Research (Pacific Circulations)

Dr. West has had two projects focusing on migration and movement in the Pacific region.

The first “Pacific Climatic Circuits”, in partnership with Dr. Kevin Fellezs (a musicologist) and Dr. J.C. Salyer (an anthropologist and lawyer), and funded for three years by the Columbia University Center for the Study of Social Difference, is an attempt to bring questions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and inequality as well as analyses of the circulation of non-material forms, such as ideology, art, music and the circulation of human bodies through migration and immigration to the forefront of both the framing and the social analysis of climatic change in the Pacific region. They see the emerging discourses of, and attendant solutions for, the “anthropocene” as a displacement of responsibility that attributes climate change to human impact generally and occludes discussion of which particular humans and which specific political-economic systems have contributed to the current state of the planet. In other words, the current literature makes all human activities commensurable and as such, disallows for the careful analysis of different levels of culpability in climate change and thus climate mitigation plans and climate change reparations policies. Furthermore, it posits that the material conditions in The Pacific are natural ecological facts and not formed through a complex social, political, and economic history that is punctuated by dispossessions, colonial processes, and, more recently, neoliberalization. By working to reframe the Pacific climate change debates in terms that attend to questions of race and the colonial creation of race in the region, gender disparity, class and consumption, migration and immigration, ongoing colonialisms, inequality, and with careful attention to indigenous critiques of outsider’s epistemic practices they hope to re-direct the kinds of scholarly inquiry connected to climate change that are being carried out in the Pacific today and, more importantly, in the future.

The second project, with Dr. J.C. Salyer as the co-PI, and funded by an NSF RAPID grant, is designed to explore how human migration and its social effects contribute to understanding human social relations as they are emerging in the context of environmental change and social upheaval. Based on five years of research, it is concerned with migration, change, and sovereignty in Papua New Guinea. In July 2013 the Prime Ministers of Australia and Papua New Guinea agreed to the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea(colloquially known as “The Papua New Guinea Solution” and the “RRA”) an international agreement that diverts asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for immediate detention and processing, and then eventual resettlement in Papua New Guinea. Funded by the National Science Foundation we conducted ethnographic research in Manus Province, Port Moresby (the capital of Papua New Guinea), and Canberra (the capital of Australia) in order to answer the following questions: What is the social context that gave rise to this arrangement? What are the in situreactions to the arrangement? What are the broad political and social fallouts from the arrangement? What are the social, material, and other effects of the detention center on the people who have been detained there for five years? And finally, how does this situation connect to larger global challenges to the rights of migrants and asylum seekers in the growing global context of xenophobia, racism, and closing boarders? We are currently preparing a book manuscript based on this research.

The book manuscript is grounded in the anthropology of migration and immigration, the anthropology of intercultural relations, especially with regard to xenophobia, the anthropology of post-colonial relations between nations, the anthropology of sovereignty, and regional political ecologies. In the manuscript we show that the RRA is many things. It is a kind of ‘test case’ whereby a contemporary global power, in this case Australia, attempts to use its previous colonial relationship and its current aid-based economic power to force a seemingly sovereign state, in this case PNG, into absorbing its unwanted migrants. The agreement is part of a larger increasingly xenophobic immigration strategy on the part of Australia, which also diverts additional maritime-arrival asylum seekers to Nauru Island, another sovereign nation, and detains non-maritime arrivals in ten detention centers across Australia. It is a revival of the so-called “Pacific Solution” a politically motivated anti-migration strategy on the part of the Australian state that harkens back to the “White Australia” policies from the 1970s. Yet the xenophobia mobilized in this iteration of Australia’s migration fears is not focused on Southeast Asia, the historic locus of migrants to Australia who worried the general populace and who were used by politicians for political gain, this new anti-migration stance is grounded in anti Islam rhetoric and practice since over 90% of the people detained in Manus are from Islamic countries.

The RRA is also a blatant misuse of executive power on the part of the executive branch of the national government in PNG. While consulting with members of the coalition government, the government failed to inform the full parliament of PNG about his intention to enter into the agreement. As such, the RRA was never debated in parliament nor did it undergo legal scrutiny or review by any of the national courts in PNG. In addition, the RRA was made without any on-the-ground consultation with the landowners of Manus Province, a site, like 97 percent of PNG, where the Indigenous people hold all sovereign rights to their land. This matters because the RRA has resulted in the creation of The Manus Regional Processing Center, a detention camp-prison, located in Manus Province on the island of Los Negros within PNG’s Lombrum naval base.

Manus Province sits in the Western Pacific Warm Pool, a place on our plant that has the fastest rate of sea level rise and warming. A place where, although affected by El Niño and La Niña events, there is a persistent element to the changing of the sea. This is the warmest water in the world, historically on average between about 84 and 86 degrees F, and it is getting warmer and warmer. And this thermal expansion is leading to rising sea levels. Manus has a land area of about 2,100 km square and a sea area of about 220,000 km square. While it has 18 larger islands like Manus Island and Los Negros Island it also has 208 small islands. And the people from these small islands are moving to the mainland of Manus Island because of sea level rise, the salinization of their soils, erosion, and extreme weather events. So Manus is already experience its own displacement crisis that, coupled with the displaced asylum seekers, makes Manus a key site for understanding contemporary global displacement.

All of this is particularly jarring in the context of the predictions around how many people are going to be displaced globally in general and in the Pacific Region very specifically over the next fifty years as the result of climate change. We are moving into an era of extreme global displacement and the Manus Detention Center and the RRA sit at the center of what is, we argue, a window into our global socio-ecological future.