Climate Changed
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Climate Changed

Refugee Border Stories and the Business of Misery

Daniel Briggs

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eBook - ePub

Climate Changed

Refugee Border Stories and the Business of Misery

Daniel Briggs

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About This Book

Climate Changed is an honest, humane account about the rapid downsizing of the world's natural resources and the consequences this has for millions of people who, year after year, are displaced from their home countries because of politically-instigated and economically-justified war and conflict.

Based on interviews with 110 refugees who arrived into Europe from 2015 to 2018 and observations of refugee camps, border crossings, inner-city slums, social housing projects, NGO and related refugee associations, this book offers a moving insight into the refugee experience of leaving home, crossing borders and settling in Europe. Briggs sets this against the geopolitical and commercial enterprise that dismantled refugees' countries in the international chase for wilting quantities of the world's natural resources. At every point of their journey to their new lives and in the resettlement process, the refugees are victimised and exploited, as there is always money to be made from them. Even if refugees' labour is in demand, there is a European social climate of intolerance and stigma which jeopardises integration and counters their well-being and safety. The climate has changed.

This book will appeal to students and scholars in core areas of sociology, environmental and sustainability studies, human geography, and politics. Policymakers, practitioners and voluntary workers within the sector of frontline immigration, as well as aid workers, town planners and welfare support staff, will also find this book of interest.

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Exodus,” or the departure of a large number of people, is Chapter 10 in the Old Testament of the Bible. The chapter describes Moses’s attempts to free the Israelites from slavery and the oppressive rule of the Pharaoh in Egypt and the subsequent journey to Canaan – a land “flowing with milk and honey” (3:8). Moses, along with the assistance of Aaron and through the power of God, bestows ten plagues on Egypt which include plagues of flies and mosquitos, locusts, disease and weather storms of thunder, hail and fire. After denying their freedom after each plague is inflicted, the Pharaoh puts the Israelites to work harder. Eventually, after Pharaoh’s son is killed in one of the plagues, the people are freed and trudge towards the new sacred land, all the way deprived of food and water, and doubting their new “freedom.” The symbolism of this story carries equal measure in the 21st century: a large exploited immigrant workforce living in slavery, the Pharaoh the manifestation of capitalism and its relentless subjugated work ethic and the plagues serving as a the loud-ringing alarm bells of climate change and war, conflict and social suffering.
Similarly, like today, there are hundreds of thousands of people who continue to risk life and limb to leave countries of war and oppressive governance and come to a continent like Europe which is constructed by many as a “promised land,” a safe place to start again. Many leave with next to nothing, having sold all their belongings in their home country, and along the way they fight off hostile police, pay smugglers, and perhaps are humiliated and physically or sexually victimised – all the while clambering across European Union (EU) borders hoping that we would welcome them. However, Europe for millions of them is no such promised land. Their arrival in overcrowded, squalid camps and in city centres, often sleeping in streets, has since triggered a puerile nationalistic panic about their motivations to come like “who will pay for them” and “whether they are ISIS terrorists.” Meanwhile, little serious, long-term strategic attention is being given to what this large-scale influx may mean for the social and cultural demography of Europe as there seems to be general misunderstanding related to how or why these people came in the first place.
My book is about their “stories” and the broader geo-political and ecological context which has led to their displacement. Everything you read in this book, even though many more refugee testimonies and notes have not made it to these pages, has been carefully collected to better understand how and why refugees leave their home countries, and what happens to them as they leave and when they arrive. Over the course of three years from August 2015 to August 2018, I met and interviewed 110 refugees in 14 different European countries. What you read in the chapters which follow is what they told me and how they experience life. The story starts one late summer evening in Madrid in 2014.

A (familiar) tale in two cities

It is about 11:30 p.m. in in the city centre, a Friday night in fact. The air is warm and in and out of the gloss and glamour of the touristic area of Sol, there is a bubbling ambience to the place. I walk into the main square where the lights illuminate the place and trawls of tourists pose for selfies between the weird sideshows of human-size cartoon characters and small groups of Spanish young people who start to congregate here for their night out. Suddenly, as I turn into a road south heading towards the Plaza de Santa Ana, I hear the pacey murmur of people running. I look behind me and up the street lightly jogging en mass are a small army of black African men with large white sacks on their backs. They are dark, lean and tall, which makes their steps look like giant leaps. As they pass, they look unnervingly yet cautiously behind them as they move quick in their beach gear and flip-flops. They turn left at the end of the road, only for the local police to follow in a half-hearted, sort-of-hot pursuit. The “manteros” – or people who sell goods from blankets as they are called – normally sell fake brand goods on the streets.
Then, just over a year later:
It is about midday in early August and people are enjoying their holidays around a beach near Cartagena, a city on the south Spanish coast. I sit on a beach which lines with people smoking, eating, reading, playing with their kids and generally relaxing in the sun. From time to time, tall, thin very dark men, and the occasional woman, trudge up and down the beach with trays of hats and sunglasses; they seem unmoved by the continual rejection they get from some people who wave them off as if they are pesky flies. Few seem interested. Over the course of several hours, these people filter through small spaces available on the beach and don’t seem to tire. When I go to lunch in a nearby beach bar, I sit in the shade, necessary to escape the burdensome heat reflecting off the sand at the height of the day. Even in the beach hut though, the men continue to come through, almost in periodic waves, as if they comb each potential tourist site in twos and threes. They wear piles of hats, are laden with trays and bags, and backpacks and soldier on with such neutral determination to sell…then disappear.
And on the same holiday:
Another lean black man walks into the beach hut and puts down his tray of sunglasses on the plastic table which is about to collapse under the added weight. He looks around at all the people eating and drinking in comfort. It is, once again, a burning hot day with temperatures around 35 °C which are only mildly diluted by the sea breeze. The tall, dark man withdraws a towel to wipe his brow and fishes for his wallet in his back pocket. He looks in the part where there should be notes and there are none. He then tips out what he has available and taps it on the bar. It is busy and the waitresses who walk around in their beachwear seem to take no notice of him, yet he seems to be a regular; however, a few seconds later one appears to give him a 1.5-litre bottle of water. He starts to drink swiftly and within 30 seconds it is all gone. He picks up his tray and bags and leaves for the beach again. No one seems to notice his short stop. The beaches are white. The sea is warm. Everyone is having fun. And then there is this tall lean man who is selling something which doesn’t seem to interest anyone. Still that is his job.
Where had these people come from? Where did they stay? How was it that they were plodding around these areas in Spain (as well as in France, Italy and Greece) selling these artefacts? No doubt, I am not the only person thinking about these questions, but it was these observations which formed the impetus for this book you have in your hands or, more likely, the pdf you read on your screen. While these experiences come from my own interests about refugees and immigrants, more importantly they also highlight the pressing need for us as a society, who should be responsible for everyone in it, to urgently reconfigure how we think about the problem of human displacement and its origin: we have to look closely at what is taking place which causes the conflict and generates the motivation for them to move.

Climate changed: a call for an urgent rethinking of the problem

I would like to think the public would be able to identify refugees’ motivations for leaving their country, often leaving their homes or even dead family and friends behind, and that those immediate reasons didn’t reflect their ambitions to take job opportunities from host populations or scavenge social security benefits. But the tide is turning in Europe as democratic societies across the continent increasingly drift towards a far right collective rejection of waves of economic migrants, immigrants and refugees. More than ever, there is increasing disinterest when it comes to their arrival to European borders and shores even if it is directly related to political turmoil, economic uncertainty and widespread violence and insecurity in their home countries. While it is therefore important to ask how these regimes are permitted to operate like this – resulting in significant people displacement – at the same time, increasingly it is related to the same process of climate change and studies are starting to show how and why this may be the case.
Take the Syrian conflict for example. Collin Kelley and his research team (2015) recently published their research which concluded that a devastating crop drought between 2007 and 2010 (before the 2011 Arab Spring uprising) was responsible for the desertification of large rural areas in the Fertile Crescent – the vast area which supports the bulk of agriculture in the Middle East. Incoherent and substandard agricultural and environmental policies were also partly to blame when millions of people flooded to the Syrian cities, of which were already suffering inequality and oppressive governance from the Assad regime, making city living conditions across the country even worse and thus being a factor in the subsequent uprising. They said in their study that
…the recent decrease in Syrian precipitation is a combination of natural variability and a long-term drying trend, and the unusual severity of the observed drought is here shown to be highly unlikely without this trend. Precipitation changes in Syria are linked to rising mean sea-level pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also shows a long-term trend. There has been also a long-term warming trend in the Eastern Mediterranean, adding to the draw down of soil moisture. No natural cause is apparent for these trends, whereas the observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases.
(Kelley et al., 2015: 3241)
Man-made climate change is therefore a prominent factor in people displacement, and this needs to be acknowledged. This makes the rationale for my book more pressing as these days people are critical of the consequences of climate change (populations like refugees flooding into Europe) and less so the cause of climate change (politicians, corporations, capitalism) so I hope that as you turn these pages you will be convinced otherwise.
Firstly, “climate changed” in the title of this book relates to the potential end game of humanity with regard to the advanced nature of climate change. “Climate change” often conjures up the idea that it has been either a continual part of history or something in motion, like an organic mechanism (if I can use those words parallel) which is possible to reverse. While this may be true in that by natural processes the world does change and evolve, I want to show how there is something more deliberate related to our actions that is responsible for sizeable people displacement, hence “climate changed” – it is something already done as never before have we seen so many people displaced in modern history as we do today.
Secondly, “climate changed” refers to how economic uncertainty is only accelerating a tendency to widen inequality. Despite the blatant facts relating to the deteriorating environment, I want to show how nation states are failing collectively – as well as individually – to kerb these changes: still, large-scale corporate companies and foreign investors move in on “new opportunities” to pillage minerals and other natural resources, thus also contributing to human displacement. Increased global instability resulting in the displacement and migration of millions of people is not simply something which is just happening as a result of processes like globalisation but how international political entities and companies are creating the rational to destabilise certain countries for their own political and economic interests.
For example, among the many exploited African countries – places from where originate many of the people in the my field notes in Spain at the beginning of the chapter – Chinese businesses have stepped up their quest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to enable them to continue to secure a steady supply of metals, mainly copper, cobalt and gold. However, the use of Chinese labour and the continual lack of investment in DRC public agencies and infrastructure have starved the domestic economy and furthered its neglect even after millions died in regional wars related to power struggles. This has led to a substantive population exodus which continues to have social ramifications. Similarly, most of the political destabilisation of the Gulf region, which accelerated in 2011/2012, has been linked to the West’s direct political pursuit of rich minerals and resources in the vacuum of “democratic governance.” This is in the wake of having invaded those very same countries and notwithstanding the billions of dollars earned by countries like the United States of America (“USA” hereafter), the United Kingdom (“UK” hereafter), France and Russia, among others, which sell weapons to them, thus perpetuating war and violence (Sadowski, 2010). So,
…this produces the fateful miscalculation, mishap and calamitous military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq which culminated in the substitution of the old dictatorial regimes with a theatre of indiscipline, and frenetic violence, instigated and supported by the commercial global arms trade and inflated by the weapons industry, which are both thirsty for profit, notwithstanding the tacit support of governments obsessed with improving their GDP.
(Bauman, 2016: 13)
Lastly, and related to the former, the term “climate changed” explains how in the disintegration of community and social cohesion, social feeling has been ideologically and politically channelled towards social groups such as the refugees – among other denizen groups – as the responsible actors for this economic uncertainty (instead of the speculations of the banking sector). Consequently, political discourse and news media present them as unwanted outsiders who are “invading” the safe and secure confines of Europe. This has resulted in increased hate crime and negativity towards the refugees. We have to concede that the climate has changed.
This morally absent uprooting of around 70 million people is therefore implicated in business practices and political economic commercial enterprise. In the words and sentences and photos which make up this book, I want to show how all this is passed down to those 70 million and how it is felt by them: from geopolitical resource wars and conflict over strategic minerals to corporate elites and their webs of private enterprises, corrupt European institutions and nation states, and ineffective international helping entities down to the local functioning of the security industry and organised crime groups. In addition, in many instances, the lack of/bungled international protection/intervention, at numerous points in the lives of these refugees, results in their victimisation. It starts when they are uprooted from their homes, the loss and suffering they experience, th...

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