, and famine. These have been proximate causes for displacement.54 In other words, the disciplining of countries within the Global South by way of the programs from the 1970s onward is part of the backdrop of the socioeconomic hardships facing many such nations, and, by extension, the current crises of forced migration within and from the Global South. 


Restructuring as experienced in the Global North, which has been primarily in the form of austerity, extends such neoliberal forms of accumulation that the Global South has been subjected to in recent decades. The debt regimes imposed on the Global South are an antecedent to what has begun to take place in the Global North by way of state deficits that have risen sharply in recent years.55

Even further, neoliberalism extends forms of commodification that the Global South has been subjected to long before the 1970s—a reminder that the history of the Global South does not begin with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. Specifically, according to Lisa Lowe, “in light of the commodification of human life within slavery, colonialism, as well as contemporary globalization, we can appreciate that what is currently theorized as the financialization of life as 'human capital' in neoliberalism brutally and routinely occurred and continues to occur throughout the course of modern empires.”56 In this way, neoliberalization can be seen as an expansion of those forms of accumulation and expulsions historically associated with racial and colonial difference itself. 

Yet the colonial antecedents of neoliberalism are not limited to the Global North’s histories of colonialism that have taken shape outside its own borders. Such antecedents also include the territorial acquisitions that constitute the US, Canada, and other settler colonial states as such. As Lloyd and Wolfe suggest, the fundamental continuity between past formations of settler colonialism and the present-day development of the neoliberal world order “resides in the exigencies of managing surplus populations.”57

Dynamic 2: Securitization

As part of the project of neoliberalism, the role of the state has been redrawn to furnish a conduit for the more rapid distribution of what were once “public goods” into the hands of corporations.58 And in the Global South, alongside the imposition of debt regimes, neoliberalism has forced countless people to be ejected from their homes, communities, and countries. Along with these expulsions, such demands placed upon the state have also fostered a “condition of heightened security.”59 In other words, neoliberalism has taken shape not only in the register of austerity in the Global North and debt regimes in the Global South, but also brought with it the dynamic of securitization. We refer to securitization as the states’ need to strategically manage resource and power conflicts, as well as the manifold displacements, caused by neoliberalism itself. 


Examples of the pairing of neoliberalism’s austerity and debt regimes, and new security concerns and measures to deal with the fallout of such regimes, are abound in the US and Europe. According to the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, examples include: 

  • Greece’s financial crisis and the disputes regarding polices pushed for from the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (these three entities are the main decision-makers for European Union policy and are commonly referred to as the Troika), alongside what Human Rights Watch has described as the growing crisis of xenophobic violence towards immigrants and political refugees across the country; 
  • The British austerity narrative promoted by the Conservatives alongside policies and bills preventing terrorism, such as the Government’s Draft Investigatory Power Bill; 
  • The growing use of force by state actors (e.g., housing eviction officers) and growing control of citizen participation initiatives (e.g., neighborhood renewal partnerships in the UK and the US, or citizen security programs across Latin America where police are a key partner).60

Each of these highlight how Global North austerity and debt regimes are linked with emerging security concerns. Yet given the current increase in forced migrations globally, and the increase in arrivals from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa in particular, these security concerns within the US and Europe have taken on particularly troubling forms: the anti-immigrant sentiment that conflates migrants, whether driven by economic or political failures, with “terrorist enemies” and other threats to national security; the militarizing of national borders in the name of security; as the proliferation of surveillance technologies; as “ethnocidal” spatial segregations and reorganization of social space; and the legal formations that undergird the dispossession and expropriation of asylum-seekers and economic migrants in particular, and the general population more broadly.61 For example, coinciding with global regimes of austerity and debt has been the so-called global war on terror, which has been used to legitimate an inordinate increase in the development of surveillance technologies and the use of such technologies against the citizenry within the Global North, and has taken the shape of military, political, and surveillance measures against both terrorist organizations and the regimes accused of supporting them in the Global South.62 Yet such links between neoliberalization and securitization can also take on a less explicitly militaristic tone. For example, the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and the 2008 financial crisis were contemporaneous with the passage of dozens of anti-immigration laws—in 2010 and 2011 alone, US state legislatures passed 164 anti-immigration laws.63

World's Top Ten Host Countries for Refugees


As of the end of 2015, there are a total of 65.3 million people forcibly displaced around the world. These are people displaced from their areas of origin or habitual residence. Among this staggering number are an estimated 21.3 million refugees, plus an additional 5.2 million Palestinian refugees. Worldwide there are 10 million stateless people who have been denied access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement.40

What may seem like a universal phenomenon, the burden of hosting forcibly displaced peoples is not shared equally in the world. The reality is that low and middle income countries host 86 percent of the world’s displaced people while high income countries host only 14 percent.41 The current refugee crisis is too often framed as primarily impacting countries in the European Union and North America, though the number of refugees hosted in countries neighboring the country of departure far exceeds the number of refugees and asylum-seekers hosted in the EU and US. The top 10 hosting countries welcomed more than 60 percent of all refugees and asylum seekers.42

The wealthiest nations in the world, with the exception of Sweden and Germany, host the fewest refugees relative to their population and wealth. Several European countries do host sizeable refugee populations, yet nine out of the top ten refugee hosting countries, per 1,000 inhabitants, are outside of Europe.43 The burden of forced migration has largely been placed upon nations that lack the capacity and resources to effectively integrate and absorb such a large influx of people.

Most Refugees per 1,000 Inhabitants

This infographic includes a diagram showcasing Most Refugees per 1,000 inhabitants

This infographic includes a map that showcases the fortressing of Europe


Such anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment and heightened security measures speak to a key dynamic linking neoliberalization and securitization with regard to the present “refugee crisis” in particular and forced migration more broadly. Specifically, neoliberalization and securitization are two dynamics work hand in hand to ensure the free flow of capital alongside the limited flow of people. 

First, renowned geographer David Harvey states, “the free mobility of capital between sectors, regions, and countries is regarded as crucial. All barriers to that free movement such as tariffs, punitive taxation, planning, and environmental controls are impediments that must be removed.”64

The direction of this free flow of capital between regions and countries is not even nor equitable. According to US-based Global Financial Integrity and the Centre for Applied Research at the Norwegian School of Economics, in 2012, the last year of recorded data, countries in the Global South received a total of $1.3 trillion, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad. Yet, that same year, roughly $3.3 trillion left these countries, meaning they sent a net of $2 trillion to Global North more than they received. Since 1980, these net outflows have totaled $16.3 trillion, contradicting the widely held belief that the Global South merely drains the resources of the Global North through aid of various sorts. According to the study, however, the greatest outflows have to do with unrecorded capital flight, with countries in the Global South having lost a total of $13.4 trillion unrecorded capital flight since 1980.65

Second, alongside the tearing down of barriers for the flow of capital, and the guarantee that such capital flows move uninterrupted from the Global South to the Global North, has been the continual creation of barriers to the movement of people. Such barriers have manifested in the “extreme vetting” of refugees and asylum seekers and the militarization of borders.

The goal of this seeming tension between the free flow of capital and the restricted movement of people and labor is to curb wealth redistribution—even if labor is able to move to areas with better pay and greater benefits, the state can still manage this movement by restricting or increasing immigration.69 Supported by anti-immigrant sentiment, state and private actors have been able to tightly regulate the flow of capital and people. As such, the present moment can be understood as one of both the free flow of capital from the Global South to the Global North, and the mass restriction of the flow of people from the Global South to the Global North.


AHMAD WAS BORN AND RAISED in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Yarmouk, known as the "capital" of Palestinian refugee camps, was home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees prior to 2011. Today only about 20,000 residents remain, as most of Yarmouk’s residents have fled violence, siege, and starvation that the Syrian civil war brought since 2011. 

Ahmad’s grandparents were the first to come to Yarmouk. They fled their home in northern Palestine in 1948 when the state of Israel was established. During this time over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their native lands. They eventually settled in Yarmouk refugee camp, where they, and their children, and their children's children were born and lived until 2012. 

In December of 2012, a MIG plane hit the Yarmouk camp with barrel bombs and at the same time the Free Syrian Army invaded the camp. Ahmad and his family fled to a relative's house in Damascus, taking shelter along with 25 other people in a three-bedroom house. 

In 2011, after the Syrian war began, Ahmad was arrested by government security forces for writing messages of resistance on the walls of Yarmouk against the Syrian regime. He was tortured and interrogated for two weeks. When he was released, he was in a precarious position: he was not able to travel freely and he was also due for his mandatory conscription in the Syrian army. 

At the time of his arrest he had been studying business management in the Damascus Training Center, and working in media at an online news site. Instead of going into hiding, he decided to leave his work and enlist in the army voluntarily, lest he be caught by the regime again. He stayed in the Palestine Liberation Army—the Palestinian faction of the Syrian military for four years—two and a half years longer than required because of the war. 

In his fourth year of service, he injured his hand and needed surgery. He was able to leave his army servie. He knew this would be his only chance to escape wartorn Syria.

Ahmad knew that leaving Syria would be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. He was now a target from all sides—from the Syrian regime for leaving the army and from the rebel groups for having served in the Syrian military. Even without these complications, the prospect of death was a constant given the continual bombing and violence all around him. Under threat of potential arrest and imprisonment.

After being in this position for three months, he met someone who advised him to fly from Damascus to Kamishli, a Kurdish-controlled area, advising that would be the best way to leave Syria. He paid $300 to this person to be able to pass through the airport in Damascus. Everything in Syria could be done with a bribe. After an hour-long flight, he arrived in Kamishli, and got in touch with another smuggler there. Because it is illegal for Palestinian Syrians to go to Kamishli, he had to pay $100 to pass through and another $50 to obtain a fake permit to be there

The first night in Kamishli, the smuggler was to take them across the Turkish border. Ahmad a group of about 15 others were told to get ready in the middle of the night to make the 7 kilometer walk to the border crossing, but were were stopped by Turkish border police before they got past the first kilometer. They were badly beaten and the border police threatened to kill them if they returned. 

The second time they tried, they had to climb a wall about 3 meters high to cross into Turkey. As they were climbing, the police shot at them and they were forced to go back to the Syrian side of the border. The third time he tried, Ahmad got into Turkey. By this time he had spent $1,200 to get from Syria to Turkey in smuggler fees and bribes.

Once in Turkey, Ahmad went directly to Izmir, a city on the route to Germany where his sister and younger brother had already fled from Syria.

Ahmad arrived in Izmir in May 2016. The borders to European countires were already closed. He had no idea how severe the security and control at the borders were going to be. Having run out of money, and having heard stories about the incredible hardship faced by refugees in Greece, he decided to stay in Turkey and work on a cattle and goat farm. He did not have any documents proving that he was a refugee in Turkey, despite the fact that he had tried to get a Kimlik (proof of residency in Turkey). When he went to the Kimlik office, he gave them his identity card, and they returned it to him saying that Palestinians were not allowed to obtain a Kimlik. 

Because he did not have papers, employers treated him poorly as they knew there would be no repercussions. On the farm, he worked 12 hour days and received about $225 per month, after paying for his board there. 

He left for Istanbul to look for better work, although quickly learned how terrible the working conditions were for Syrians there. He was able to live in a small, three-bedroom apartment with nine other young Palestinian men. He worked in a furniture factory six days a week, getting paid a third of what his Turkish coworkers received for the same work, but without any benefits. He was continously filled with anxiety because he did not have employment papers—his main worry that if he were caught he would get deported back to Syria. 

After three months, he saved up enough money to go back to Izmir because by September 2016 he had decided to try to go through Greece. He tried to leave Izmir 12 times over twenty days to get on a boat for Greece. He would wait for three hours in the forest in the middle of the night until the raft was ready. Once in the raft, the water would flood up to their waists in freezing cold water.

For the first elevent attempts the Turkish coast guard stopped them, make them get off the raft, which they would then destroy, and returning them to Turkey by coast guard ship. Four of the first eleven times they also beat the driver of the boat badly, who was also a refugee with no experience at sea. Once returned them to the port, they then had to go to the police station where they were photographed and fingerprinted. At the station, they would wait for 8-12 hours with about 30-60 people who were also attempting the journey to Greece. For these attempts, he paid the smugglers $600.

On the eighth attempt, they were in a jet boat. This boat only had capacity for 10 people but they crammed 20 people into the boat. The waves were massive and the boat was going to capsize so the driver made the younger people on the boat get out. The driver stopped on an island to drop them off and said he would come back to pick them up. The driver never came back. The six who got off the boat waited for two hours, but when they understood that he was not returning, they made a big fire to get anyone’s attention. The Turkish coast guard saw them but did nothing to help. It was the middle of the night, they were soaking wet in freezing cold rain, and they had no water, blankets, food, or any idea how to return to safety. When the sun came up, they decided to start walking to try and find help. They walked for hours and had to drink water from the sea. They tried to reach the smuggler and told him where they were but nobody came to help. One of the people had a number for a UN employee who then spoke with the Turkish police, after which the coast guard came back to rescue them. They had been out for 20 hours. 

On the twelfth attempt, he was able to make it to Samos island in Greece. He was supposed to go to Chios but there no boats heading that direction.

Upon arriving in Samos, a police car came to get them and they were taken directly to the camp. They dropped them in front of the police office where they were forced to sleep outside on the rocky ground. It was raining. In the morning, they entered the police office where they were registered and fingerprinted. He was then assigned a tent and given clothes by an NGO. 

Ahmad was shocked by the camp conditions in Samos. He did not imagine that the conditions could or would be so terrible. But the greatest shock was meeting people who said they had been there for seven months. He couldn't imagine staying in the camp for such a long time under such conditions. 

WHEN WE MET HIM, Ahmad had been in Samos for four months. It had been a year since he left Syria. He says all he can think about is how he will not be able to reach Germany to be reunited with his brother and sister. With the borders more tightly controlled than ever, it is nearly impossible to get anywhere beyond the borders of Greece. 

Ahmad's case is specially dire and challenging because Palestinians coming from Syria were not being registered for the asylum process. Today many appeals by Syrians for admissibility to Greece are getting denied. They are often imprisoned and await deportation to Turkey. 

Currently trapped in Greece and with very little hope, Ahmad still expresses his belief that his story is not so bad especially after witnessing what so many others have endured and do still endure—many refugee children have been denied education for years, elders and the disabled have been forced on perilous journeys with no basic necessities and no help, and women have been taken advantage of and abused, along with the many others who have died along the way. 

At this point, all he wants is to be settled somewhere— anywhere—after all the conditions he has endured. Before, he would never have imagined staying in Greece, but now he simply wants to get asylum anywhere. 


Since entering office, and under the banner of putting the United States “first,” President Trump has put force behind his central campaign pledge to toughen immigration enforcement. For example, he has signed executive orders to start construction of a border wall, expand authority to deport thousands, increase the number of detention cells and hiring of more than 10,000 of Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) employees, and vow to punish cities and states that refuse to cooperate (i.e., “sanctuary cities”). Further, as of June 2017, a watered down version of President Trump’s “immigration ban” went into effect, prohibits for 90 days the entry of travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—unless they have a “bona fide relationship" with a person, business or university in the US.70

Taken together, his efforts have highlighted the centrality of securitization to the management of flows of peoples and capital (including labor itself). Yet they have also highlighted the centrality of racial and colonial difference itself to such dual dynamics, as they have targeted immigrants from Latin America and from majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. 

Such measures have of course been met with fierce opposition from countless labor groups, academic organizations, state and local governments and courts, community organizations, and others. For example, in legal challenges to Trump’s “immigration ban,” plaintiffs have cited legal precedents that state that the government cannot act arbitrarily or without supportive evidence. Further, many cities have made efforts to shield undocumented immigrants from immigration officials. In late March 2017, for example, Los Angeles passed a directive forbidding firefighters and airport police from cooperating with federal immigration agents. On the other hand, several states have been attempting to leverage economic power to force more liberal cities to cooperate with immigration officials, with lawmakers in Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Texas introduced bills to penalize sanctuary cities. 


Just as neoliberalism’s austerity and debt regimes have their roots in colonial and racialized expropriations of many kinds, neoliberalism’s security regime draws from long histories of colonial counter-insurgency.71 We can understand those security methods deployed alongside, and in service of, neoliberal austerity and debt regimes as elaborations and extensions of the histories of violence constitutive of European and US power and wealth.72 Most recently, such security regimes extend the key strategies of US war-making in the Global South during much of the twentieth century, and the militarized management of displaced peoples in particular.

The explicitly militarized forms of colonial and imperial appropriation from which neoliberalism’s security regime have taken shape have manifested differently depending on the geographic and historical context. For example, as the next section addresses in further detail, for the Asia-Pacific region, it was after World War II that colonialism and militarism converged. US military leaders turned the region’s islands into a Pacific “base network” that would support US military deployment in allied Asian countries as part of the containment of communism.73 Significantly, this network would also be essential in the management of refugees from the region fleeing both political persecution and aggressions by the US government and corporations. Histories such as these laid the groundwork for contemporary strategies for managing unwanted populations, including the militarization of borders, proliferation of surveillance technologies, and the legal formations that undergird dispossession, expropriation, and displacement.

The colonial antecedents of neoliberalism’s policies are not limited to the Global North’s histories of colonialism outside its own borders, but also include the territorial acquisitions that constitute the US, Canada, and other settler colonial states. This is also the case for neoliberalism’s security regimes. The presence of indigenous populations in these contexts has prompted many techniques of elimination, including homicide, removal, and confinement— techniques which would continue to find new life for new populations and new contexts.74 The strategy of confining populations, a process that is highly racialized, has been illustrated in the prison industrial complex, urban ghettos, and militarized refugee camps and borders. This need to secure colonialism’s racialized expropriations, and the need for the hyper-management of unwanted “surplus” populations—the roots of securitization—is key to the dynamics of forced migration today.

Amidst the current era of expulsions and displacements experienced across the Global North and Global South, both neoliberal restructuring, and security regimes designed to “keep the peace” during such capital flows, are simply an evolved continuation of colonial and imperial histories of extraction and dispossession.


The case of the British multinational security services company, G4S, highlights one way that the free flow of capital and the restricted movement of people are intimately linked. With operations in an estimated 125 countries, G4S is the world’s largest security company in revenue, the largest private employer in Europe and Africa, and the the third largest private employer in the world. The scale of G4S reflects the scale of national security matters in the world, and the privatization for such work as corporationsare recruited for these efforts.

G4S in particular has profited off not only the privatization of government services but also war and conflict, and financial and human rights abuses. The company has sought out new opportunities for profit in conflict zones caused by war, regime change and state failure across the world, ultimately increasing militarization and instability. Hired by governments and companies to perform operations previously carried out by national military forces, G4S and other private military and security companies are essentially armed civilians operating for profit in conflict zones. In Israel, for example, G4S has helped the Israeli government run the military prisons in which Palestinian political prisoners are held (largely without trial and subjected to torture), and provides equipment and services to Israel’s illegal settlements, border wall, and military. Further, about 60,000 G4S employees operate in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, where it dominates the private security market. Working largely for financial institutions, foreign embassies, and oil facilities, the majority of its profits in the region come from cash management and transportation, and private security.

In the UK, G4S has covered a wide range of services for the UK government, including military, police, and welfare. The company's financial gain amidst the privatization of government and amidst war and conflict services has led to a number of financial and human rights abuses. The most controversial is G4S’s work in prison and immigration services. In 2010, for example, there were over 700 complaints—including allegations of assault and racism—filed by undocumented immigrants held in G4S detention centers. Further, in August 2014, G4S was found to be using such detainees as cheap labor, with some being paid as little as £1 per hour. G4S also work with the U.S. government, where, for example, it has a $250 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security to transport and guard undocumented peoples, and where it operates juvenile detention centers. Through such operations G4S has accrued almost 1,500 complaints for human rights and multiple custody-related deaths on its record from 2008 to 2011.66 Further, G4S employees themselves have faced precarious labor contracts and poor working conditions, leading to disputes in over a dozen countries.67

Due to G4S’ countless financial and human rights violations, and the troubling trend it reflects, G4S has received a great deal of pushback by the general public and various organizations and coalitions. In particular, the international Stop G4S Campaign—a coalition of activists and human rights groups dedicated to opposing G4S and halting the privatization of public services for private profit while violating human rights—has cost the company contracts worth millions of dollars and compelled the Bill Gates Foundation to sell its shares in G4S.68 

Dynamic 3: Global Climate Crisis

Along with the myriad socioeconomic and political dynamics, global climate change has contributed to forced migration by way of abrupt environmental disasters as well as long-term, slowly occurring environmental changes. The effects of climate change are most predominately affecting communities in the Global South and are triggering new conflicts. We use the term “climate crisis” to describe both environmental change and the hardship faced by certain communities because of such change. We identify climate crisis as the third dynamic of forced migration, operating alongside and in conjunction with neoliberalization and securitization.


Estimates of the extent of climate-induced migration vary significantly, but the numbers are staggering by any measure. As of June 2011, according to the UNHCR, there were an estimated 42.3 million people displaced by sudden-onset disasters caused by natural events in 2010.75 Furthermore, “since 2008 an average of 26.4 million people a year have been displaced from their home by disasters brought by natural hazards. This is equivalent to one person being displaced every second.”76

Researchers predict a larger increase in climate refugees not only due to more frequent and intense weather events but also to rising sea levels, which are rising at an annual rate of 0.13 inches (3.2 millimeters) a year, roughly twice the average speed of the past 80 years.78 Most impacted are several small island and coastal countries, which must grapple with the possibility of complete submersion. Bangladesh is projected to lose 17 percent of its land by 2050, causing about 20 million people to seek refuge elsewhere, and the Maldives could lose all of its 1,200 islands.79 People worldwide who depend on the fishery industry are witnessing a decline in revenue as increasing fresh water from melted polar caps drives saltwater fish away and harms ocean ecosystems. If current rates of ocean water temperature continue to rise, for example, the ocean is projected to be too warm for coral reefs to survive by 2050.80

Climate change also contributes to desertification, wherein a relatively dry land region becomes increasingly arid and bodies of water, vegetation, and wildlife can no longer thrive.81 Desertification is threatening the livelihoods of many communities by completely transforming the ecosystem and diminishing, if not eliminating, the productivity of land. 

Many residents of countries at risk of submersion are already migrating to other regions or to nearby countries as their livelihoods become ever more precarious. For instance, as of 2010, 3,000 of Tuvalu’s 10,000 residents migrated to New Zealand seeking work under a labor migration program.82 Many have had to migrate due to desertification as well. Most notably, communities in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Gobi desert in China are being forced to relocate as land becomes increasingly arid and uninhabitable. In China, the Gobi desert has been expanding at around 100,000 square miles per year and at an accelerated since 1950. As a result, some 24,000 villages in northern and western China have been abandoned either entirely over the last half-century or so.83 Further, according to the UNHCR, in 2010 and 2011, “a mass exodus” of Somalis migrated to Kenya and Ethiopia due to severe droughts and civil strife. Significantly, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that East Africa and the Horn of Africa are projected to be impacted the most negatively by climate change in the future.84


The most significant distinction between traditional refugees and climate and food refugees is that the latter do not receive the legal recognition granted to the former. That is, climate refugees are not covered in the 1951 Refugee Convention. People displaced due to abrupt natural disasters or slow, ongoing environmental changes caused by global warming, such as desertification and rising sea levels, are often sent back to their countries or communities. For instance, the estimated 200,000 Bangladeshis who will lose their homes every year due to river erosion in recent years will be unable to appeal for resettlement as refugees in another country.96

In some cases of environmental displacement, people can seek protection under humanitarian law. In 2014, a family of four from Tuvalu appealed to the New Zealand court that they should be granted refugee status because their ability to provide for their family was hindered by the scarcity of land. The family claimed that they were suffering from the adverse effects of climate change, including lack of fresh drinking water and rising sea levels. In June 2014 the court allowed the family to stay because they had strong family ties within New Zealand, but rejected claims concerning climate change and were not granted protection under refugee or human rights law.97


Vulnerability to climate change—and the manifold resource conflicts climate change triggers and exacerbates—is disproportionately experienced in the Global South across key eco-regions. These regions include areas commonly affected by storms, particularly in Central America and Southeast Asia; communities in arid environments and in close proximity to a desert, such as those around the Sahara Desert; and coastal cities and low-lying island-states, such as the Maldives.85 Additionally, the impact on such communities is expected to worsen given, for example, that coastal populations are burgeoning in developing countries in particular. Over the past three decades coastal populations have increased globally from 1.6 billion to over 2.5 billion and in 2007, with over 1.9 billion in developing countries in particular.86 Hence, a meter increase in sea levels and a 10 percent intensification of storm surges could cause flooding affecting 31 million people in developing countries and would broaden the areas of exposure from 7 percent to 12.6 percent.87

This map includes a detailed showing of the world's largest emitters, including Canada, USA, Russian Federation, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, and Republic of Korea.

Such acute vulnerability to climate change experienced by many across the Global South also occurs as a fact of the predominance of natural resource-based economies. For example, countries and communities with large economic contributions from agriculture and a large number of subsistence-level households are more vulnerable to a changing climate. In addition to disasters, climate change causes unpredictable weather patterns that place pressure on already fragile low-income rural economies. Climate change manifests in hotter days, drier seasons, more flooding, and shorter growing seasons, which reduces yields and increases poverty.88 According to the United Nations, the largest segment of the world’s poor live in rural environments: “these are the subsistence farmers and herders, the fishers and migrant workers.”89 In 2010 about 34 percent of the total rural population of developing countries was classified as extremely poor and about 80 percent of rural households engaged in farm activities of some sort.90 As such, a large majority of the world’s poor depend on moderate seasonal changes to produce their food, yet such communities are losing one of their few assets, one which is essential for their livelihoods: knowing when to sow and harvest.91

Given such acute vulnerability to climate-induced environmental change experienced across the Global South, the climate crisis must be understood as inseparable from the turmoil caused by the first two dynamics of forced migration—neoliberalization and securitization. Regarding neoliberalization, such links are apparent in the deregulation and privatization of state sectors and industries that occurred throughout the Global South in the late 1970s that contributed to the underdevelopment of national economies and industries. As such, neoliberalization has helped generalize individual and community vulnerability to climate-induced changes and decrease resilience. It has done so not only by increasing poverty, but also by re-entrenching colonial relations of dependency that have locked many countries into natural resource-based economies, and by undermining the development of adequate infrastructure that might help communities cope.92 A majority of climate refugees comprise people largely from the Global South who are already marginalized in their communities and geographies, and whose livelihoods are most vulnerable to climate change. Even further, many lack the resources to resettle elsewhere after being forcibly displaced by climate-induced environmental disasters.


International attention concerning climate change emerged as early as the late 1980s when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to collect and access evidence on climate change. In 1995 the IPCC’S Second Assessment Report concluded that “a discernable human influence” was contributing to climate change, marking the first link made between human activity and global environmental changes.77 Yet the dialogue surrounding climate change has, for the most part, centered around the impact on ecosystems, sustainability, and physical health, and largely overlooked its relationship to forced migration.

While the number of people fleeing their homes due to short-term and long-term environmental changes grows, they continue to be denied international refugee status, and with the changing climate increasingly recognized as a cause of such environmental changes, debate remains what to call such people and how to accommodate them—from climate refugees to environmental migrants. This report uses the term climate refugees. It does so because the term “refugee” recognizes the acute cause of displacement, from war and persecution to natural disasters, and the term “climate” accounts for those who are not only displaced by abrupt natural disasters, but also those who are displaced by long-term environmental changes directly tied to global warming, such as desertification and rising sea levels. The term climate crisis therefore accounts for both environmental change and the hardship faced by certain communities because of such change.

The links between the climate crisis and securitization on the other hand are apparent in the fact that military institutions have been playing an increasingly prominent part in the governing of environmental concerns. For example, on July 27, 2008, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), alongside the US military, scientific institutes, public policy institutes, private corporations, national funding agencies, and news agencies, carried out a two-day, new type of military exercise called the “Climate Change War Game,” which was intended “to explore the national security consequences of climate change.” According to an extensive study on securitization and climate change by Robert P. Marzec, the CNAS is perhaps the first in what will a growing number of post–Cold War, post–homeland security institutions involved in environmental changes and the conflicts and displacements to emerge therefrom.93


While the number of people fleeing their homes due to environmental crises grows, they continue to be denied refugee status. This is particularly challenging as, for many countries, the effects of climate change are generally felt across large geographic areas and have forced many to migrate regionally and internationally. For example, residents of the Horn of Africa, primarily from Somalia, have temporarily settled in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia; citizens of island states, such as Tuvalu, Nauru, and Kiribati, in the South Pacific Ocean have tried to relocate to Australia and New Zealand; and Bangladeshis have migrated to India and Nepal.94 All of these migrants are not granted legal status and are either eventually deported or remain as undocumented immigrants. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that internal migration due to climate change may ultimately create more economic and political refugees. The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutierrez, stated that “climate refugees can enhance the competition for resources—water, food, grazing lands—and that competition can trigger conflict.”95 Hence, climate change migration can cause population pressures, landlessness, rapid urbanization, and unemployment, which put refugees in danger of backlash and worsen existing urban struggles.


In 2015, after two decades of talks, 195 countries agreed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, and foster and finance climate-resilient development starting in the year 2020. Named the Paris Climate Accord, the agreement sets out to enhance the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and push countries to set targets beyond previously set mitigation, adaptation, and finance targets.

The agreement is significant because it ultimately seeks to prevent the runaway climate change that would occur should temperatures spiral two degrees (Celsius) or more above the pre-industrial era, to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels and to a clean energy economy, and to ensure that the effects of climate change itself are dampened.

Yet also significant is the fact that it officially considers mass migration as one such effect of climate change. Specifically, the Paris climate accord calls for developing recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” This explicit acknowledgment of the dangers of migration was one that some of the poorest of the 195 countries involved in the talks had sought to include in the text, for estimates state that by 2050, about 200 million people—primarily from the Global South—may be permanently displaced. Significantly, wealthier nations acknowledged the perils of climate change with regard to forced migration. 

During the September 2016 ratification then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that “[e]ach day the planet is on this course, it becomes more dangerous…[i]f anyone doubted the science, all they have to do is watch, sense, feel what is happening in the world today. High temperatures are already having consequences, people are dying in the heat, people lack water, we already have climate refugees.”

Regardless, after U.S. negotiators demanded the exclusion of language that could allow the agreement to be used to claim legal liability for climate change, critics said the agreement would still condemn hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying coastal areas and small islands to a precarious future. Even further, in June 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S.— the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases—will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement stating that the agreement is “less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States." The announcement undermines ongoing efforts toward climate mitigation, adaptation, and finance, in and outside the agreement. Further, it undermines more expansive accounts of the climate crisis itself that had begun to surface in recent year, including acknowledgement of its effects with regard to mass migration.

Yet the announcement drew condemnation from countries across the globe. Even further, as Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the Paris agreement, states, “[s]tates, cities, corporations, [and] investors have been moving in this direction for several years and the dropping prices of renewables versus high cost of health impacts from fossil fuels, guarantees the continuation of the transition.” Such has been the case within the U.S. itself, where U.S. states have already pushed back on Trump’s decision and vowed to adhere to the principles of the Paris Climate Accord. For example, only one week after Trumps announcement, Hawaii became the first state to enact legislation aligning with Paris Climate Accord. The bills signed by Hawaii Governor David Ige were SB 559 (Act 032) and HB 1578 (Act 033). HB 1578 establishes a Carbon Farming Task Force, and the governor's office stated that SB 559 expanded "strategies and mechanisms" to cut greenhouse gas emissions across the state "in alignment with the principles and goals adopted" in the Paris Agreement. Despite such multi-scalar responses and efforts, much work still remains to mitigate and adapt to climate change and the climate crisis.