Lessons from Cochabamba on Borders, Labels and Justice

By Michelle Chen Apr 22, 2010

It’s fitting that migration has been a major focus at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which brought thousands from all around the world to gather and discuss the racial, socioeconomic and human rights issues that were all but ignored last year in the disastrous Copenhagen summit. The surge of activists in Cochabamba was a reverse reflection of the kind of climate migration that has exploded around the globe, as environmental turmoil begets mass displacement and the destruction of communities and indigenous cultures. The working group on climate migrants linked population migration and the framework of social, environmental and cultural rights at the crux of the climate justice movement. The conference participants hope to encourage the recognition of so-called environmental refugees in law and society. Some of the principles put forward for dealing with climate migration involve basic legal protections and regulations, such as:

1. To demand that international agreements consider the definition of climate migrant and that all states of the world comply with its determinations. 2. To design global policies from the peoples, addressing climate change for governments to structure their local policies and internal regulations, respecting the systematic participation of peoples and territories involved. 3. To develop a declaration of human rights for climate migrants, valid and recognized globally. 4. To create an international peoples’ organism that promotes a permanent investigation on political, social, cultural and economic situation of climate migrants, and controls as well the implementation of the policies proposed in this document. 5. To demand the creation of an economic fund exclusively integrated by developed countries classified by the UN as the ones primarily responsible for climate change, in order to seek attention to internal and external climate migrants. 6. To create mechanisms that regulate migration due to climate causes towards our countries, in order to prevent the occupation of our territories within a policy of migration control.

Many of these points dovetail with the overarching agenda for a just immigration policy advanced by activists in the United States. The concept of migration as a reflection of human needs (and of government imposed social and economic frustration) is often sidelined or overlooked in the wrangling in Washington over quotas, visas and border patrols. Yet Yasmine Brien, an activist with No Borders, questioned the entire system of categorization, raising an interesting point about how classification of outsiders often serves to divide and control, rather than protect.

There’s a real push for trying to get recognition and protection for a new category of migrants. But currently we have a system in Europe and in North America where the categories that we have aren’t serving to protect people. Refugees aren’t treated with humane conditions or with dignity. In Europe, we have immigration prisons, we lock children up indefinitely… And we just think that it’s really important in terms of these discourses around climate migration, we’re really realistic about what it is that we’re working towards. And while I have kind of engaged with the process here today, I think ultimately it can only be a very short-term position to try and ease some of the pressures. But ultimately we need to be abolishing all of the border systems and stopping any categorization of human beings. We’re one human race, and we’re in this mess together. And until we kind of consider that, and step out of these legal frameworks that are imposed on us by our nation-states, we’re not really going to solve the problems.

Okay, the abolition of national borders may seem far flung, particularly from the vantage point of the myopic political dialogue on immigration on Capitol Hill. Yet Brien’s perspective on the social implications of legal categories for immigrants is particularly trenchant in the American context. Officials and communities are constantly expected to siphon people according to their economic roles and legal status: illegal versus legal, guestworker programs, T-visas, U-visas, temporary protected status, green cards and taxpayer identification numbers. After 9/11, there was "special registration," designed to blur the line between "terrorist" and "foreigner." Today America processes refugees and asylees, maintains no fly lists, demonizes criminal aliens. We hear that word "amnesty" being bandied about as both an aspiration and an epithet. And we have clogged courts, tasked with sorting these strangers into a cold taxonomy. As the chaos of climate change forces unprecedented demographic shifts, we may see yet more labels, more borderlands turned into disaster zones or even battlefields. The United States, for now, has been spared some of the heaviest impacts of climate migration, which are concentrated in "developing" regions. Still, our current immigration crises has provoked plenty of anxiety in response to people being driven from their homes and desperately seeking a piece of American privilege. What some might call a demand for economic justice, others may see as an unjust taking–and the legal categories the government tries to impose reveal the futility of codifying an arbitrary moral spectrum. That’s why Arizona State Sen.Russell Pearce can defend his state’s anti-immigrant bill by proclaiming, "’Illegal’ is not a race–it’s a crime"… and we’ll all know what he means.

Inside our borders and beyond, we see labels being wielded to exclude others rather than to serve justice. Use with caution. (h/t justicenecology’s posterous)