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A little like Philanthropy, a lot like War: The Production of Environmental Refugees before the advent of Climate Change Discourse

Sat, April 1, 3:00 to 4:30pm, The Drake Hotel, Venetian


This paper attempts to rehabilitate the ambiguous character of ‘environmental refugees’ by challenging the traditional history of international laws and policies aimed at refugee protection. When scholars and policymakers accept the notion that refugees are politico-legal creatures produced by wars or the suppression of civil and political rights (broadly speaking), they ignore the extent to which cross-border migration and displacement were historically caused by a mixture of political conflict and the resulting (or unrelated) ecological collapse of native environments, and the subsequent loss of life and livelihood. I propose to argue that during the Victorian era, as part of the movement to normalize and regulate war, states pursued a rationale that distinguished (political) ‘war’ from (seemingly apolitical) ‘natural disasters.’ Accordingly, while ‘war,’ ‘refugees’ and ‘Nature,’ each punctured the sanctity of territorial borders, their segregation generated three distinct orders of international law—wars and refugees were accepted as appropriate subjects for political intervention, while the natural forces (and those they displaced) were erased from view.