POINTS OF REFERENCE
By François Gemenne
François Gemenne elaborates on the notions of “refugees,” “camps,” “walls,” “rising sea levels,” and “undocumented migration” in the text, “Trajectories,” published in the exhibition catalog Native Land, Stop Eject (Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2008). These texts have been updated for the 2015 presentation of Exit at the Palais de Tokyo.
Refugee camps are probably the most obvious symbols of the plight of refugees worldwide. Usually built in emergency situations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), governments or humanitarian organizations and agencies, they provide a temporary shelter for populations displaced by conflicts or natural disasters. A single camp can sometimes be home to hundreds of thousands of people, and thus represents challenges for the security, hygiene and alimentation of its residents. The refugee camp is, by nature, a temporary structure; protracted refugee situations are, however, increasingly common, and the camp then becomes a
permanent habitat, a city in its own right, externalized. The average lifetime of a refugee camp is 17 years. More than half of the world’s refugees live in conditions of protracted displacement, often inextricable, without the possibility of returning home. Palestinian refugees, some of whom have been displaced for more than 60 years and whose refugee status is now hereditary, represent the most emblematic case of such situations. The camp is then the only horizon for those trapped in these forgotten situations. Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart once described these camps as “black stains” that should “burn holes in the consciences of all those privileged to live in better conditions.”
Since the mid-1970s, migration policies have been tightened up everywhere in the Western world. As new spaces were opened up for internal circulation, external borders were increasingly controlled in order to protect from a new type of so-called “invader:” illegal migration. Most of those who cannot migrate in legal ways are unwilling to give up: desperate to save their life or hoping for a better future, thousands of migrants board tubs every year from Africa, to embark on a perilous journey to Europe. The desperate hope to reach the Spanish, Greek or Italian coastline makes them risk their lives and those of their children. Sometimes the journey ends in a dramatic way, and the sea brings only corpses to the shores of Lampedusa, Turkey or the Canary Islands. It is estimated that more than 30,000 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean Sea since 2000. Some are luckier and are rescued by coastguards, such as those clinging to a fishing net in the Mediterranean Sea, for example. Those who finally make it to their destination are often sent back to their country, or doomed to live in a clandestine way, hoping for a hypothetical regularization process. Europe is not the only one facing this phenomenon: the United States, but also countries such as Malaysia or Saudi Arabia experience similar situations. Most undocumented migrants have not crossed a border illegally, but have simply overstayed after the expiration of their visa. All share the
hope of a better life
Today, about 230 million people live outside of the country where they were
born. This figure represents roughly 3% of the world’s population. Migration is an extremely complex phenomenon, characterized by four underlying trends: acceleration, diversification, globalization and feminization. More people migrate every year — for very different reasons — to and from an increasing number of countries and regions, both in the North and the South. Whereas migration used to be mostly male, women now make up about half of the migrant population. Migrants are an essential asset for economic and demographic growth in many countries, especially in Europe and the United States. The causes of migration are very diverse: some leave to find a job, to pursue further education or to look for a less hostile environment. Others leave to be reunited with their family, while some move for a limited period, in order to raise funds. Some migratory movements are cyclical, pendular or seasonal. Millions of migrants do not choose to migrate, but are forced migrants uprooted by wars, persecution or natural disasters. A significant part of these forced migrants, however, do not cross a border, but are uprooted within their own country: they are internally displaced persons, or IDPs. There are an estimated 38.2 million IDPs worldwide; most of them are women and children. Unlike refugees, they do not benefit from any international protection, and are often the forgotten victims of a growing number of conflicts and natural disasters.
Controlling and combating migration have become political priorities for an increasing number of states. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, around 40 walls and
barriers have been erected to prevent migration. These walls and barriers are spread across the world: between the United States and Mexico, but also between Botswana and Zimbabwe, China and North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen or between India and Bangladesh. But they are also in Europe: at the Hungarian border with Serbia, in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or around the entrance of the Channel Tunnel near Calais. These walls and barriers are hardly a rational response to unwanted migration, but they fulfill a symbolic function at a time when CCTV monitoring and human traceability are common. They have been proven inefficient and only make migration journeys more difficult and dangerous, but they have become the chimeric symbol of an impregnable fortress.
Because of their great dependence upon their environment, indigenous peoples will be the first affected by climate change. While they are also the best observers of the phenomenon, they are too often neglected by climate policies. Their knowledge of the environment is a precious resource for the development of adaptation strategies on a global scale — provided that their voice is heard. There are more than 6,000 languages registered worldwide, but half of them are facing extinction. Every week, a language becomes extinct. This impoverishment of linguistic diversity is directly related to the loss of biodiversity worldwide, and the threats to the environment. The subsistence of indigenous peoples is directly dependent upon the ecosystems in which they live. Today, these ecosystems are threatened by deforestation in Amazonia, land tenure speculation in Argentina, desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa or rising sea-levels in the small island states. Consequently, the way of life of many people is at risk, including that of the Ayoreo in Paraguay, the Jarawa in the Andaman Islands and the Enawe Nawe in Brazil.
Though the number of forced migrants worldwide is difficult to estimate, it is constantly on the rise. Wars, violence, persecution, natural disasters and poverty are amongst the factors that have driven millions away from their homes throughout the world. Not all, however, will be able to benefit from refugee status. The 1951 Geneva Convention, which is the principal instrument for refugee protection in international law, defines a refugee as someone fleeing one’s country because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Those fleeing a natural disaster or staying within the borders of their own country, for example, cannot benefit from any particular protection. In 2014, there were an estimated 19.5 million refugees worldwide, including 4 million Syrians, 2.6 million Afghans and 1.1 million Somalis. In addition to this number, there are 4.5 million Palestinian refugees still displaced in neighbouring countries, as well as an estimated 38.2 million people displaced within their country, a number that is consistently rising. The combined number of refugees and internally displaced people is the highest ever recorded. In addition, those displaced by environmental disruptions and natural disasters are not included in these figures: every year since 2008, 26 million people are displaced by natural disasters. That is one person every second, and this number does not account for people displaced by slow-onset environmental changes such as sea-level rise or desertification. Whereas the number of forced migrants has reached an all-time peak, asylum regimes are experiencing a profound crisis: only a fraction of those seeking asylum in Europe receive refugee status, and the recent influx of refugees to the shores of Europe has induced a deep political crisis amongst European member-states. Meanwhile, protracted refugee situations accumulate, as 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries.
Image | Maps : Population Shifts: Cities, Remittances: Sending Money Home, Political Refugees and Forced Migration, Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, Natural Disasters, Speechless and Deforestation