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Zachary Brabazon - Blog 4: Obstacles in the Discourse: How Conceptions of "Migration" Can Disrupt the Realization of Protection


Zachary Brabazon - Blog 4: Obstacles in the Discourse: How Conceptions of "Migration" Can Disrupt the Realization of Protection

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(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)


What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Ok, so I need a little extra pre-amble this week. Basically, what happened here, what's arrayed in 11-pt. font words below, is a reading exercise that got a bit out of control. Over the last two weeks, I've been working with a RMMRU associate of mine on a paper focussing on irregular migration. I thought, hey, why not do my blog on this. 

I'm not sure if that was a bad impulse at this point. Given the monstrous hybrid that resulted - again, talking about that baby just waiting a few lines below, which is half-blog, half-essay - I am inclined to think it was a bad impulse. However, I would also like to admit that, in writing this blog, and grappling with the ideas and arguments laid out before me - many of which were fairly new to me - I learned a whole lot.

As well, the whole reason I started this literary investigation in the first place was because I wanted to learn more about the people that my organization, RMMRU, is trying to protect. These are people who, often forced into hard (or nigh-impossible) economic circumstances by environmental volatility, have wound up in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, face-to-face with the ransom demands of human traffickers (See: What I learned in completing this blog piece is that, to put it simply, many migrants often don't get all that much support, whether from the international legal regime, or from the states in which they live. But then again, as I will explore below, there's always a danger to putting it simply. 

Who Is What Kind of Migrant? And Why That’s Important

Researchers have identified the absence of a clear consensus among the International community on the definition of different types of ‘non-refugee’ migration – namely “climate migrants” or “environmental migrants” – as a major obstacle that hinders protection for a growing number of migrants globally. This “definition gap” is part of a broader inability, within the International sphere, to settle basic questions on human movement, such as what constitutes forced migration and what doesn’t. The smaller ambiguities of definition lead to larger problems, such as impediments to the creation of policies and frameworks that protect migrants whose reasons for moving may make them unable to attain refugee status. Ultimately, the gaps in international legal frameworks regarding migration benefit developed states who would rather uphold the dominant “security discourse” on migration, than risk any change in narrative that might lead to them being held accountable for their disproportionate emission production.

As climate-change continues to provoke greater and greater environmental volatility, the gaps in the current treatment of mobile persons and populations will obviously increase exponentially in coming years. Given that climate-change-related disasters are both predictable and inevitable, what political obstacle(s) could prevent the international community from re-arranging their position on these definitions and protocols? In the following paragraphs, I draw on some of the relevant academic literature, in an attempt to summarize a few problematic misconceptions about migration, as well as identify a few scholarly responses to these.

Problems Definition in the Public Sphere

As I have read through different critical views on climate-change-induced and mixed migration, I have found myself constantly referring back to Chloe Anne Vlassopoulos’s discussion of the nature of “problem definition” in the public sphere:

            …problem definition is an issue of power, since it divides the social and public actors into   winners (who profit from the                     recognition of the problem) and losers (who will lose material or symbolic resources).[1]

To my (admittedly non-expert) eyes, this conception fits much of the current discussion surrounding international and governmental responses to mixed- and climate-induced migration. Somewhat ironically, in this model, the developed states are the “losers,” who see themselves as standing to lose “material or symbolic resources” if the narrative on migration is shifted from the status quo. As the greatest historical producers of carbon emissions, many developed nations might feel that they have a vested interest in ensuring that providing assistance to environmental migrants remains a voluntary, humanitarian action, rather than one dictated by accountability in the form of an international legal agreement.

The Migrant/Refugee Simplification

Referring to the last point above, a major benefit to states looking to avoid taking on accountability for climate migrants is the fact that there is no existing international agreement that addresses climate change-induced or, more broadly, environmental migration.[2] As such, the international legal regime’s existing, de-facto treatment of mobile populations usually involves the rendering of people into categories of “migrants” and “refugees.” It is, in effect, an arbitrary and dangerous binary that ignores the deeper, nuanced reasons that drive people to move. According to Susan Martin, this arbitrary distinction “does not reflect the reality of human mobility; rather, most migration decisions fall somewhere on a continuum between forced and voluntary.”[3] If powerful states and international actors take an overly simplistic view of human migration, as many currently do, this can have dangerous consequences for vulnerable populations on the move.

However, it’s not just populations on the move that suffer from these ‘definition gaps.’ Lauren Nishimura states that “often, those individuals or groups who are unable to migrate are in greatest need of aid but lack the capacity or will to move, creating another obstacle to  protection.”[4] Susan Martin argues that “...research shows, moreover, that trapped populations are in danger just as much as those who move.”[5] Experts also predict that the majority of people displaced by climate change over the coming decades will not cross an international border, and, thus, will fail to receive protection under existing international refugee law.[6] Furthermore, those affected persons who do cross an international border face the prospect of being denied official “refugee” status, which, Judith Kumin notes, carries the risk of “delegitimizing” them, and “having a negative impact on how such persons are treated.” [7]

What all this information should make it clear, therefore, is that the distinctions made in current international frameworks – like the UN Refugee Convention – need serious updating in order to meet the challenges of the coming decades. The absence of an agreement on climate-induced migration is a particularly severe void in protection, but the fact that international law does not extend its protection to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), or to any type of environmental migrants explicitly, seems equally deplorable. Given that many experts consider that climate change will create as many – or even more – internal migrants as it does refugees, it seems that any protective efforts on climate or environmental migrants should include IDPs.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the Need for a Returned Strategy

Several authors quoted in this piece have also outlined the problems associated with many state-guided “return strategies” for IDPS. In many cases, the damages of climate-induced disasters have been exacerbated when IDPs were returned to their homes too quickly, or when the “return strategy” involved inadequate protection measures. In these types of instances, “returned” populations were then more likely to be displaced a second time.[8]

Lindsey Brickle and Alice Thomas, in their investigation of flood disasters in Pakistan (2010) and Colombia (2011), illustrate the potential harms that can arise when governments attempt to return populations in a hasty or unscrupulous manner. They argue that successful responses to climate-induced displacement require a Returned Strategy as well as a Return Strategy:

            [the] failure of the governments to adequately address the risk of recurrent displacement by allowing people to return to                     flood-prone areas increased vulnerabilities and eroded resilience [in flood-affected Pakistan and Colombia]. In Pakistan,                   flooding the following year displaced  many of the same people a second time.[9]

The key here is that, in both cases, governments failed to “adequately address the risk of recurrent displacement.” To me, this stands out as a critical idea for any framework on migration to be successful. Instead of just protecting those migrants who have been forced to cross an international border, and whose travails are “appropriate” to earn them the “refugee” label, perhaps the international legal community might be better off placing more impetus on addressing mobile populations’ “risk of recurrent displacement,” and seeking to offer protection according to that indicator.

The Security Discourse (Wherein Developed States Avoid Responsibility and Migrants Become Security Threats)

Another major obstacle to protection that has been outlined by scholars is the current preponderance of the “Security Discourse” among developed states, which allows politicians to absolve – or at least shift blame from – those states which have been historically the largest producers of carbon emissions, while at the same time transforming migrants, who need protection, into security threats.[10]

This issue, I would think, is closely related to the frequent lack of complexity and nuance with regards to migrants and drivers of migration observed in international relations. Just as with the too-simple delineations made between “migrants” and “refugees,” the over-simplifications associated with the “migrant-as-security-threat” idea effectively shift policy discussions away from practical measures that might benefit vulnerable people on the move. Even further, the security discourse often involves what Nishimura calls the “degradation narrative,” which actually blames migrants and potential migrants for environmental degradation, while making transnational corporations and international actors the bearers of solutions (development measures, investment, etc.)[11]

Suggestions for Ameliorating Protection Gaps

As most of the scholars quoted in this piece have noted, the causal complexity of climate change also gives a big boost to developed states looking to avoid responsibility, while complicating the efforts of NGOs and transnational advocacy groups who desire to enact greater protection for migrants.[12] Because it is difficult to assign responsibility for specific climate-change-related events to particular states, causal complexity is easily translated into an accountability problem among states, and protection measures for migrants thus continue to lag behind.

According to Alexander Betts, the remedy to this situation is not about “attributing causality to movement, which is both virtually impossible and also irrelevant, but rather identifying the sets of rights deprivations within a country of origin that entitle a person to seek substitute protection in another country.”[13] Betts’s solution is centred around creating protection not just for climate migrants, but for a broader definition of survival migrants, or “persons outside their country of origin because of an existential threat to which they have no access to a domestic remedy or resolution.” In addition, he posits a “soft law framework” as the most practical response to the institutional gaps facing survival migrants, opining that working within existing norms – and consolidating them “in a single nonbinding soft law document based on the IDP precedent” – represents the “most realistic and constructive option.”[14]

Nishimura, however, disagrees with Betts, stating that Bett's proposition of creating a broader framework around 'survival migrants' is too broad and “not tenable” given existing institutional and resource limitations.[15] Nishimura reasons that “a failure to provide protection for all is not a reason to deny protection to some,” and argues for increased support of “localized migration” (as opposed to long-distance, cross-border relocation), increased and improved information dissemination to vulnerable populations at both potential origin and destination locations, and – crucially – more concern on the part of policy-makers for attaining the consent of displaced populations.[16]

Vlassopoulos would appear to agree with Nishimura on the need to not go ‘too broad’ on remedying migration framework, though their argument is focused more on the conflation of the issues of environmental migration and the development-orientated, ‘climate-change-adaption’ framework that has emerged in the international political sphere over the last two decades. They argue that the “evolution towards development-oriented policies which put the emphasis on adaptation to deal with climate change slows down the efforts to define environmental migration as a new global public issue.”[17] For Vlassopoulos, the tendency to overwhelmingly focus on adaption efforts obscures the specific issues that need to be addressed regarding environmental migration. As well, the supremacy of the idea of “climate migrants,” according to Vlassopoulos, represents a restrictive redefinition, involving a “process of simplification that reduces the scope of the problem and makes it more manageable.”[18] In other words, placing all environmental migrants under the “climate change” banner effectively obscures other important migration issues that carry less public currency simply because they have not been expressly linked with the buzzwords of ‘climate change’ and ‘adaption.’


A Final Disclaimer

I suppose, following all that madness of quotation and ‘argument-plucking,’ that a few general disclaimers might be repeated here. I am, of course, no expert on any of these issues. For me, this piece represents an attempt to merge some of the research I am doing at work for RMMRU with my monthly duty of blog-making. In all honesty, this started out as a way to game the system – and then turned into probably the most labour-intensive blog yet for me. I guess I deserved it.

My attempt here was not to suggest the above points I have drawn upon represent the ‘best,’ or ‘greatest,’ or ‘most sensible,’ solutions to the challenges of environmental migration – I, of course, am not qualified to perform such things. Neither do I think that I have adequately addressed even a fraction of the relevant literature, and, even now, as I am writing this final paragraph of the blog, I am thinking of which things I should read next. It is possible that, by this time next week, I will have come to completely disagree with all the arguments made by the authors quoted above.




  • Vlassopoulos, Chloe Anne. 2010. Institutional barriers to the recognition and assistance of environmentally forced migrants. In , 17-27. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Betts, Alexander. "Survival Migration: A New Protection Framework." Global Governance 16, no. 3 (2010): 361-82. 

Nishimura, Lauren. 2015. 'climate change migrants': Impediments to a protection framework and the need to incorporate migration into climate change adaptation strategies. International Journal of Refugee Law 27 (1): 107.

Brickle, Lindsey, and Alice Thomas. 2014. Rising waters, displaced lives. Forced Migration Review(45): 34.

Martin, Susan. 2015. The state of the evidence. Forced Migration Review(49): 12.

Kumin, Judith. 2014. The challenge of mixed migration by sea. Forced Migration Review(45): 49.

[1] Vlassopoulos, 19.

[2] Nishimura, 108.

[3] Nishimura, 113

[4] Nishimura, 112

[5] Martin, 15

[6] Nishimura, 115.

[7] Kumin, 50-51.

[8] Brickle and Thomas, 36.

[9] Martin, 14

[10] Nishimura, 115.

[11] Nishimura, 121.

[12] Nishimura, 124-125.

[13] Betts, 378.

[14] Betts, 377.

[15] Nishimura, 130.

[16] Nishimura, 113.

[17] Vlassopoulos, 23.

[18] Vlassopoulos, 23.

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