Richard Misrach's Agua #10, near Calexico, California/Agua No. 10, cerca de Calexico, California, 2014, from the series Border Cantos, 2004?16. Pigment print. 60 by 80 inches Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles. Copyright Richard Misrach.

How climate change and colonialism are spurring mass migration: The violent roots of today’s unprecedented displacement

By Tamira Amin, Learning Innovation Fellow at Mia

Forced migration and its horrors are never too far from my mind. My extended family is strung out across four continents. Couples have married and elders have been laid to rest without reunion. My parents fled violence in Ethiopia over 30 years ago and I have yet to meet family members I should have known all my life. Even so, given the scale of suffering that forcibly displaced people are subjected to today, our story is a best case scenario, a minor tragedy.

“When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration” is an exhibition organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, in Boston, and opening February 23 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It takes its name from a line in a poem by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. The poem urgently lays the foundation essential to understanding the crisis of human movement today: people do not leave everything they know without cause. Decisions are hardly your own when the choices are between survival and destruction.

The Current Situation

In 2018, some 13.6 million people were uprooted from their homes, cumulatively adding to a record 70.8 million forcibly displaced people around the world, as reported by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Increased militarization as a response to the crisis means forcibly displaced people are faced with more and more dangerous routes to refuge. However, this does not mean people are collectively moving towards the United States or other Western countries, despite constant news stories reporting otherwise.

In fact, most forcibly displaced persons (four of every five) take refuge in a country neighboring their own, and most displacement occurs without crossing borders at all. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) leads research on internally displaced persons, or people displaced within their country of origin, and they have estimated 28 million new cases in 2018. This comes to a global total of 41.3 million internally displaced people, the highest number on record. As staggering as these numbers are, many may still be uncounted.

Reena Saini Kallat's Woven Chronicle, from 2011 to 2016.

Reena Saini Kallat, “Woven Chronicle,” 2011–16, featured in the exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay.” (Shown here in “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016–2017. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY. © Reena Saini Kallat.

Learning the scale and nature of the humanitarian crisis as someone whose family has sought asylum was equal parts confusing and mind-boggling. The United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations identify causes of forced migration as either “conflict-induced” or “disaster-induced,” but under those categories are constellations of different circumstances and pressures that can be difficult to parse out. And though I appreciated the picture of global movement painted through data, reports, and policy papers, they could not answer the most essential question I had: How did we get here?

“When Home Won’t Let You Stay” focuses on art since 2000, but the conditions the artists speak to are leaking wounds made long ago. More than any other framework, tracing the scars upon land and our societal relationships left by colonialism and climate change helped me navigate patterns of violence in our current moment.

Climate Change: Colonialism’s Long Shadow

Climate change may not seem immediately connected to colonialism or forced displacement, and it’s true that it cannot tell the whole story of either. However, 58 percent of the world’s 70.8 million forcibly displaced people are internal migrants and about two-thirds of internal migrants in 2018 were displaced due to disaster. Disaster-related internal displacement has outpaced conflicted-related displacement every year since 2008. These effects are only expected to increase if aggressive action to combat climate change continues to be stalled on the international stage.

Recognizing environmental factors in forced migration is vital, but assuming the violence of disaster and conflict are unconnected forces would be a mistake. In a very literal sense, one type of violence can exacerbate the other; in NPR’s coverage of displacement through climate change, this intensifying effect was found in West Africa, where “the almost total disappearance of Lake Chad because of desertification has empowered terrorists and forced more than four million people into camps.” Beyond the contemporary moment, violence enacted upon the environment and violence against people have a deeply linked history.

An unlikely entry point into this history is historical carbon emissions data. On its face, it seems that the United States and other Western countries are doing their part to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the primary greenhouse gas linked with global warming effects. Cumulative emissions tell a different story. Even if the United States has reduced carbon emissions 11.5 percent between 2005 and 2015, it has still released more carbon dioxide into the air than any other country, beating China for first place by almost 200 billion tons and claiming 25 percent of global carbon emissions since 1751.

Since carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, it would be easy to blame lingering carbon from the Industrial Revolution for this backlog of pollution. In reality, three-fourths of carbon emissions to date were produced since 1965, when companies were well informed of their effects. This does not mean that the Industrial Revolution is not at the heart of the issue.The model of extracting precious resources at the expense of people and the environment was perfected in the industrial age through the project of colonialism.

Colonialism is, above all, a logic of domination. Conquest assures the conquerors that the land is theirs—to strip clean, to break, to discard. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik explains in his book The Memory We Could Be how European empires cycled through destruction: “Since there was always more land to conquer and acquire, sustainability was irrelevant. The model was simple: exhaust the land, abandon it, and clear new land.” Spoils of this process would fuel all the sparkling advances of the Industrial Revolution, effectively funneling wealth from Africa, Asia, and the Americas to Europe. Centuries later, descendants from those same regions would be denied sanctuary by societies that were architect to, in part, the ecological degradation of their homes. To me, there is no real way to understand current ecological and societal violence without acknowledging how domination over land and people was made to seemnatural.

To be sure, domination was the primary language between colonizer and colonized. The singular devastation wreaked upon whole swathes of the globe during colonial conquest—the loss of life, culture, history and sovereignty—has structured our relationships with the world and each other ever since. Colonized subjects, through slavery or other methods of forced labor, became avenues to control the land and reap its benefits. It seems only fitting that the land, through the erection of borders, would serve as a means to control people as well.


To Move With Dignity

Borders drawn during colonial rule are still in place over much of the globe and are a source of conflict to this day. While studying the history of borders, some argue that the development of firm borders as we understand them today serve to limit the movement of populations previously controlled by “institutions like slavery and serfdom.” People marginalized historically are barred from movement in ways multinational corporations are not. In the face of de facto open borders for those in the Global North, open border policies have been argued as necessary to accommodate oncoming forces of displacement.

However, advocating for open borders in anticipation of migration, especially due to climate change, assumes a few things. First, it takes for granted the destruction of the migrant’s homeland, an outcome formerly colonized countries in the Caribbean are adamantly fighting against. Secondly, it assumes that the affected peoples will choose to leave. Voluntary immobility, facilitated by international support, can be a way for populations to assert their choice—to claim some dignity—in facing the consequences of climate change that, by and large, they did not create. Both Caribbean and Pacific Island nations are under threat of disappearing under rising sea levels, especially as internationally agreed-upon targets don’t prioritize the 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit necessary to ensure their survival. In the end, the people of some countries may have no choice but to leave entirely.

In the face of impossible decisions, words from Shire’s poem “Home” only seem more relevant:

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

Writing this, I am bitter. Even once or twice removed from the violence I’ve outlined above, it seeps in as slow and sure as poison. I say this because empathy for forcibly displaced people and communities cannot stop when our journeys do. Upon arrival there is still much to grapple with. We live with the injustice of our histories and find joy and love anyway, like it’s not a miracle. We may be bitter. We may be ungrateful. And still we deserve empathy.

I know we can all be truly empathetic because in the end, no one is immune from the effects of colonialism and climate change.Those who live in the Global North are not heroes gallantly taking on a “problem” that exists in the Global South. The hands that broke the world cannot abstain from repairing it. Especially in museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Art, wrestling with their role in colonialism, we cannot afford to look away from that fact.

Top image: Richard Misrach, Agua #10, near Calexico, California/Agua nº 10, cerca de Calexico, California, 2014, from the series Border Cantos, 2004–16. Pigment print. 60 x 80 inches. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles. © Richard Misrach.


I’m a visual learner. Where can I go for accurate visualizations of migration data and issues?

Over time, which countries have emitted the most CO2, the leading driver of climate change?

Umair Irfan, “Why the US bears the most responsibility for climate change, in one chart,” Vox, December 14, 2019

Hannah Ritchie, “Who has contributed most to global CO2 emissions?”, Our World in Data, October 1, 2019

Which companies and industries have contributed most to climate change and ocean acidification?

Rachel Licker et al, “Tracing Fossil Fuel Companies’ Contribution to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification,” Union of Concerned Scientists, December 2019

Nicole Pinko et al, “The 2018 Climate Accountability Scorecard,” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 2018

Frank M. Mitloehner, “Yes, eating meat affects the environment, but cows are not killing the climate,” The Conversation, October 25, 2018

How does climate change contribute to involuntary displacement?

Tim McDonnell, “The Refugees The World Barely Pays Attention To,”,  January 20, 2018

Susanne Melde, “The poor pay the price: New research insights on human mobility, climate change and disasters,”  Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Policy Brief Series, 9:1, December 2015

Dina Ionesco and Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, “Environmental migration and displacement,” The European – Security and Defense Union, Edition 3, Volume 31, 2018

UNHCR, “Climate change and disaster displacement,”

How does historical colonialism and imperialism (in which one country invades and claims dominion over another’s land, its natural resources, and its residents) combine with climate change to compound inequalities?

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, “To fix the climate crisis, we must face up to our imperial past,” Open Democracy, October 8, 2018

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, “Colonialism can’t be forgotten – it’s still destroying peoples and our planet,”Open Democracy, October 18, 2018 

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, “A Guide to Climate Violence,” The World At 1°C, February 9, 2019 

Kirsten Vinyeta et al, “Climate Change Through an Intersectional Lens: Gendered Vulnerability and Resilience in

Indigenous Communities in the United States,” United States Department of Agriculture, December 2015

Leon Sealey-Huggins, “‘1.5°C to stay alive’: climate change, imperialism and justice for the Caribbean,”  Third World Quarterly, Volume 38, Issue 11, September 2017. 

“Climate refugee” or “climate migrant”?

Dina Ionesco, “Let’s Talk About Climate Migrants, Not Climate Refugees,”,  June 6, 2019  

Carol Farbotko, “No Retreat: Climate Change and Voluntary Immobility in the Pacific Islands,” Migration Information Source, June 13, 2018  

Moving forward

Hannah Holleman, “No Empires, No Dust Bowls: Toward a Deeper Ecological Solidarity” from Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics, and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism, Yale University Press, 2018.

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, “Unlearning Despair,” New Internationalist, Issue 517, Jan 2019.