Decolonization Anyone? Reparations, Repair, and Life in the Aftermath of Disaster

Following Europe’s colonial-industrial expansion, the climate catastrophe has long since arrived in places that themselves contributed least to it. As lasting environmental destruction has caused not the least large-scale displacement of people, it is high time to decolonize environmental and migration politics, Nishat Awan argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


A third of Pakistan lies underwater, drowned in the deluge of a “monsoon on steroids,” as the UN Secretary General António Guterres called it. The monsoon rains have been compounded by the added volume of water from glaciers melting due to global warming. In such a context, what can be said about the climate catastrophe – and Europe – without the word reparation?

Climate and colonial reparations

Yet, this is a word that Europe does not want to hear. Upon seeing the devastation wrought by the floods, many people in Pakistan took to social media in distress – I was no different – upset, angry, and demanding reparations. One interesting response to my tweet insisted that I should be referring to the reparations ‘we owe’ rather than ‘you owe,’ hinting, I assume, to the fact that I live in the UK.

That historical memory is so short for some things and persistent for others should come as no surprise; we see this in the partisan history currently being recounted across British media in the aftermath of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Those of us asking for reparations meant both climate and colonial reparations because the two are inextricably linked. I may be living in London and using more than my fair share of the earth’s resources, as all of us who live in the Global North more or less inevitably do. But my ancestors (to be precise: my grandfather and father) were evicted from their lands to build the British Empire’s largest barracks, and were then rendered homeless once again as colonial policies of divide and rule partitioned the subcontinent.

According to economist Utsa Patnaik, 45 trillion dollars’ worth of wealth was stolen from the Indian Subcontinent, and currently Pakistan is saddled with nearly 250 billion dollars in debt, the repayment of which has not allowed the country to flourish. Of course, our own governments and voracious military have not helped matters either, but we were already doomed to fail before we got started.

The colonial matrix of migration

Much of this will not be news to many readers, and yet, this context is often forgotten in adjacent debates, for example those relating to migration. I research undocumented migration from Pakistan towards Europe and the way colonial policies have shaped and continue to shape the vast majority of people in Pakistan as cheap labor. A historical background that is often forgotten. Pakistan is one of only a handful of countries that has criminalized emigration, that is, to leave the country with the ‘wrong’ intentions can be a crime.

The legislation that practically determines the legal treatment of citizens migrating out of Pakistan is the Emigration Ordinance (1979), which criminalizes both facilitating agents and undocumented migrants. It is rooted in colonial legislation that controlled the movement of indentured labor from India to work on plantations within the British Empire. Later it evolved into a wider remit for controlling the movement of ‘unskilled migrants’ in response to the fear of colonial rulers that leftist movements were radicalizing laborers overseas.

The latest iteration of the law was passed, following independence, by the authoritarian government of General Zia ul-Haq during a period of increasing labor migration to Gulf states, and developing economic dependence of the country on remittance. Other countries that have introduced legislation similar to Pakistan in the last decade are Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Senegal, all under pressure from the EU (and UK) to deter migration, and as part of wider moves to externalize EU borders.

Curtailing the free movement of people

It is important to note that activist discourse in Europe on free movement and border securitization tends to center around the question of having the right to enter the fortified spaces of northern privilege and not the criminalization of leaving one’s own country. One might ask why this nuance is important since the wider effect is also of curtailing the free movement of people.

Taking Pakistan as an example, the country operates a ‘biometric national identity card’ that is issued through local offices, which means anyone traveling on a bus near the Pakistan-Iran border with, for example an ID card from a village in Punjab province, can be stopped by the police or the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

While there is no legal route to prosecuting someone for simply being in a different part of the country, often people are arrested and then released without charge on the premise that they were likely to be attempting to leave the country without the requisite permissions. As a local border official in Balochistan province lamented in 2019:

“You cannot find a single FIA check-post on this 600km road all the way from Quetta to Taftan. So how can we recognize undocumented migrants and arrest them? Besides, we are also facing some jurisdiction issues: there is no law that can stop me for traveling to the border and nobody can know my intentions as to where I am actually going.”

This quote clearly demonstrates that a preemptive arrest of would-be migrants is considered unproblematic by the authorities, in fact not being able to successfully prosecute is considered a problem. In effect, certain people’s movement within their own country is also criminalized, and undoubtedly questions of class and privilege determine who can travel where.

Entanglement of environmental and economic issues

To understand why people feel compelled to embark upon what are highly dangerous journeys, it is important to note the entanglement of environmental and economic issues. Over the last few years, I have been researching and conducting interviews in the villages of north Punjab in Gujranwala division, where many of the people attempting to make their way to Europe are from. The agricultural area is famous for its overseas residents and also for its high quality basmati rice production. The incongruous nature of these two facts is explained somewhat when driving to the area from the city of Lahore. It is being engulfed by the urbanization that has been creeping northwards from the city over the last decade.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

As villages lose their land to private housing developments, industrial workshops, and small-scale highly-polluting factories, and as climate change makes crop yields unpredictable, young men are being lured to make difficult journeys, to go bahir, a word that means ‘outside’ and usually denotes for them somewhere, anywhere, in what they consider to be the prosperous West. The villages are nestled between small towns, half-built motorways and the debris of a fast and unregulated industrial expansion. Despite this, there is severe unemployment and what work there may be is highly precarious.

Politics of opacity

In certain villages nearly all the older men have attempted the journey to Europe at one time or another with varying degrees of success. Many of these same men do aggenty – that is they are agents who facilitate other’s journeys. One man (among the people I talked to), who had recently returned from Greece, possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various bureaucratic, biometric, and data collection processes implemented by the EU at its external borders. He had spent many months in Lesvos and then in Athens volunteering for an NGO.

It was also how he had managed to come back, through IOM’s so-called voluntary return scheme. He was very aware of the functioning of the various databases and systems of control that he would have to navigate should he decide to return. Because the question of return is always open in the unsettled life he is living, where the place he called home no longer exists due to urbanization and environmental degradation.

Knowing how the systems of control work, he was also confident in his own capacity to find a way through by mobilizing the opacity that is the gift a racialized world offers to those who are seen as an undifferentiated mass. As I have been told on several occasions, the trick is not to feed your fingerprints or eyeprints into biometric screening machines, because (human) border guards, devoid of this technological assistance, are unlikely to remember you or recognize your face. Combined with desperate tactics such as burning your own fingerprints, return is always possible so long as the network of relations built during these difficult journeys is kept alive.

Those who have chosen aggenty as their line of work are contributing to keeping borders open even as the only way they can do this is through remaining within the violence of borders and of often perpetuating said violence; the stories of the ruthlessness of Punjab’s agents are many and harrowing.

Towards repair – and self-repair

As this short account of colonial economics, the legislative aftermath of imperial worldviews and the violence of racialized borders shows, there is – at least as yet – no ‘after’ to extractivism. There is only the aftermath that many people across the world are inhabiting, which is a very different place altogether. The climate catastrophe has already arrived some time ago in those places that have had no part in producing the emissions that have led us to where we are today, and it is resulting in the large scale displacement of people.

Despite the hysteria of Western mass media regarding a “loss of control,” the borders of Europe and of other northern countries are closed. The vast majority of displaced people are moving within localized regions. And the reality of migration is one of the intensification of regional movements and the internal displacement of people within national borders. This is resulting in the emergence of new internal borders as territories and resources shrink.

In Pakistan we can already observe a divide between the cities that have escaped much of the flood related devastation, and the rural communities that have lost everything. Without northern states and their citizens acknowledging their complicity in the destruction of worlds and lives and paying their debts, there is not much hope for anyone. Such an acknowledgment begins with reparations that can lead to repair, the repair of our broken planet, the repair of ecologies and lives, and the remaking of economic systems along equitable lines. However, perhaps most urgently of all, a self-repair is necessary that allows us to acknowledge our own complicities, whatever they maybe.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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