Back to search

One step forward, two steps back? The fading contours of (in)justice in competing discourses on climate migration

In recent debates on climate change and migration, the focus on the figure of ‘climate refugees’ (tainted by environmental determinism and a crude understanding of human mobility) has given ground to a broader conception of the climate–migration nexus.

In particular, the idea that migration can represent a legitimate adaptation strategy has emerged strongly. This appears to be a positive development, marked by softer tones that de-securitise climate migration. However, political and normative implications of this evolution are still understudied.

This article contributes to filling the gap by turning to both the ‘climate refugees’ and ‘migration as adaptation’ narratives, interrogating how and whether those competing narratives pose the question of (in)justice. Our analysis shows that the highly problematic ‘climate refugees’ narrative did (at least) channel justice claims and yielded the (illusory) possibility of identifying concrete rights claims and responsibilities.

Migration is a powerful source of anxiety in collective imaginary and consciousness. The recent events in Europe and its latest ‘refugee crisis’ have generated powerful shock waves. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2015) aptly diagnosed a widespread ‘moral panic’, fuelled by the spectre of invasion and accompanied by the scapegoating of the ‘Other’ – regressive reactions materialised in the walls and fences erected around Europe. To be sure, the anxiety accompanying migration has a number of undercurrents. The crisis is also made particularly thorny by the fact that the dire fate of the displaced is a strong reminder of one's own vulnerability. And we should not forget that responsibility, care and justice (as well as guilt) are also among the sentiments stirred up by the unfolding of the drama of displacement.

This paper starts from the conviction that this intricate affective knot has also had an important role in the way so-called ‘climate migration’ has emerged as a salient policy issue – with the prospect of large-scale movements of people triggered by climate change generating both fears and calls to protect those affected. While gathering momentum and evolving into a recognised phenomenon in established scientific and policy arenas1, the climate–migration nexus has been understood in a number of different ways2