COVID-19, Climate Change and Migration: Constructing Crises, Reinforcing Borders

This blog was authored by Elodie Hut, Caroline Zickgraf, Francois Gemenne, Tatiana Castillo Betancourt, Pierre Ozer and Céline Le Flour. It has been reposted from IOM’s Environmental Migration Portal.

Migration, climate change and public health are three key policy challenges of this early 21st century. Far from being isolated, these challenges are linked with one another, both directly and indirectly. The connections between them have never been as apparent as in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: borders and immobility played a central role in the response, and COVID-19 has been tied to climate change, for instance, with regards to the temporary positive impact of lockdown measures on CO2 emissions. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many have suggested that similar measures should be replicated in the fight against climate change, while others have deemed this as misguided and pointed to the potentially counterproductive effects of such claims. Lastly, physical distancing requirements are expected to further complicate responses to climate-related displacement (as recently confirmed in East India and Bangladesh, where Cyclone Amphan struck).

In addition to such relationships, a uniting feature of these three phenomena is the way they each have been labelled, perceived, and reacted to from a crisis perspective. Crisis framing is not just about how each topic is covered in the media or discussed in the public eye: crisis narratives translate into, and justify, short-term, ad-hoc responses instead of preemptive, integrated approaches that may be more appropriate given the global and systemic nature of these phenomena. The opposite is equally true: emergency measures (e.g. evacuations, lockdowns, state-of-emergency declarations) can also play a role in creating and exacerbating crises. Moreover, measures in each crisis, whether health, climate or migration-related, have resulted in calls for, or the actual, restriction of migration and mobility, whether to contain the spread of a virus, to lower carbon emissions, or to restrict incoming migration flows deemed massive and/or sudden.

Crisis Narratives: Subjective Insights into the Notion of ‘Crisis’ 

The notion of crisis usually refers to extraordinary circumstances that reflect not only a turning point, but one associated with instability, uncertainty, and urgency. At the same time, by upending existing status quos, they can also present opportunities for critical reflection and change. These pivotal disruptions of normalcy are also bound up in the narratives that are subjectively constructed around them. Crisis narratives are produced and reproduced by multiple actors (e.g. governments, international organisations, media, civil society, the public) through sometimes competing discourses. Recent examples from the migration, climate change and public health policy domains indeed suggest that, in addition to objective elements, crises are often apprehended through their perceived effects.

The 2015 European “migration crisis”, for instance, aligns with the idea of crises as social and political constructs. Objectively, more than one million migrants arrived in Europe through the Mediterranean Sea (the majority transiting via Turkey through the ‘Eastern Mediterranean Route’) in 2015 and over 1,3 million persons applied for asylum in the EU the same year. Subjectively, national and supra-national government officials presented this as an ‘unprecedented’ crisis of ‘mass’ arrivals of asylum seekers on European soil. This perception of crisis – supporting the idea that the inflow of migrants must be contained at all cost to avoid chaos – prevailed across Europe long after numbers of arrivals by sea and of asylum applications significantly decreased, in 2016 and 2017 respectively (following, amongst other reactive mechanisms, the EU-Turkey Statement). These narratives have had a long-lasting polarizing impact on the European political landscape, as demonstrated by opinion polls indicating that migration had become a major issue of concern for European citizens (surpassing climate change), by the election of nationalist and anti-immigration leaders (e.g. Matteo Salvini in Italy or Sebastian Kurz in Austria), and by the success of the Brexit ‘leave’ vote in 2016. What also became apparent was that the ‘crisis’ held different meanings for different people: should it be labeled as a crisis of ‘refugees’ or of ‘migrants’, as one of ‘reception’ or of ‘asylum’, or as a crisis of the European project? Such terminological debates opposed media outlets (such as Al Jazeera and the BBC), politicians, activists and experts alike, and reinforced the labeling of certain groups of people on the move (according to their legal status, nationality, gender, age, etc.). This further shaped public perceptions regarding which migrants could be deemed (un)deserving, attitudes of inclusion or exclusion towards them and policies implemented to ‘manage’ them. Supported by a securitarian or humanitarian framing, the reproduction of crisis discourses and imagery by the media (through, for instance, images of overcrowded dinghies or of the viral image of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy washed ashore a Turkish beach) contributed to binary representations of migrants as either ‘villains’ or ‘victims’.

The recent amplification of the climate ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ discourses in turn emphasizes the role of crises as perceived ‘turning points’ and means to call for immediate action in response to an existential threat (in this case, climate change and the urgent imperative to limit global warming well below 2 °C). Confirming the momentum gained by this discourse supported by environmental activists, media outlets and scientists alike, 2019 was dubbed ‘the year of climate emergency declarations’ and ‘climate emergency’ became the 2019 Oxford Word of the Year. Yet, as crises are meant to be temporary by nature, the use of this term can seem questionable with regard to anthropogenic climate change as many of its impacts are irreversible, meaning that there is no “going back”. Disaster scenarios – although technically more apt to fit into a definition of ‘crisis’ given their perceived abrupt and distressing nature – also give way to subjective (and sometimes irrational) crisis narratives. This is exemplified by the generalized use of expressions such as ‘calamities’, ‘catastrophes’ or ‘acts of God’ and the diffusion of apocalyptic imagery to represent such events (see the recent Australian megafires). Such depictions contribute to framing disaster events as extraordinary and uncontrollable, and can also turn people’s attention away from the constant efforts that are required to reduce risk and mitigate potential (economic and non-economic) losses through robust multi-sectoral approaches and policies that durably address populations’ exposure and vulnerability to climate-related hazards. At the same time, ‘slow-onset’ impacts of climate change (e.g. land degradation, desertification) are less often apprehended from a crisis perspective by media outlets and the general public. Yet, far from constituting a distant and future risk, these events have already led to emergency-like situations, such as conflicts and/or famine, and have been identified as destabilizing threats at the global scale.

Unlike its counterparts, the current crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic follows a more clear-cut procedural, staged approach within an emergency management framework in which global responses are led by an internationally-recognized authority – the World Health Organization – and shaped by prevailing medical practice and standards. Similar to the disaster management cycle, it includes response and recovery phases (in addition to varying levels of preparedness and risk reduction efforts). Performative and discursive elements also play a role in such ‘straightforward’ instances of crisis: Indeed, calling a pandemic a crisis further enhances its materialization as such in the public eye. The COVID-19 context is one of anxiety and uncertainty, sustained, for instance, by the reporting of daily infection and mortality statistics, the qualification of the crisis as ‘unprecedented’, the perceived information overload and the spread of “fake news”. The continual reproduction of doom-and-gloom narratives can even lead to “crisis fatigue” and counterproductive emotional responses, ranging from denying the gravity of the situation, to feelings of increased stress, anxiety and hopelessness due to the perceived magnitude of the problem.

From Crisis Narratives to Crisis Responses that Restrict Mobility 

Crisis narratives typically foster reactive, emergency measures (and vice versa) that may not alone be the most appropriate or effective course of action given the structural nature of climate change, migration and health-related phenomena and their interconnectedness with wider inequality and governance dynamics. Importantly, such narratives also indirectly or directly contribute to restrictions on human mobility in each of these crises. While closed borders can be perceived as reassuring, open borders are often associated with chaos and danger.

COVID-19, or any virus for that matter, does not respect borders. Yet, borders have become a hallmark feature in responses to it. It is not just the closure of physical crossing points between States that has defined COVID-19 responses, but also more symbolic acts of bordering: ground-up and top-down xenophobic discourses – encouraged by fear and security-based narratives – pointed their finger at “others” as carriers and transmitters of disease. Some populations have been increasingly targeted by racist prejudice, as shown by the use of the terms ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu’ to refer to COVID-19 (similar to when Ebola was dubbed “African virus” in 2014). Sudden domestic lockdown measures and international border closures have forced people to confront how prolonged, State-imposed, mobility restrictions can undermine human conditions of existence and wellbeing and reshape the functioning of societies within just a few weeks. Yet, this is something environmental migration scholars and practitioners have been grappling with for years – the plight of ‘trapped’ or ‘immobile’ populations in places where natural environments become progressively or suddenly uninhabitable. The current emergency, in fact, is as much about mobility as immobility, which has perhaps never been more evident or more global as it has been these past few months. People all over the world, not just the destitute and the vulnerable, must all navigate a world of (forced) immobility and experience firsthand what it means to be ‘trapped’ or ‘unwelcome’.

This crisis, however, is not and will not be the ‘great equalizer’. In times of pandemics, it is mainly those who are ordinarily cast as “undesirable” who remain disproportionately affected by mobility restrictions and discriminatory speech. Instances of forced immobilization or containment targeting migrant populations under COVID-19 in Europe have included the partial suspension of asylum procedures (in GreeceBelgium and the Netherlands for example), the lockdown of asylum seekers in overcrowded reception centers where physical distancing is near impossible and service provision is critically scaled-down (such as in the infamous camp of Moria in Lesvos) and even, in some cases, illegal pushbacks in direct contravention of the non-refoulement principle (such as in Malta). Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, security-oriented narratives had already been used as a pretext by the EU and national governments to introduce emergency measures focused on deterring, containing, criminalizing and/or externalizing migration. This was the case of the ‘hotspot approach’, a mechanism set out in the 2015 European Agenda for Migration to register and manage arrivals at the EU’s external borders. Overcrowded camps in the Greek Islands quickly became a symbol of the ‘crisis’ and their ongoing existence is a testament to the long-term repercussions of so-called ‘emergency’ measures put in place by the EU when seeking to manage the peak of migrant arrivals five years ago.

Conversely, the repercussions of the climate ‘crisis’ on border closures and mobility are much less linear and straightforward. It is the crisis rhetoric – rather than crisis-related measures – that seems to indirectly support restrictive immigration measures through, for instance, the instrumentalization of migrants as ‘props to alert to the dangers of climate change’ and the representation of environmental migration as a looming security threat (rather than as the current and urgent reality that it is), including by environmental activists. More overtly, some far-right and anti-immigration politicians and parties (such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France) have been promoting ‘eco-nationalism’ or ‘eco-patriotism’ , to push forward political agendas aimed at considerably restricting the movement of people and goods across borders.

Conclusion: Moving Beyond the Rhetorics of Crisis  

Although migration, climate change, and public health can be subjected to emergencies that are deemed temporary (such as rapid arrivals of migrants, sudden-onset disasters, or epidemics), this does not mean that only short-term, ad hoc measures are needed or should be implemented to address such events. On the contrary, such interventions need to be reconciled with longer-term, preemptive, measures that better correspond to the structural nature of these phenomena.

As marginalized and vulnerable populations have remained on the losing end when it comes to mobility restrictions, the adverse effects of environmental change and healthcare provisions, it is important to recognize that potential ‘crisis’ events are far from disconnected or fortuitous. We could argue that this ‘colliding of crises’, made apparent by COVID-19, forms, in fact, a continuum of causes and effects which must be treated in an integrated manner. The COVID-19 pandemic risks worsening the precarious living conditions already faced by millions of IDPs and migrants (e.g. in Burkina FasoVenezuela, and Yemen), exacerbating food insecurity for millions (a situation that is already commonplace in the Sahel region due to the effects of climate change, conflict and economic shocks) and derailing much-needed global efforts to tackle climate change as governments focus on economic recovery following the pandemic.

As long as we refuse to perceive these issues as interconnected and to proactively tackle the deeply entrenched inequalities at the societal level through solidarity mechanisms, we will remain blinded by short-term visions and prone to shocks during forthcoming global ‘crises’.