The Conditions of Hospitality: Pro-Poor Migration as a justice oriented ‘solution’ to climate displacement 

Author: Elaine Kelly 

Conceptual and practical difficulties have hampered the ability to create clear normative approaches to climate-induced movement. Scholars and policy-makers have pointed to the multi-causality of migration and the impossibility of pinpointing ‘climate’ as a primary or definitive driver of movement. Debate over whether to classify such movement as economic opportunity or a form of forced displacement requiring the development of protection categories has stalled decision-making.  

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear that traditional binary distinctions between voluntary and forced are ambiguous and hard to solidify. In my work, I engage with philosophical principles such as ‘hospitality’ and ‘ethics’ in order to understand and analyse these tensions, as well as offering ways to transform contemporary structures of power.  In Bangladesh the inextricability of economic and climatic conditions points to the necessity of an approach to mainstreaming ‘climate-induced mobility rights’ which prioritises social justice outcomes.  

I have recently returned from a short visit to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In interviews I conducted with key stakeholders in NGOs, research groups and INGOs, there was often a map of Bangladesh used to visually convey the issues at hand. Routes were traced: people come to Dhaka (or other major cities like Chittagong or Khulna) from the coastal areas, where rising sea level, erosion and increased salinity are having dramatic consequences; or they move from the northwest, escaping the crippling effects of prolonged drought.  

Dhaka has experienced rapid urbanisation in the last few decades. The slums house a constant influx of internal migrants arriving from these variously climate-affected regions. This issue is compounded by local political and economic exploitation of workers and ongoing evictions and corrupt land deals making the lives of ‘slum dwellers’ precarious.  While internal solutions should be a first priority (whether these be local adaptation, or internal resettlement/migration programs), it is imperative that these work alongside, rather than to the exclusion of, regional and international frameworks focused on migration.  

International migration, or as Dr Atiq Rahman has put it ‘planned migration’, has the potential to alleviate some of the urban and rural stresses facing Bangladesh. Planned migration is an ethical imperative in the context of a debate that has dramatically shifted in recent times from ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ to ‘loss and damages’. In this sense, ‘hospitality’ from affected countries to the industrial countries responsible for climate change, must be seen as a form of compensation for the profound losses and damages experienced by countries such as Bangladesh.  

Hospitality, understood simply, is the extension of welcome to the stranger. Oftentimes, we are familiar with the use of this ethical injunction in relation to asylum seekers and refugees. In an increasingly restrictive global society where borders are guarded and ‘illegal’ peoples expelled, the principle of hospitality reads at best as quaint and at worst as a reckless ideal. But French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s approach to hospitality reveals to us the complex political, cultural, ethical and legal dimensions of the concept which exceed the religious legacy of unconditional welcome. For Derrida, there is unconditional and conditional hospitality and they are always at work together. The former is the ideal of openness, while the latter is the necessary negotiation of the ideal in any given context. In this sense, unconditional hospitality is impossible but necessary. Indeed, it is the conditions which permit or deny mobility which expose us to ethics, politics and law. Pro-Poor international migration is a form of conditional hospitality which centres related concepts of responsibility and justice. In order to adequately construct what Derrida calls ‘structures of welcoming’, Pro-Poor migration would require the development of skills programs for recipients, labour law protections, and suitable resettlement in a new country. Inevitability it would also demand the laying down of needs-based criteria for selection processes.  

Pro-Poor migration sits uneasily next to contemporary global migration trends. Much ‘managed’ economic migration to the Global North is targeted. It represents a very conditional mode of ‘welcome’ which overwhelmingly benefits the host country. Australia, for instance, requires a high level of English language as well as specific skills or trades as part of its rigid criteria for economic migration. While it boasts a ‘large’ migration intake each year its conditions of entry make it virtually impossible for the poor of the world to access, bar those who may be fortunate enough to arrive through family reunion programs or humanitarian visas.  

The urgency and enormity of issues associated with climate change often means that philosophical approaches to these issues are sidelined in favour of explicitly pragmatic analyses of policy and decision-making. But it should be remembered that, whether explicit or not, various philosophical ideals or platforms underpin political responses to climate change.  Hospitality is one such principle we should return to.  

About the Author: Dr Elaine Kelly is Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. Her work revolves around how contribution continental philosophy relates to climate change, examining the multiplicity of adaptation in the context of climate change (as local, as migration, as relocation) and unpack its political, ethical and cultural implications. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Dwelling in the Future: The Radical Politics of Climate Change.   

This article was first published on Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network on 19 August 2013.