Research (Pacific Circulations)

Dr. West currently has 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. The research will be carried out in in a region of the world expected to be profoundly impacted by climate-related migration over the next fifty years, thus making it a test case for emergent international relations related to migration and refugee resettlement. This RAPID proposal documents the context that gave rise to and results from the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea (colloquially known as “The Papua New Guinea Solution”). As of July 2013, asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat are diverted to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for detention and processing, and then eventual resettlement in Papua New Guinea. The Manus detention facility provides an important predictive baseline for understanding how governments respond to volatility in refugee and migrant flows in climate insecure areas. The project entails interviews with key stakeholders in Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the United States; analysis and archiving of the policy-related documents and literature regarding this agreement; and community-based data collection with individuals living in Manus.

The research, a collaborative effort between American and Papua New Guinean anthropologists and legal scholars from Papua New Guinea, will be of interest to researchers in anthropology, political science, environmental science, and international relations. The intellectual merit of the project 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, and the anthropology of sovereignty.

This is an important test case for how nations will accommodate the estimated 330 million climate-related refugees that are expected over the next 50 years. The objectives of the proposed project are to understand the social, economic, and legal aspects of this situation and to examine it as a precursor to what is predicted to happen with climate-related migration and asylum seekers in the Pacific over the next fifty years. The outcomes and broader impacts will be predictive models that can be used in the governance of these migrations. Economic and national security perceptions and immigration policy in the United States and elsewhere will be shaped by important test cases such as this.