Migration and displacement

Refugee tales after the Brexit vote

Caught between a neoliberal rock and a neocon hard place
Photo: Ilias Bartolini

On Canada Day I will fly to England to participate in a walk in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers, and detainees, the second phase of a project called The Refugee Tales.

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In June 2015, a group of us — former detainees, current asylum seekers, and their supporters — walked for a week between two “immigration removal centres” (as they are so bluntly called in the United Kingdom) to draw attention to the appalling conditions and processes of detention, as well as to call for an end to the inhumane practice of indefinite detention (which Canada shares with the United Kingdom).

Each night for a week, two writers offered updated versions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic Canterbury Tales — stories of pilgrimage based on the first-hand accounts of refugees for the era of mass displacement. These tales have now been published in a book, Refugee Tales, and on July 3 there will be a forum called “Being Indefinitely Detained: A Day of Thought, Performance, and Action” at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The book will be launched there before we walk again, this time for five days, into the heart of London.

While my activism has been primarily in the area of climate justice, I am well aware of the deep connections between various struggles.

Displacement — referred to as a migration or refugee crisis — and the pressures, some real and some imagined, produced by human movement, relate directly to climate change and the way it unevenly impacts marginalized communities. While it remains relatively unclear as to exactly how many millions of people will be displaced by climate change and how soon, it is coming, on a massive scale, and it has already been convincingly argued that climate has played a key role in the ongoing Syrian crisis. Thus I am going to the United Kingdom to see the tomorrow we are making today.

The fact is, we cannot discuss climate change without simultaneously talking about borders and migration, austerity, and the financialization of global capitalism, debt and new waves of resource extraction. Andreas Malm, in his recent book Fossil Capital, makes much of this clear: capitalists in the 19th century went all in on fossil fuel because it enabled the limitless growth that the increasingly global system was predicated on, but also, crucially, fossil fuels and the factory and transportation systems they enabled allowed the owners of capital to discipline and defeat rapidly organizing labour. Thus capitalism has from its origins embedded itself in interconnected processes of population control, geographic expansion and displacement, and the emission of ever-greater amounts of waste carbon.

Human stories

Theory aside, when it comes to walking with the refugees, it is the human stories that overwhelm and inspire.

Last year I met individuals who suffered through slavery-like conditions in their home countries, only to wind up once again — at the hands of their smugglers — in near slavery-like conditions in the United Kingdom, working to “pay” for their escape and transportation. I met individuals who had left everything behind — family, home, language, identity — escaping with only the clothes on their backs and the physical and emotional trauma they will carry the rest of their lives. I met individuals who had spent years in detention, in solitary confinement, without having any idea what their fate would be. Still others had already lived for decades in the United Kingdom before being picked up on an “anonymous tip” and thrown headlong into the unending limbo of detention. They are unable to work or move about the country. They subsist, if this is the right word, on vouchers amounting to a paltry £5 a day.

From almost every corner of the United Kingdom, stories are coming out this week of attacks on people of colour.

This project was already deeply fraught, loaded with desperation, pain, by turns hopeful and hopeless, tinged with camaraderie and fears of renewed isolation. Then, a week ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

While such a development may have little immediate impact on the Refugee Tales project or the asylum seekers it supports, it does confirm the tenor of the times, as well as help embolden those already blaming immigrants for their economic precarity. From almost every corner of the United Kingdom, stories are coming out this week of attacks on people of colour, including open and confrontational calls for immigrants to “leave,” as many Brits somehow sees themselves as having instantly severed their connection to the rest of the world (as if this were really possible).

Around the world, sadly, new waves of populism prop up real and imagined walls, unmask increasingly violent racism, and forward a post-factual politics of fear and loathing.

A social imperative

I know I’m not the first person to note the atrocious double-bind a vote like Brexit represents: you can opt for the free-trade-loving, austerity-promoting neoliberal EU, or the neo-fascist and xenophobic nationalism of the Leave campaign.

You don’t have to dig very deep beneath the surface of colonizing and settler-colonial states to uncover white supremacy and xenophobia.

Neoliberal or neocon, these are the only options. This has been the very nature of the times in which many of us have now lived most of our lives — an era in which the so-called “political spectrum” has been dragged further and further to the right. The Brexit vote is just another tug rightward.

From the perspective of those already caught up in the racism and brutality of displacement, borders, and detention, none of this is news. England was already a long way from being a welcoming nation-state. You don’t have to dig very deep beneath the surface of colonizing and settler-colonial states to uncover white supremacy and xenophobia.

The question really is, as we move through and deeper into an era of global population displacement, how will those of us living in countries people seek refuge in respond? Will we all be voting to “leave” the wider human community — which has always been mobile in the dispersal of its abilities and needs? Or will we find and develop new modalities of accommodation, a “whole new language” of “welcome,” as Refugee Tales organizer and editor David Herd writes?

I recall here the ancient Greek practice of xenia, the social imperative to honour and respect strangers and guests. Recent events suggest our desperate and increasing need for a culture of xenia — and the decreasing likelihood of its appearance in a world fearfully clinging to rigidifying borders.

In the context of climate change and displacement, I can only end by echoing Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña’s words: “Are we going to be human, or we will de-humanize ourselves to the point where the Earth itself will dream our end?”

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