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The making of the ‘climate migrant’: how a label emerges and circulates

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How we categorise migrants matters. The different implications of labelling for ‘political refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘economic migrant’ or ‘illegal alien’ are important because each label conditions the rights and conditions of the people designated. Since the mid-1980s, the ‘climate migrant’ label has gained traction among experts in academia, the press and policy-making circles. I begin by presenting the debate between ‘maximalism’ – which seeks to quantify climate-induced migratory flows and identify ‘climate migrants’ – and ‘minimalism’, which disputes the usefulness of the ‘climate migrant’ label on analytical and practical grounds. This leaves us with a tension. On the one hand, minimalism has made a convincing case for a nuanced understanding of the environment as one driver of mobility among many. On the other, the ‘climate migrant’ label retains significant appeal, and we must still contend with the inevitability of labelling, which is inherently reductive. As a potential way out of this bind, I argue that a critical study of ‘climate migrants’ should focus both on how the label is made – that is the discursive practices used to conceptualise, contest and deploy it for policy purposes – but also on how the label circulates, asking questions such as: how does it spread? How does it evolve in the process? What facilitates or hinders its movement? Why and how does the label ‘stick’ to certain people and not to others? I end with some suggestions for how we may begin to answer these questions, drawing in particular on multi-sited ethnography.

David Durand-Delacre is a 1st year PhD student in the Geography Department.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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