A world awry

Immigration, conflict and climate change

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 26.08.18

Scott Morrison was chosen by the legislators of Australia's Liberal Party to replace Malcolm Turnbull as the country's prime minister. The enthusiasm with which Australian heads of government are routinely backstabbed by ambitious members of their own parliamentary parties makes Indian politics seem almost sedate, but the important thing to note about Morrison's elevation is that the gold star on his résumé is his stint as minister for immigration and border protection in Tony Abbott's government. In this capacity, Morrison successfully administered Operation Sovereign Borders, which redeemed the governing coalition's main election promise: the drastic reduction of illegal immigration.

The Liberal Party's ownership of this wedge issue dates back to John Howard's prime ministership, when, in 2001, his government refused to let a Norwegian ship off-load rescued refugees from Afghanistan in an Australian port to prevent them from claiming asylum. In recent years Australia's principal Opposition, Labor, recognizing the popularity of this tough, exclusionary policy, has quietly given ground to accept many of the measures necessary for its enforcement.

As the white settler colony closest to Asia, Australia has been something of a pioneer of what Christian Parenti has described in his book, The Tropic of Chaos, as the "politics of the armed lifeboat". By this he meant the increasingly militarized response of rich, industrialized nations to the forced migrations created by climate change, political dysfunction and violence in the world's poor countries, politely described as the global South. In this view, Australia is only one of many affluent countries moving to secure their borders and, if necessary, directly intervening in the affairs of countries from which refugees originate to fend off these desperate migrations.

It is worth noting that Operation Sovereign Borders is run by the Australian military and led by a serving three-star general. But this is only a local instance of Parenti's more general thesis. In an interview with Michael Busch, Parenti said that the one rational actor in the US administration as far as climate change is concerned is the Pentagon which accepts the science on climate change, unlike Donald Trump and other Republican denialists, and is planning to deal with the chaos it has compounded in the poor countries of the south. The future the US military sees, according to Parenti, "is essentially one of open-ended counterinsurgency on a global scale..." This would mean managing various forms of low-intensity conflict through "...counter-insurgency, direct intervention, humanitarian intervention, shoring-up allied states, as well as increased training and advisory roles in these conflicts."

In the Australian case, this has meant persuading or pressing countries like Indonesia to prevent refugee boats from setting off towards Australia or diverting them, once they set off, to the small island nations near it. It has also meant setting up grim holding camps in speck-sized island 'nations' like Nauru to deter potential refugees.

This tough line on immigrants and refugees has succeeded both politically and administratively in achieving its objects. Illegal migration to Australia has dropped from over two thousand a month before 2013 to around two hundred a month since OSB was implemented and the militarization of Australia's borders has become the political common sense of the country.

In exactly the same way, Trump's harsh border policy with Mexico has actually resulted in a sharp decline in illegal crossings, making the refugees flowing in from Central America Mexico's problem. Politically, Trump's promise to build a wall, to aggressively deter illegal migration with armed patrols, helped him win the presidency of the United States of America and it is very likely that his policies will survive his presidency. Even before him, the liberal Barack Obama deported millions of illegal migrants to shore up a reputation for toughness in the face of growing public resentment of undocumented 'illegals'.

The rise of right-wing xenophobia in Poland and Hungary, countries that have virtually no non-white migrants, testifies to the political potency of the idea of Fortress Europe, another local instance of the politics of the armed lifeboat. The recent elections in Italy showed how the Lega Nord (Northern League), under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, had transformed itself from a secessionist party into a party of Italian nationalism by leveraging the acute anxiety of Italians about recent large-scale illegal migration. Angela Merkel's precarious grip on the German chancellorship is directly related to her pledge to accept a million Syrian refugees a year. The bribing of Turkey to make sure it absorbed the Syrian exodus fits the policy framework outlined by Parenti: militarized borders and intervention where possible, bribery when all else fails.

But for the citizens of South Asia, Parenti's most valuable insight is not his magisterial characterization of the rich world's response to global warming and migration as much as his description of the forms in which climate change manifests itself in our part of the world. Parenti argues that climate change rarely works on its own: "... climate change doesn't just look like tornadoes, floods, and droughts. It also looks like religious violence, ethnic pogroms, civil war, state failure, mass migration, counterinsurgency and anti-immigrant border militarization."

His hypothesis is that climate change arrives in poor countries in "a stage preset for crisis". This crisis, he argues, has been created by Cold War militarism, the violent lunacy of the 'War on Terror' and neo-liberalism, which besides destroying local ecologies has eroded traditional social solidarities by aggravating inequality. As a result these populations become "... more vulnerable to sudden weather shocks, extreme climatic events like drought and flooding, which are due to anthropogenic climate change kicking in hard." And this "catastrophic convergence", a key phrase in Parenti's book, reveals itself in chronic violence. This "... can be religious violence, ethnic violence, sometimes class-based violence."

These are large generalizations, but they seem to fit so many recent histories of war, civil war, xenophobic violence, forced migrations and ethnic conflict in our part of the world that they deserve attention. Parenti points out that the Taliban and its Islamist violence are sustained by revenues from the opium trade, and the opium trade expanded because Afghan farmers turn to poppy farming following a prolonged drought in Afghanistan, because poppy farming needs six times less water than grain crops. While the causal effect of drought on migration out of Syria is much debated, there is general agreement that the suffering inflicted by a multi-year drought helped cause the Syrian civil war.

Similarly, it isn't hard to see that an important cause of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya was the competitive insecurity created in the Rakhine province by destructive cyclones and catastrophic flooding. As Indian governments cope with the aftermath of the terrible floods in Kerala and the politicization of aid, they will do well to attend to Parenti's analysis of the ways in which climate change aggravates religious and ethnic conflicts in countries such as ours. And as India and Pakistan negotiate and re-negotiate the Indus Water Treaty in the face of water scarcity on both sides of the border, Parenti is a good guide to the way in which the radical right in Pakistan is processing an ecological crisis into jihad: for several years now, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (Army of the Righteous) and its front organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, have been describing India's use of the Indus's waters as 'water terrorism' and threatening, in Parenti's words, that "if water didn't flow, blood would."

Harsh border policies and back-room bloodletting in Australia aren't, or shouldn't be, remote spectacles for Indians. They should be read as symptoms of an out-of-kilter world, unbalanced by ecological crises and unprecedented migrations. One of the last large cargoes of refugees intercepted by the Australian authorities was a ship with 157 people on board which was prevented from landing on Christmas Island in July 2014. Its passengers were eventually dispatched to the holding pen that is the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. The asylum seekers were Indian citizens from Tamil Nadu; the man who consigned them to limbo was Scott Morrison, then in charge of border protection and now in charge of Australia.