Meet our Honours Fellow Elisabeth Wale

Elisabeth explains how she became interested in climate induced migration, what part of the literature she’s trying to fill and what she gets out of her research.

Elisabeth Wale is an Honours Fellow of the Sydney Environment Institute and holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney. She explains how she became interested in climate induced migration, what part of the literature she’s trying to fill and what she gets out of her research.

at did you study first, and what are you studying now?

I began my university degree in archaeology and French, a double major. I had been, from the age of 10, convinced that I was going to be an archaeologist and spend my life investigating lost cities and forgotten peoples. One day, two years later, I found myself reading a report on youth homelessness in Australia as procrastination for writing my ‘arca’ essay on Megafauna: the Diprotodon (a huge wombat that was around 46,000 years ago). It occurred to me that I might be in the wrong field. I transferred my degree to Government and International Relations and haven’t looked back.

Describe your research topic

 My honours thesis looks at why climate induced migration (‘climate refugees’) has been so powerfully commandeered by a security logic, which actors have been substantially influential in constructing this narrative and how they have done so.

I developed this thesis after realising that forced migration was forecast to have increasing impacts upon domestic and international population flows. It will affect not only those forced to migrate due to climate induced issues but also the international community to whom the plight of these people will be put. My initial research suggested that the language around climate migrants had taken a similar course to that of Australian immigration and refugee policy. I wanted to explore this further.

What conclusions do you think your research will find?

So far my research has suggested that the political and public image of climate migrants as a ‘security threat’ is not due to an innate security issue posed by climate migration. Instead, it suggests that this image has been developed by elite members of society, predominantly politician and the military, to embolden their political positions.

What I have found most interesting is that, though to a lesser extent, NGOs have also contributed to the image of climate migrants as a security threat. Some NGOs refer to the situation of climate migrants in alarmist terms in order to evoke moral responses from the international community. However, despite best intentions, this has actually adversely contributed to reinforcing the image of these peoples as a national security issue.

What drew you to investigating this topic? 

My interests throughout university have been concerned with human rights. I have for a while been involved in campaigning for refugee rights through Amnesty International. I was also becoming increasingly concerned about the ramifications of unchecked climate change.

The faculty of Government and International Relations and my supervisor were very supportive in helping me develop my thesis topics. Realising that I could in fact combine these two issues gave me an area for research. From there it was slightly more difficult, to say the least, to find a gap in the literature to which I could contribute completely original thought!

What changes do you hope happen in the future within your research area?

The securitisation of climate migrants and refugees alike has become imbedded in the political psyche of most of the western, developed world. This image of climate migrants is detrimental to the future reality of climate-induced migration and action to mitigate or adapt to the consequences. In understanding why the discourse around climate migration has become securitised, I hope to be able to better inform debate on the issue and thus contribute to safeguarding the rights of climate migrants.


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