Climate Change Refugees Face Militarized Borders
As more and more climate-ravaged communities are forced to relocate by droughts, floods and superstorms, the business of fortifying borders is booming. In his new book, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, Todd Miller travels around the world reporting on the corporate border militarization cash grab, and the emerging movements for environmental justice and sustainability. The hi-tech militarized barriers between developed and undeveloped nations are increasing. Built to keep out refugees driven by economic and political need, these borders are now faced by those fleeing the ravages of climate change, author Todd Miller tells Truthout in this exclusive interview.
Mark Karlin: What is the relationship between the developed nation-state and migration due to climate change?
Todd Miller: There is no climate refugee status. So, in the eyes of the nation-state, a person migrating because of climate reasons is meaningless. For example, when I met three men in Tenosique, Mexico (near the Guatemala divide), they told me that they were headed north because "there was no rain." In the eyes of immigration officials -- whether they be in Mexico or the United States -- this would not matter. It would not matter that a mayor of a small town in Honduras called this very Central American drought "an unprecedented calamity." It would not matter that a million drought-inflicted people throughout the Central American "dry corridor" -- spreading from Guatemala to Nicaragua -- were on the verge of starvation. A "famine," as former US Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar described the situation in Guatemala, would not matter. Immigration agents would check your papers, and if you were not authorized to be in the country, you would be arrested, detained and expelled.
It wouldn't matter if you were displaced by a hurricane. It wouldn't matter if your coffee crop was destroyed by climate-induced fungus. To the immigration agents, it would not matter if the rising seas had washed through your house, nor if raging floods had coursed down the streets of your neighborhood. The mudslides would not matter. The heat waves would not matter. All that would matter would be the nation-state, its sovereignty and its "right" to control its territorial boundaries.
As a 2003 Pentagon-commissioned report called "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for the United States National Security" put it, "[US] Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America." In 2010, the US government declared climate change a top national security threat. And through a number of policy documents, including the 2014 Quadrennial [Defense] Review, the US Department of Homeland Security [DHS] recognized climate change as a central threat and a "threat multiplier."
In other words, DHS fully understands that there will be displacement caused by climate change and knows that it has to prepare US borders for just that. As Thomas Smith, one of the authors of the DHS Quadrennial Review put it at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC, predicting the fate of the three men in the Tenosique train yard, "More frequent severe droughts and tropical storms, especially in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean could increase population movements, both legal and illegal, towards the US border." And what awaits a climate refugee attempting to enter the United States (and for that matter, many other parts of the world) is exactly what DHS has been doing since its founding in 2003: a world of walls and cages, imprisonment and expulsion.
MK: How much is climate change causing increased environmental migration?
TM: In many (and in a variety of) ways, climate change could cause or influence migration. It could be the drought I just discussed, since climate science predicts such dry spells to be longer and more frequent. It could be a Category 6 super hurricane like the 2013 Haiyan that eviscerated everything in its path after making landfall in the Philippines as the most powerful storm ever recorded in human history (now in second place, behind the 2015 Hurricane Patricia). The warmer ocean waters are fueling these high-powered typhoons, like Harvey, Irma and Maria that are also leaving huge marks of destruction in the United States and the Caribbean. As ice continues to melt in the Arctic, it could be the sea level rising and threatening to devour entire islands in the Pacific. It could be the surging floods that come with the super storms. It could be the salt water from such surges inundating fresh water supplies, and making irrigation of crops impossible. All of this could be behind a person choosing to move from where they are to someplace else.
Statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center from 2008 and 2015 show that there [is] an average of 21.5 million people displaced per year due to climate change (26 million if you include environment generally). That number is larger than those uprooted by war. One person is displaced every second due to environmental reasons. This could mean that the person has simply moved inland, moved to a city or crossed an international border. In 2016, the United Nations reported that there were 64 million "persons of concern" across the world, a number that has tripled since 2005. That is not only a record number of refugees, it also strikingly correlates with areas of climate turmoil as vividly shown in a mapping project by journalist Jessica Benko.
Future predictions for people on the move due to climate displacement range from 250 million to 1 billion by 2050. Koko Warner, a lead researcher for the United Nations University (and author of some of the first studies empirically connecting climate change to migration), says what's to come with migration, although the precise numbers are in dispute, will be "staggering" and "pass any historic antecedent."
MK: In what ways are borders becoming militarized against international migration?
TM: The hardened, militarized border is a recent phenomenon. The very idea of walls of exclusion was even (in a way) condemned by US President Ronald Reagan, who famously said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, there were 15 border walls in the world. Now there are 70 -- two-thirds constructed after 9/11. Never has the globe had so many militarized borders.
Since the early 1990s, the US border has had historic fortification and weaponization. US Border Patrol agents have gone from 4,000 to 21,000. The international boundary line has gone from flimsy chain-link fences to 650 miles of towering walls and barriers along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border. And now it is high tech. There are night vision cameras, thermal energy cameras, cameras that can see seven miles away. There are radar systems. There are drones. There are armored vehicles. There are command and control centers. There are Forward Operating Bases and tethered aerostats. There are prisons incarcerating 34,000 or more at a time, and an apparatus that has the ability to expel 400,000 people per year from the United States. There is a theatre of a never-ending war, only poised to grow more and more. And it is into this border war zone, and other similar ones across the world, where the climate displaced are arriving.
In the United States, budgets for border and immigration enforcement have skyrocketed. They have gone from approximately $1.5 billion per year in the early 1990s (the Immigration and Naturalization Service budget) to $20 billion annual today (if you combine just Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement). On top of budgets like this in the United States, increasing border/immigration budgets in Europe, Israel and Australia (and many other countries across the globe), a massive homeland security/border/surveillance industry has emerged. Companies galore are cashing in on contracts, such as the Israeli monolith Elbit Systems that is in process of constructing 52 surveillance towers in southern Arizona. Elbit Systems, one of the primary technology integrators for the West Bank wall and surveillance apparatus, sold itself as having 10-plus years "securing" one of the "world's most challenging borders." Projections and forecasts into the future show constant if not unprecedented growth for this type of industry. One forecast shows the homeland security market almost doubling in 10 years to reach $546 billion by 2022. Newer projections now include "climate-related natural disasters," events that, according to prognosticators, are increasing at an impressive rate. Such private/public relationships are not only helping weaponize the world's borders against the displaced and uprooted, they are bringing to this boundary-building one of the strongest and sacrosanct motives of a capitalist system: profit.
MK: As far as capitalism, can you comment on the tragic irony of goods having free passage between nation-states and not people?
TM: The end of the 20th century and 21st century will not only be known for closed, militarized borders between nation-states levied against the world's poor and marginalized. It will also be known as an era that has completely opened borders for the ruling and business classes of the world. While nation-states blockade people, and force unauthorized border crossings into deadly deserts and seas, at the same time, not only merchandise but entire corporate enterprises, such as mines, can freely cross borders with hardly an impediment. They have set up shop across Mexico, and in Central and Latin America in general. Such constant border crossings receive very little attention, although time and time again, operations have caused tremendous environmental damage in communities, including seizing and poisoning water sources.
Companies freely cross borders in search of natural resources and fossil fuels. One [Anglo-]French company called Perenco has been operating oil wells in the Laguna del Tigre National Park in Guatemala since 2001, while park boundaries simultaneously have been militarized to thwart displaced campesinos to "protect" the park for conservation reasons. Not only does cheap and heavily subsidized US corn flood and underprice the Mexican and Central American farmers -- the cradle for the cultivation of corn in the world -- and not only does cheap merchandise from factories get a free pass to cross borders, but so do the multinational corporations perpetuating the fossil fuel economy. They are not blockaded despite the criminal damage they are causing to the Earth's future generations.
MK: How does economic inequality and injustice play into the growing forced migration caused by global warming?
TM: Completely and thoroughly. For example, one of the root causes of migration from Mexico to the United States has been because of the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico's story of devastated small farmers and factories paying pathetic, unlivable wages while wealth concentrates in a transnational corporate class, of course, can be found across the world. Also, the kind of migration, from the rural to the big cities, sometimes across international borders, has been a global story regardless of the now clear and fierce impacts of climate change. Sociologist Christian Parenti describes what we have now as the "catastrophic convergence." Whether it be the small farmer attempting to etch out a living in the scrambling seasons and inconsistent rainfall, or the migrant worker who has moved to one of the world's megacities about to be inundated [by] the rising seas -- the economically poor will be the first people hit with the storms and droughts of climate change. According to Parenti, these economic, political and ecological factors are not separate. They compound each other and can create potentially untenable situations across vast swaths of the Earth. People in the world's 48 most marginalized countries are five times more likely to die because [of] a climate catastrophe than the rest of the world.
Geographer Ruthie Wilson Gilmore defines racism as "the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death." In this, the true "battle" around the climate is revealed going forward. The world's real borders are not only between nation-states, but rather between the rich and powerful and the rest of the world, along racial and class lines. The disproportionately white countries of the Global North, such as the United States and European Union, are the places that spend lavishly to militarize their borders, creating intense vulnerability for those making border crossings into these territories.
And thus, boisterous and powerful movements around immigration, racial, Native American and economic justice are just as important to confronting climate as environmental movements. The climate crisis has to be countered with this sort of totality. The good news is that all together, the world's vast social movements carry a people power that is much larger and stronger than the ruling classes. This bleak projection of climate change, displacement and militarized borders can be altered, but the need for the push is urgent.
MK: How does border military mobilization negatively impact climate change itself?
TM: I can think of three ways right off the bat about how border militarization mobilization negatively impacts climate change.
First, if people on the move will be a part of what will happen in this era of climate destabilization, hardened, militarized borders are hardly an answer. In fact, such borders already are creators of humanitarian crises, and if unchanged, will continue to do so in an even more intensified fashion -- whether by forcing people to risk their lives in Arizona deserts or on rickety boats in the Mediterranean Sea (to name but two examples that impact humankind's wellbeing).
Second, to mobilize vast fleets of vehicles and aircraft of the global border apparatus carries with it an enormous carbon footprint. Even with efforts to green operations and reduce emissions, US security forces (military and DHS) continue to be a top polluter and energy-consumer in the world. One example, to give a glimpse into this, as written by Lisa Savage in Counterpunch, in 2013 the Pentagon consumed 90,000,000 barrels of crude oil (according to its own study), 80 percent of the total fuel usage of the US federal government.
Lastly, such border militarization reinforces the notion that the climate crisis will be solved by individual nation-states, despite huge power differences and interests between them. As put by geographer Reece Jones in his book Violent Borders, "As long as the economic interests of individual states do not coincide with the larger environmental needs of the world, a meaningful agreement on climate change will not be reached."
Copyright Truthout. Reprinted with permission.