Walls and detention centres aren’t the answer to the climate refugee crisis

The World Bank’s warnings over climate migration are a call to action. Governments are responding to this message, but in a profoundly damaging way

Todd Miller
Thursday 16 September 2021 12:15
President Biden Touts $3.5T Climate Resilience Plan

The World Bank’s newly updated “Groundswell” report is the bleakest picture yet of the number of people who will be forced to move if the climate emergency continues unchecked. Weeks after the IPCC declaration of a “code red for humanity”, it is yet another wake-up call on the consequences of a heating world, and the human suffering it will magnify.

We already know that more people than ever are displaced – over 80 million around the world. Now climate-linked movement is starting to take place in powerful countries too, with people forced from their homes by wildfires in the United States and Australia. And the UK is not immune – either from increased river and coastal flooding, or indeed from government and private sector complicity in the climate crisis.

The World Bank’s warnings are a call to action. Governments are responding to these messages, but in a profoundly damaging way.

States that have grown addicted and accustomed to solving problems with walls and weapons are acting to news of climate-linked mobility by trying to repel people, hoping to insulate themselves. Only recently, the home secretary appeared in a new detention camp in Greece that, when complete, will keep those who survive Europe’s lethal borders in indefinite limbo. There are numerous stories about the Home Office working with countries across Europe to force its borders south, pushing European detention centres into Africa.

This economy of misery is becoming part of powerful nations’ climate adaptation strategy. But not only will this cause ever more human suffering, it will fail on its own terms. One need only look at the collapse of part of Trump’s border wall due to flooding to see a visible sign of the futility of such an approach.

Why does it persist? Part of the answer is, as ever, following the money. States and anti-migration politicians are in lockstep with an ever-expanding border, security, and surveillance industry which claims to be able to fix every issue from policing to migration to climate to geopolitics with technology and force.

This powerful partnership of industry and government is unknown to most people. But from BAE Systems’ weapons to G4S and Serco - which are repeatedly in the news for expensive, disastrous, and handling of people in detention - the UK is steeped in the border and surveillance industry. This growing border apparatus - composed of walls, barriers, guns, surveillance cameras, motion sensors, drones, biometrics, and detention centers - has become big business. And it is expanding beyond the border. Technologies pioneered in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are now aiding not just in human rights violations at the border, but are routine on British streets, as Liberty’s recent legal challenge over facial recognition tech shows.

Meanwhile in the US, between 2008 and 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE)awarded 105,000 contracts worth $55bn to thousands of companies. This is more money than the entire combined US border and immigration enforcement budgets between 1975 to 2003. Since 2003, the US border alone has been worth $332.7bn.

The facial recognition border sub-market alone, according to one forecast, is projected to grow at the breathtaking rate of 17 per cent – much of this effectively funded from the public purse. And this is just scratching the surface: at border and homeland security conventions that take place across the globe year after year, hundreds, if not thousands, of companies compete to sell products for a global homeland security market poised to grow from $668.7bn in 2021 to $904.6bn in 2026. This system perpetuates a border industry fraught with human rights abuses since long before Donald Trump.

The private sector’s role in this crisis has recently grown acute enough for shareholders and investors to begin challenging the industry’s practices. For example, there is pressure at Microsoft, with investors filing a resolution about the development and sale of surveillance technologies to ICE, CBP, and police departments. The vote on these proposals will take place in December – and hopefully British institutional investors will take similar action.

The growing battle inside markets is a positive step. Just like tobacco firms have been removed from forums on health, and oil firms from forums on environment, we need to remove security corporations from forums and policy-making bodies on migration issues. Scrutiny by their shareholders is just the beginning. But new information such as the World Bank’s report is a reminder of how swiftly things can move. For instance, the burgeoning Afghan refugee crisis is being used as an excuse to ramp up border violence in Europe. Something as severe as the impacts of runaway climate change risks increasing state dependence on the border industry at a huge pace and scale.

Attacking refugees won’t stop climate change – but profiteers are poised to make money from climate and conflict by selling an expensive, mean-spirited, and false vision of what security means. The climate movement, along with the racial justice movement, must respond to the scenarios depicted in the World Bank report by demanding governments deliver genuine security. The only way through this is working together across borders, using our resources not to feed the appetites of profiteers, but to solve both the causes and human consequences of climate change.

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