The swell

by Sophie Hoyle

I scanned the horizon—the faint outlines of hills in the dusk, above the rising waters—trying to focus, to concentrate. I fixed my gaze on a point in the near distance: a foamy scum had formed at the edges of the new outline of the river. It had become black, full of silt and debris from the land and buildings slowly subsiding into it. The swelling waters had easily shot over the Thames Barrier, and it still grew and sank with the tides, sometimes revealing the wrecks of car frames, broken fences and scattered bricks at its lowest levels.

I felt a hand softly steadying my forearm, and a lulling voice: ‘now, take a deep breath…’


Previously, we were hyperconnected—the flicker of screens waking up, eyes re-adjusting, then scrolling through information, piecing together what was happening to my family in different time zones of Beirut, Cairo, and friends in Athens. The background murmur of news from the wider world was reassuring, but it also made me keenly aware of being hyper-localised—stuck in one place, wedged in behind the computer desk, simmering in anxiety. Until I panic-bought a flight to go over and try to do something, however small.

I wanted to reach into the simulacra of high-definition images of people herded behind militarised borders; I wanted to be a counter-response to the states that were withdrawing and tightening, shrinking-themselves-small in defence.

My cousin Aziz seemed confused as to what help I could really be to the surge of refugees entering the Beqaa Valley, seeing as I wasn’t a doctor and could only communicate in broken Arabic. I had a sincere, but possibly misguided, sense of urgency. I wanted to reach into the simulacra of high-definition images of people herded behind militarised borders; I wanted to be a counter-response to the states that were withdrawing and tightening, shrinking-themselves-small in defence.

However, after I arrived, the British Embassy issued a warning not to enter the region after fights broke out between factions in the camps, and aid workers had got caught up in-between. So, I waited in the apartment in Beirut for more information, hemmed in by the mountains, the sprawl and the heavy air punctuated by clusters of beeps from below. I could see across the piles of garbage in Mar Mikhael to the new buildings with double-glazing and air-conditioning, left empty after their owners from the UAE returned back home. The sticky juice had saturated all permeable surfaces, and the litter that was swept into the sea had started to return. It piled up until it spilled over into even the private beaches with sea walls and concrete tetrapod breakwaters, and had to be removed each morning before they opened. Even if you didn’t have to wade through the festering rubbish directly, people were getting worried about the toxins leaking into the groundwater and the fish that people consumed caught from the sea. The price of bottled water had increased sharply, with people constantly refilling their tanks on the roofs, which started to evaporate after only a few hours. The random power-cuts meant I had to re-shift my workplace to somewhere with a generator, a micro-scale manifestation of the things that were possible-but just-out-of-reach. After searching the backstreets with a fellow student and journalist in the same apartment building also looking for Wifi, we finally found a cafe ready to capitalise on our addiction to connectivity. After scouring for networks, I managed to book a flight and re-routed my trip to Lesvos.

There were no official signposts as the situation was always changing, and no loudspeaker announcements other than the Greek police telling the crowds to push back.

People queued for days to register at the Moria camp, and even slept there overnight to hold their place, shivering in too-thin sleeping bags. Some had come overland as far as from Somalia and Pakistan, traversing the mountains of Iran and Turkey, soaked from clambering down from the boats onto the pebble shores. It was strange to see it up-close, in the always-hurried interactions at night: in the dark, dipping between torn-down fences, pitched tents and burning plastic. Other than death, starvation, or hypothermia, it seemed that the lack of information was the clincher: not knowing how long they’d be there, where they’d be sent next, and who gets chosen or why. There were no official signposts as the situation was always changing, and no loudspeaker announcements other than the Greek police telling the crowds to push back. I only saw once a piece of card tied to the razor-wire fences with the categories ‘Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan’ hand-scrawled in English, and then in their respective languages; but the red ink started to spread and splinter in the torrential rain.


We’re not sure how long we’d spent underground at that point. We had crowbarred up the creaking floorboards of the living room, and piled up old mattresses and turned-over tables in an attempt to seal ourselves in. Compulsively clicking through live news updates of world leaders threatening imminent attacks fuelled a moment of paranoia in which I’d purchased a small amount of foil blankets, 5 litre bottles of water and canned food. They’d been kept at the back of my bedroom cupboard, obscured by clothes on hangers, embarrassed at what my housemates might think.

There was a small sense of relief at having thought ahead; though, now, in the dark, in what must have been three days after the torch batteries gave out, we realised exactly how little we knew. No matter how much we tried to insulate the space, there was a far-reaching dampness pervading this area beneath the house: a gap, a link to the outside. Sheer terror had blocked all rational decision-making immediately after we heard the announcement, so we’d rushed and panicked, and were stuck underneath without a can-opener. We stabbed open cans with a pair of old scissors and scooped the cold contents out with our hands. The three of us could only lie horizontally, raising our heads a little before hitting or snagging them, shuffling along and crawling to the bin bags in the farthest corner, which was our makeshift bathroom.

It was hard to know diurnal the rhythms in the darkness, how many days or weeks had passed, but the stench was becoming unbearable.

We hesitated.

We tensely debated the options of emerging: Who would go first? What had even happened? If there was radiation, an outfall, how would we be able to discern the invisible symptoms, the chemical miasma?

Eventually, somehow, we made the decision.

Did they all have pre-paid bunkers? The ones we’d read about in newspaper columns, that elites had secured amidst threats of a social uprising; though these were in the back pages, buried deep under the fanfare of celebrity scandal and political controversies.

When we emerged, we felt ridiculous for having even tried to do anything at all. After the initial wave of relief that we were still alive and that our belongings were intact, we tentatively wandered through the shells of houses, mostly empty, cars gone. Did they all have pre-paid bunkers? The ones we’d read about in newspaper columns, that elites had secured amidst threats of a social uprising; though these were in the back pages, buried deep under the fanfare of celebrity scandal and political controversies. We rode around on bikes to scout out what was happening, but were met with days of silence.

I thought I was used to watching known worlds and delicately constructed identities collapse. Through infrequent childhood visits to extended family in the near-mythical homeland. It was built-up and given such emphasis and importance; then, simultaneously, over a lifetime, we watched it fall apart from afar: explosions tearing through homes and districts, mediated and abstract. I remember glancing to the side to see the suppressed emotions of family members staring tensely at the screen as the British newsreader gave a terse summary of events.  The anticipation of crackling phone-lines checking if they were still alive, —alhamdilluh— sighs of relief; but then agitations and gesticulations as if it were somehow their fault for incidentally living nearby the site of the bomb. Tracing the routes of spectacular wide-angle newspaper shots of places we’d once been, now obliterated. A slow grief.

Eventually, we heard some sirens. We approached cautiously with an ingrained distrust of authority, but also with hope, possibly of rescue, or at the very least, information. They didn’t have much. We’d caught up with the hazard cleaning truck as it was turning the corner to leave the neighbourhood. They’d been painting large black crosses on most of the houses with a thin, dripping paint, though they couldn’t reveal what this was for. They seemed surprised and impressed at our staying put; though as they stood there in biohazard suits replete with breathing apparatus and chemical resistant boots, we looked down at our sullied clothes and felt ridiculous. They mentioned that there was a help centre uphill of where south Croydon used to be. It was in the old London Biggin Hill airport which until then, I was unaware had even existed.

We went back to the house to look at what we could take, packing any remaining essential food, safety blankets, and thermals. I went back into my room, and saw an olive tree wooden bowl that my grandmother had taken across the border, fretting and worrying that they’d be seized by customs. It had made it across continents and decades, and was now sitting on my desk. It was positioned next to palm tree leaves, an ornamental camel figurine and an ankh necklace, the accretions of multiple lives over the years; but they all had to be left behind this time. I settled on taking a small cluster of photos that didn’t take up as much space, and got up to head out.

We followed the half-memorised directions, and were co-directed by other people that we met along the way. Some were better equipped, driving cars with stacks of belongings on the roof bound together with rope and cords, with some chair legs and pot handles poking out. One was a black van with a peeling plastic Zipcar sticker, either taken by the person currently renting it, or stolen from the street. Others were walking by foot, starved out from their hiding places.

We arrived at a site that we presumed to be the help centre, where people gathered in the flat, grassy areas of the take-off strip, now full of tents. New ones were being constructed, despite the strong winds leaving the thick tarpaulin sheets flapping and gasping in turns. The portaloos overflowed, uncontained by the shallow channels carved out to serve as makeshift drainage. The remaining cars were stuck in the mud, tracks gouged out and deepened by tires revving to leave.

We split to each join a different queue, where we stood for a few hours, each one hardly moving. We felt the disquiet growing, tensions spilling out into arguments, and looked up to see people shouting with a megaphone, not knowing how to handle the crowds, and looking more distressed than us. Someone was throwing small plastic containers off the back of a parked truck, many of which became stuck in the sludge. Inside were provisions: small packets of biscuits, cheese, shortbread, and some bottled water. It reminded me of primary school trips and packed lunches, the same herding of people with barks and exclamations to stand in line or hold hands to cross the road. It started to rain heavily and people dispersed back into the tents. They perched inside, necks tilted up at the skies, waiting until it ceased to start queuing again.

For the first week the queues remained orderly. There were people who’d waited years for referrals to doctors for life-saving treatments, to be rehoused to an accessible flat, or to get their asylum status granted: a patient tolerance with a quiet, hopeful desperation.

After the South Coastal Wall was built, numbers had dropped rapidly, and most people were sent to be processed on the Isle of Wight. To have made it to London means that they must have come far in the process of their application—near hope, but once again, out of reach.

There were many people in the queue that had been trying to register at the Croydon Immigration and Asylum Support Service (IASS), who were now two or three-times displaced. Though after the South Coastal Wall was built, numbers had dropped rapidly, and most people were sent to be processed on the Isle of Wight. To have made it to London means that they must have come far in the process of their application—near hope, but once again, out of reach. Their quiet acceptance was in contrast to the permanently-outraged middle classes, seemingly unused to inefficiency or disorganisation, and gesticulating and shouting with entitled demands. This was ignored by the bored youth, who made music by beat-boxing, or improvising instruments from discarded plastic water and oil drums.

Once every three days there was some hot food: a bland, anglicised curry. We couldn’t enter the kitchen, but from the small section I could see through the exit, it looked like those of homeless shelters and camps I’ve been in previously. These had giant metal pots, human-size sacks of lentils, whole crates of onions and garlic chopped and swept in and swirled with spoons requiring whole-body movements, steadying yourself on the sides of the large metal vats, at least a metre wide each way. Any food when cooked on such a large scale inevitably became reduced to the same consistency. We all slept in the largest tent, huddled on the floor, sleeping with our belongings tied round us and under our clothes, held close to our bodies as if in rigour mortis.

It took a few weeks of hearsay to figure out what the process might be. We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens after many years of isolationist foreign policies since Brexit. I heard the same kind of statements that I had made to those newly arriving in Lesvos only a year before: ‘We don’t know exactly what’s happening… the situation is changing everyday… we’ll know later… we’re waiting for another aid delivery to arrive…’

Within the camp, a kind of self-sorting was occurring. Despite being stripped of a material base and all belongings, people moved towards others who were of a similar socioeconomic background, forming different niches. Somehow, the petite-bourgeoise politeness and niceties continued: a want of familiarity, a semblance of normality, the internalised body language and intonation. We caught the eyes of some squatters and ravers, who used the premise of talking to us about our bikes and our tools, among other signifiers that we may possibly be similar, if not the same. Over the months, once we’d built some basic trust, we were allowed into their discussions. We knew that some groups would be prioritised: the ill, families with young children… which none of us were. As supplies dwindled and tensions increased, they’d been considering moving farther out, to set up a community. Cynical, hardened, but also desperate, we went with them.

Soon after, the waters rose again, and all the camps had to move farther out, uphill, and re-settle.

Soon after, the waters rose again, and all the camps had to move farther out, uphill, and re-settle. I remember how we’d learned about the earlier settlers locating next to natural water sources in my primary school geography class, with pencil-shapes diagrammatically outlining the proximity of the shelter (round) to the river (parallel waving lines in blue). We built structures on elevations, slowly learning which ones would withstand the elements, aided by some anarcho-engineers who helped at the Calais Jungle before it was flattened. As a group of anarchists, squatters, artists and a nurse, we could mostly make and fix things ourselves. We had some basic knowledge of the woods we were surrounded by, and some basic medical supplies. We’d scavenged further necessities from the camp, and by sifting through the water when we forayed down to the new edge of the Thames.

Occasionally, we could still smell the back-wind. It was hard to stand the stench of the dispersed water becoming marshy with dead bodies, building remains, abandoned vehicles, and giant flocks of seagulls pecking at the slimed surfaces. It easily stretched across to the former-Netherlands, and sometimes the EU boats came with emergency supplies they’d been safeguarding in waterproof warehouses. They were equipped with solar panels, and things that looked clean, neat and technical. Though they were often mobbed, so now they just threw parcels off the sides, which bobbed along until they reached the shore of hysteric crowds.


We spent a lot of the time learning to wait. There was no longer an abundance of white-noise-images filling the gaps, the seconds were hanging, minutes turning into frustration. We had to double-back and go over old memories, to retrieve nostalgic go-to stories stuck in deeply sedimented neural pathways. Thinking about the boats reminded me of relaxation, leisure, holidays… things that were once within reach. How the clear, salty water had trickled underneath the hulls in the ports, the smell of sun-warmed concrete and tarmac, soft to stand on.

I read that veterinary scientists were slicing open the stomachs of dead camels they’d found by the roads, and had extracted from the slopping organs large balls of plastic debris.

I thought of my uncle who lived in Dubai, who I’d last seen during my shortened trip to Beirut. I’d visited him 5 years earlier: cruising along endless highways that by bad design circled around and back into each other. They passed disconnected sites and vague signs—‘Internet City’— that promised different kinds of pre-packaged progress. You could see the burnt grass by the highways under the 45 °C summer heat, where newly implanted patches of soil had shrivelled up already, shrinking back from the squared templates. He prided himself on not living in the extra-luxury high-rises or highly-guarded gated communities, though he was still complicit; I guess that now I was too. In the more expensive end of town there were fake islands constructed by dredging the shores and dumping sand from the desert, forcing them into the shape of a palm tree (only visible from helicopters and private jets I imagine). However, in between the fake-sand palm-fronds the water had started to stagnate without a natural flow to clear it, so sea snakes had proliferated and populated these tiny lagoons. I’d smiled inwardly when I imagined the starts and shouts of entitled people being bitten or taken aback, that despite the glossy real-estate brochures and censored-media versions they could afford, this hadn’t worked out for them. Despite these clear signs of slow-implosion, there was still mass migration to the UAE, the supposed source of stability and employment in the region, but the sandy city of glass towers and construction sites gave way. I read that veterinary scientists were slicing open the stomachs of dead camels they’d found by the roads, and had extracted from the slopping organs large balls of plastic debris. They’d been nibbling on shreds of plastic bags piled up in rubbish heaps, covered by sand outside the city, which had cumulatively tangled and calcified inside them like weights.

Remembering riding a camel as a child in Giza, I asked my uncle how my second-cousins were in Cairo, where he’d recently been. He was initially confused why they hadn’t moved out of the cluttered centre with teeming traffic, to the newer, better satellite cities: New Cairo in the east, or outside of the ring-road in the south-westerly sprawl. But now that the pipes stopped pumping and their cars ran out of petrol, people were already walking in hoards back into the centre, thirsty and starving. Some had driven most of the way on emergency petrol, and then had to push the vehicle for the remaining amount: the hot metal frame slicing through their outwardly spread palms as they gave their whole bodyweight into moving it a few metres more. Others rode bicycles only previously used by their children and domestic staff, struggling with the downsized frames or the unfamiliar physical actions. They stopped over in the half-built apartment blocks for shelter, and looked out onto empty frames of advertising billboards along the motorway; most of the metal had been scavenged, and the once-glossy paper burning on open fires producing an acrid smoke. Some scraps had been hurled by winds into the desert and onto arterial roads, re-grounded in sand or skewered on small rusted fences; they were faded, bearing the faint outlines of cosmopolitan young families enjoying their new villas in the exclusive private compounds. The group finally arrived at the ashwa’iyat in the centre, a dense network of dwellings. Many of the people that lived here had once constructed those isolated compounds. Whole families were employed to construct foundations, crossing slivers of timber that looked like balsa splints to make temporary cages, and laying bricks and plaster to surround them, packing them in tight. They were not happy to see the return of the elites who had unceremoniously abandoned them years ago.

This was all reported back to the shocked heads of the Emmar construction company in Oct 6th City, Dubai. They’d been able to fly their most senior staff back to the UAE, and this information was kept from going public, citing unspecified political reasons for their withdrawal if required. After the achievement of the global corporate monument of the Burj Khalifa, this was hard to take. ‘But,— insh’allah—that wouldn’t happen here, not in the much more developed, politically stable Dubai’ they’d said. The seeds of colonial modernity accelerated by oil production produced a disordered, mismanaged growth of atomised communities. It ate into all corners of life, relentlessly; until no one knew how to survive the sweltering heat outside of these air-conditioned, serviced apartments.

I remember hearing all this, scattered among other things, and spoken of casually as if it were interchangeable, replaceable with other hearsay and minutiae that didn’t affect them directly. While I was leaving for the airport to fly back to London, I saw a series of loader trucks tipping clumps of soil into square excavations, with palm trees to be planted held on standby. They were trying to make the barren landscape seem ordered and pristine, though you could already tell from how the dirt fell loosely, with a fine, powdery dust, that it was drying-out fast in the desert heat.


A young child had come up to the nurse next to me, ‘It’s the dirt again’. ‘The dirt’ was contact dermatitis, thousands of tiny blisters that swelled on the skin of her hands and arms, sometimes seeping a sticky, clear fluid. Perhaps some tree sap or another irritant caused it, and strangely it made a similar-looking substance through reacting on human skin, generating until it swelled, burst and flaked off over the next few weeks.

A number of years must have passed, though even the people meant to be marking the time had slacked; either through apathy, or a reluctance to accept this as the situation, a refusal: this was only temporary. We tried to bide the time in a way that could be useful; making paper out of compounded substances, mashing and drying different fibres, flattening them with heavy objects, and learning to not be impatient and flick up the corners just to see if they were ready.  We washed everything in the upper part of the river, but despite rinsing over and over again an oily residue coated everything that could never be gotten rid of. Things were never really clean—not like before. We spent most of daylight hours outside, as people had either forgotten or didn’t seem convinced by the previous public health warnings, and because of the effects of these dangers were immediate.

My own drawing reminded me of book illustrations and graphic novels of the monstrous: the unreal and unflesh. But here it was in front of me; so I added a few figurative lines to indicate movement of the face, eyes, and body, gently tugging in different directions.

One day, I was requested to draw, with precision. What I was drawing were medical conditions, what may have been considered ‘oddities’, which reminded me of 18th century anatomical drawings, stretched out and skewed, next to over-stylised botanical depictions and foetuses in jars at the museum. ‘Can you draw?’, would previously have felt like a conservative and anachronistic comment, but was now a genuine question. I was unused to it and it felt like I was learning my fine motor co-ordination skills all over again. I tried to be impartial in the way that they wanted, but to draw the baby as a dumb, inert object seemed unfair. Its eyes were wet and moving, lolling around in its head as it made slight movements and jerks that the neck and back couldn’t support, instantly falling back to how it was before. Looking back between the child and the drawing there was a disjuncture. The baby’s head did have three eyes, a congenital deformity, but it still seemed much more live, curious, in need of being nurtured, and it was hard to see outside of that as it looked directly at me with a wonky smile. My own drawing reminded me of book illustrations and graphic novels of the monstrous: the unreal and unflesh. But here it was in front of me; so I added a few figurative lines to indicate movement of the face, eyes, and body, gently tugging in different directions.

The mother seemed to want something to be done about the extra eye, even though we all knew this was highly improbable as major surgery was life threatening in itself. We sent the drawing to another commune we were in contact with, to be sent along the chains until it reached somewhere that perhaps had a doctor or surgeon. We drew the plants we now knew to be poisonous and placed them on the trees for all to see. I was embarrassed at my own lack of artistry, and how the ink spread through and blotted the bumpy paper, so their outlines were sometimes indeterminable. I don’t truly believe that I could have identified any of these plants from the drawings I’d just made, but it was all we had left after the Big Electric went down.

It was a sharp tug at the skin that made me look back at my hand. By now I’d spent so long—hours, days—dissociating and practising switching my mind to a different channel.

They were trying to extract an xNT bioglass capsule that had been subdermally embedded. It no longer worked to open doors as most buildings had collapsed or their systems were down, my old passport had by now expired, and the smartphones and tablets we’d been charging by portable solar power panels had broken. A capsule injector had punctured the surface and shot it into place, to where it now nested under a pinch of skin between the forefinger and the thumb. But it had missed the mark by a hairline and was too close to the bone, which had now begun to grow around it. The physical labour of repairing the roofs of the shelters, cleaning pipes and filtering wastewater had made it gratingly painful, and rendered me less useful; as comparatively younger and able-bodied person I was required to undertake basic tasks to maintain our collective survival. They had scraped the rust off another tool, boiled it to sterilise it, and tried to sharpen it as much as possible to try and disentangle the capsule from my hand.  The deep pit in the skin pooled with blood, and I looked away again—trying to concentrate, focussing on elsewhere— looking out over the horizon.

Sophie Hoyle is a writer and artist currently based in London, UK. Their artwork and research explores an intersectional approach to post-colonial, queer, feminist and disability issues. They work in text, moving-image and installation to look at the relation of the personal to (and as) political, individual and collective anxieties, and how alliances can be formed where different kinds of inequality and marginalisation intersect. Recent projects include: Constellations (between UP Projects and Flat Time House, 2017-18), Sheer-Naked-Aggression, Chalton Gallery (2017), Off to Mahagonny, Rye Lane, London, a text for The 3D Additivist Cookbook, Inner Security for Transmediale (2016), We Cannot Unsee (, BFI and Wellcome Trust), and Psychic Refuge for The New Inquiry (2015).

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living

Tourists on a cruise ship docked at Valletta, Malta. Source: Flickr.

by Miriam Lang

We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.

For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation  of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.

One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.

Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare

But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building  new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This  could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.


It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South

The left  focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?

Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with  positive connotations of  personal choice  and self-determination.

It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address  what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with  “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions.  People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive  social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.

At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.

The container port at Fos-Sur-Mer, France.


Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?

The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter

The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it  refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.

This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.

Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?

New perceptions of the good life

A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.

Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative  lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally  question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”

Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn  that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.

In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.

Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.

Considering social welfare globally

Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.

If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.

Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.

The cruise ship Royal Princess at port in Gibraltar. Photo: Tony Evans.

A version of this article first appeared on

Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.