The Mediterranean Sea as a frontier and a graveyard may not dominate the news cycle as much as it did a few years ago. However, even as the media drags our collective gaze elsewhere, the great migration and its attendant costs continue unabated. As the ecological crisis in its various manifestations creates conditions of peril and disadvantage in some parts of the world, migrants continue to be drawn to the territories in which wealth and security are seen to accumulate.
At the same time, around the world, border regimes grow ever more determined and efficient at policing the great human migration. Millions fleeing the countries of their birth in the hope of building better lives elsewhere are met with social, cultural and economic barriers. They are confounded by growing structures of cruelty and indifference. As the events in and around the Mediterranean migrations lay bare, an important aspect of the crisis of our planet today is the great extremity of migrant desperation on the one hand, and the enormity of countervailing violence on the other. These are the twinned implications of global discussions of belonging and the limits of our communities of sympathy.
As we remember Laudato Si’s summoning humanity to the collective care of the earth as our common home, this article focuses on the papal encyclical’s illumination of current debates about migration. It asks, ‘how might we “weave bonds of belonging and togetherness” in a world riven by crisis, and where crisis produces solutions based on exclusion?’
With science revealing the ecological crisis’ ramifications for all humanity, including future humans, how do campaigners for social justice undertake to rouse a worldwide community to remedial action? How do campaigners ensure that the remedies we pursue do not dislocate the planetary emergency to the other side of the world, that they do not limit solidarity to the narrow communities of our immediate affiliation, but that they instead extend our care to the general community of humanity?
These are the hard questions that are posed by the ecological crisis and its production of migrants.
An analysis of the migration crisis shows its roots in the contemporaneous ecological crisis. Sometimes the evidence is very clear. Many migrants are forced away from their homes by shifts in climatic conditions that are so severe, they make it impossible for communities to continue to reproduce themselves economically and socially. High frequency, cataclysmic weather events leave little time for communities already suffering marginalisation in the prevailing global economic order to restitute themselves. There are other migrants who are expelled from the lands of their forefathers by ecological shifts that make harvests meagre and unreliable, or produce conflict over resources like access to irrigation water or pasture.
In other cases, the ecological basis of the forces of eviction is less clear. For example, analysis shows that the events leading to war in Syria were instigated by a series of poor harvests in the rural countryside. The conflict in Darfur has similar undertones, and we know that a large fraction of refugees come from communities made vulnerable by wars over the exploitation of valuable natural resources like in the Congo.
At the same time, global opinion shows that support for regimes of exclusion has increasing electoral effectiveness. Thus, politicians and opinion shapers in both the global north and south, have an incentive to underplay the push factors behind emigration and the global refugee crisis. Migrants into destabilised communities are instead presented as undeserving of our sympathy,leeches seeking to exploit our generosity. Media, academics, political leaders and other opinion shapers unite in depictions of the migrant as a social and economic threat.
This is particularly cruel when we consider the causes of global warming, and how these differentially allocate advantage and destruction. As the social justice worker and ecological activist both know, the forces of social and economic progress in one sphere are often implicated in the production of loss and despair elsewhere. What do we find at the source of the tropical flowers, the tea, the cashews, the cocoa, the palm oil at the table of our present plenitude? Who mines the ores that are the foundation of the great leap forward in communications technologies and the economies it engendered? What communities live the first consequences of the toxic fuels that power global industry and an unprecedented acceleration in global transport?
Together, these questions juxtapose the radiant face of progress with the desolation it produces. The forces that assail the peasant, denying her sustenance from her labour in the soil are often dislocated from the world she knows. Deforestation by logging companies, states damming rivers upstream or grabbing land for the benefit of cities and industrial agriculture, the pricing implications of global commodity markets, the toxicity of determined mining corporations, the rapacity of navies of trawlers: this list enumerates mechanisms for social and ecological disruption. The fruit of this disruption is material wealth and progress for some, and the production of extreme vulnerability for the exposed. The beguiling reality of progress then, obscures from view the anguish it produces elsewhere. But as Laudato Si asks, citing the New Zealand bishops “what does the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ mean when 20 percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”
Pope Francis writes, “today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis”. The idea of integral ecology is thus developed in Laudato Si as a fundamental framing for efforts to manage the global crises. Pope Francis’ clarification of the connectedness of social and ecological justice, links the complex worlds from which refugees are expelled, to those to which they flee. The encyclical elucidates the idea of a common good for all humanity, proposing to replace an approach toward nature as a resource to be dominated, with one of stewardship for the benefit of all. This has the potential to transform attitudes to resource use so that resource exploitation does not produce the dislocations that presently create the refugee crisis.
In this spirit, we think through Laudato Si as a portal that may reshape global sympathy towards the ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’ in our midst. This thinking is part of an internal effort at JENA – propelled not just by Laudato Si but also by the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus. With regard to migration, this effort hopes to analyse differentiated migration patterns, push factors, barriers, and the legal and social regimes affecting emigration and settlement across Africa today. What are the social and ecological injustices that define emigration in contemporary Africa? Why do people leave the homes of their birth in great numbers? Why do they put themselves in such danger trying to find refuge? This analysis forms the initial step toward understanding, and creating social solidarity with the immigrant. What is the migrant owed, and what does the migrant owe their hosts?
Reflecting on this is as important for Africans as it is when considering the north-south divide. Even in the countries of Africa, or those of the global South more generally, there exist relative cleavages between sites of advantage and those of disadvantage: cities and rural areas, the leafy suburbs and the tin-shacked slums, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya and Somalia. It is also between these that we see streams of migration towards the reallocations of wealth and opportunity.
Thus we attend to Pope Francis’ sense of where the ecological crisis locates responsibility and care. In this sea of suffering with islands relative tranquility, prosperity and power, sympathy is called towards advocating for migration regimes that prioritise the disadvantaged over comfort in the status quo. He writes, “where injustice abounds and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”
The border and its guards are therefore not just a mechanism of marking territory to enable more effective and just administration. Instead, they take on a sinister aspect, as a mechanism that insulates us from the negative consequences of the processes that generate our zones of peace and prosperity. Solidarity with the migrant is then, as Pope Francis proposes, a recognition of the interconnectedness of our existence, not just to each other but to the conditions of our social cultural and economic sustenance.
And we can do more than embrace the stranger in our midst. Understanding the interconnectedness of all life as a fundamental step towards global justice means attending to the forces that drive immigration. To stop the production of vulnerability through social and ecological injustice is to stop the disintegration of communities and the dispersal of their members. Although speaking a different language, bearing a different complexion, and a different national identity the stranger in the midst is our sister, our family. More, the landscape of her former residence, far away is an integral part of our planet, our common home.