Historical and social context

Three factors need explanation to preface the policy-gender-capital interconnection under scrutiny in this chapter. This section lays them out in brief histories of international refugee policy, women’s and girls’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation in flight and in camps, and the function of oil and conflict in global economics.

Refugee policy

Beyond conflict, natural disasters, and climate conditions that render locations unlivable force people to migrate. Climate is the oldest driver of migration, if the ‘out of Africa’ hypothesis of global human spread is correct (Jensen 2007). The definition of‘refugee’ in international humanitarian law above, however, leaves people forced into migration by ecosystem breakdown in a legal void, neither ‘refugees’ under the 1951 Convention, nor ‘migrants’ relocating by choice. They accordingly have no protections afforded refugees or migrants.

The United Nations Framework on Climate Change recognized this problem in the 2010 Canaan Adaptation Framework that called for ‘[enhanced] understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation’ (UNFCCC 2010). The UNHCR took up this cause and by late 2012 the Nansen Initiative established a set of principles to provide a global framework for treatment of people in flight from climate conditions (Nansen Initiative 2015). The Initiative remained controversial but was able to identify blockages in the process, including reluctance to acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change (Kalin 2012) and concern that the UNHCR was inflating its interests by moving from humanitarian aid to a legal ‘protection’ mandate (McAdam 2016). The UNHCR reduced reactions to ‘climate change’ by repudiating the phrase ‘climate refugee’ on grounds that no such thing exists in international law, and simply kept going because the need is exactly to replace ‘refugee’ with ‘people in forced migration,’ and humanitarian aid has always entailed working toward international humanitarian law.

In truth, climate, disaster, and conflict virtually never happen in isolation. Disasters can be climate induced, e.g. fires and extreme weather events, or have climate impacts, e.g. cooling effects of volcanic ash. Likewise, climate stress can cause conflict when resources become sparse, e.g. the 2003-2005 Darfur genocide began when the Sahara creeping south pushed Arab herders onto non-Arab farmland (Johnson 2011; Glazebrook and Story 2012). Similarly, the Rwandan Banyamulenge, who found themselves in eastern Republique Democratique du Congo (RDC) after the partition of Africa, are currently under assault as ‘foreigners’ in disputes over grazing rights on land made less productive by climate change (Glazebrook 2020). Much conflict, regardless of explanatory narrative, is resource acquisition, especially land-grabbing for agriculture and pastoralism, but also, as discussed below, oil.

Connections between climate, disaster, and conflict have led to understanding of ‘nexus dynamics’ in which flight is more complex than recognized in traditional definitions. After the Nansen Initiative came the 2016 Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD 2016), that provides a Protection Agenda for preventing and preparing for displacement, and responding to forced migration, followed by the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (GCR 2018). Phrasing in terms of disaster avoids tensions around ‘climate’ discourse, and many climate harms are disasters, though perceptions of ‘disaster’ vary. Droughts that collapse food security are slow-onset, while ‘disasters’ can be perceived as sudden, catastrophic events. Defining ‘refugees’ not in terms of the driver of their flight but as persons in forced, rather than voluntary, migration resolves this issue and is consistent with the original 1951 articulation of persons fleeing for survival.

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