Monthly Archives: May 2013

Canada’s culture of mean: Beating up on refugees

Matthew Behrens

| May 21, 2013

Photo: GRC-RCMP/ Frontière-Border/flickr

Toronto’s legendary refugee rights lawyer Barb Jackman has a unique way of framing issues at their most human level, an art often lost by those who spend their lives in courts and immigration tribunals fighting for their clients’ right not to be deported to torture and other cruelties. Testifying recently before a Senate committee on a repressive piece of deportation legislation, Jackman aptly summed up the mean political culture that increasingly grips the land.

Bill C-43 (a.k.a., most inappropriately, the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act) could be called the double punishment bill, because that’s essentially what it does: individuals without full citizenship status in Canada not only face a sentence if criminally convicted, but automatic deportation following that, without ministerial discretion to examine the context of the conviction and the severe consequences of forced removal on individuals, families and communities.

“Taking away humanitarian discretion, which we have never not had, is a fundamental change in the way we look at non-citizens,” Jackman told the Senate. “I believe there should have been a national debate about whether or not we want to go there in terms of being a mean, petty, disgusting country.”

C-43 removes from a whole class of people access to the immigration appeal division and, in a masterstroke of fundamental unfairness, also applies retroactively to permanent residents who’ve served sentences of over six months that predate the new legislation. Hence, someone who has a criminal conviction from 15 years ago may now be uprooted from their family and deported without access to any kind of appeal. Pre-C-43, if the sentence was 2 years less a day, one could appeal for discretionary relief from a deportation order. But if the sentence was 2 years or over, even by a day, that appeal disappeared. Under C-43, the benchmark is reduced to a six-month sentence, and applies retroactively to someone who, when they negotiated a sentence, thought they would have access to an appeal if facing deportation.

The issue was explored in the Supreme Court’s Pham decision earlier this year, in which an individual who seems to have been caught up in circumstances beyond his control was sentenced to two years behind bars, removing the possibility that he could appeal to the Minister to consider the context of his case and humanitarian reasons for allowing him to stay. The Supreme Court reduced his sentence by one day so that Pham could have access to a deportation appeal; C-43 removes that possibility.

Destroying lives under C-43

The Canadian Bar Association’s Gordon Maynard provided numerous examples to Senators of folks whose lives will be destroyed under the new legislation. For example, “a permanent resident in Canada since 11 years of age, here for 20 years, with parents here and siblings, married with children but suffering from alcoholism and mental illness, loses his employment, falls into substance abuse and engages in petty frauds and credit card thefts. He is convicted of his first criminal offences in Alberta; he is given a six-month sentence. By Bill C-43, there is no review of his circumstances upon issuance of a deportation order. His time in Canada, his illnesses, his family and his lack of any prior record will not be considered. There is no appeal to the appeal division.”

A Canadian citizen facing the same circumstances would only be punished once and, perhaps, be directed towards help for mental illness and addiction issues. Not so for the permanent resident or refugee. Maynard posed another possibility, whereby a  “Mr. Singh, a permanent resident in Canada, is vacationing in Hawaii. While socializing in a bar, there is a racial insult, an argument and a fight. He punches someone in the nose; it is a good punch. He is arrested and appears before a judge the next day. Mr. Singh does not want to spend his time in Hawaii fighting a charge that he does not believe he is guilty of, but he pleads guilty to go home. He pleads guilty to assault causing bodily harm and pays a $200 fine. He is released and allowed to return to Canada…. It is a conviction outside of Canada for an offence in Canada that is classified as serious. It does not matter what penalty he got. Under Bill C-43, when he is issued a deportation order, there is no review in the appeal division.”

Criminal lawyers point out that the new legislation will likely cram the already overcrowded prison systems with permanent residents who are fearful that taking a conditional sentence in the community will harm their chances of staying in Canada. Indeed, conditional sentences for minor offences tend to be longer than those behind bars, but if a conditional sentence is over six months, that is a ticket to deportation; a four-month jail term may be sought instead, increasing the cost of punishment and also blocking the individual from community programs.

Who does this legislation most affect? Not ‘foreign’ criminals

While Immigration Minister Jason Kenney crows from atop his deportation perch that this legislation is necessary, those most affected are not “foreign” criminals but rather long-time residents who have made mistakes but, because of their status in Canada, face far greater consequences than those born here, with no right of appeal. They are not alone. The legislation stretches into the Twilight Zone by nailing individuals who are only suspected of having committed an offence outside of Canada — no actual proof of conviction required — with no chance to review the CBSA officer’s decision.

In a shout-out to CSIS, Canada’s scandal-ridden spy agency, C-43 also requires that individuals applying for citizenship attend a mandatory interrogation, in which they must answer all questions “for the purposes of an investigation,” a significant change from the current requirement, which limits the need of the interviewee to answer questions to those that are “reasonably required.” Canadian citizens can refuse to answer questions from CSIS; but refugees and permanent residents are losing any wiggle room, exposing them to a grilling that, should they fail to co-operate in a broad-ranging questioning that may have nothing to do with their application (a common enough practice as it is), will result in a failure to pass security screening.

In yet another example of officially legalizing what has been a standard practice of Mr. Kenney’s (such as in the high-profile case rejecting entry of British MP George Galloway), the Minister under C-43 can deny entry to Canada to anyone for a period of three years based on undefined “public policy grounds.” The Canadian Bar Association condemns this as an unprecedented Ministerial power that “invites arbitrary application and abuse. It is repugnant to the fundamental principles of Canadian democracy and the freedoms protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The lack of accountability and the vague criteria would allow Ministers who may so choose, to deny entry to persons whose views are unpopular or simply objectionable to the government of the day.”

Televising Canada’s culture of meanness

While the new law — which passed the Senate committee last week without amendment and is up for third reading later this month — will likely be the subject of litigation, another exercise of this government’s culture of meanness ran into rough waters earlier this year when a grassroots campaign was brilliantly organized to end the exploitation of some very vulnerable souls.

Readers may recall the high-profile arrest of a group of B.C. workers that was filmed by the reality TV program Border Security, a Force Four “entertainment” enterprise airing on National Geographic TV. While in detention, the arrestees had waivers placed in front of them, demanding they sign away their right to privacy so the show could air their arrests, interrogations and deportations.

Based on a highly rated Australian show that, according to unclassified memos sent to the Canadian Border services Agency (CBSA) minister, “reinforces main compliance messages,” Border Security was recommended as a good investment for the federal government, especially since the U.S. Customs and Border Protection also pursues “a robust program to engage the film and television industry.” That’s how the CBSA became a television producer.

Like the 1976 satire on news media, Network, whose corporate executives hire armed groups to film themselves while engaging in bank robberies and other headline-grabbing events in order to boost ratings, Border Security has a built-in incentive to produce dramatic events that will draw viewers. Indeed, the CBSA calls itself “de facto executive production authorities and, as such, would identify scenarios, sites and storylines, as well as provide active engagement in, as well as oversight and control of, all film shoots.”

CBSA’s history of using migrants as fodder for attention

This is not the first time CBSA has used migrants as fodder for attention. Its notorious “Wanted by the CBSA” website maligned dozens of individuals by posting their pictures and describing them as war criminals, among other disparaging terms. Follow-up to that campaign resulted in a September 11, 2012 CBSA memo from agency vice-president Pierre Sabourin, who advised that his website would “feature a minimum of 35 individuals who will be continuously refreshed and updated with cases from the CBSA immigration warrant inventory.”

Notably missing in that memo was the human element of wrongly named individuals whose privacy is obliterated, and whose safety is put in serious jeopardy if they are in fact arrested and deported with the “national security” label strapped across their CBSA mug shot. No, they are merely part of the CBSA’s collateral damage inventory, people whose lives have no meaning other than as tools for carrying out their propaganda campaign either on websites or TV programs.

Like CBC or NBC executives considering their fall lineup of comedies and police dramas, the CBSA was faced with a conundrum, concluding there just aren’t enough alleged threats out there to keep the most-wanted program continually refreshed. As a result, “a proposal for the expansion” of the program’s criteria was said to be forthcoming. Shortly afterward, CBSA decided to both expand the criteria for inclusion on the Most Wanted list while dropping the inventory from 35 to 20. The briefing note does acknowledge, in one of those bureaucratic sops to that archaic notion of presuming innocence, that including the wider net of cases on the website may “be perceived negatively by the public as these individuals have not yet been determined to be inadmissible to Canada.”

The solution to this lack of inventory likely feeds into Border Security, where CBSA control of storylines could contribute to a greater public involvement in the Most Wanted program, noting, “Communications is exploring additional avenues to generate additional public interest and exposure to the ‘Wanted by the CBSA’ program, including pro-active media releases.”

While the CBSA’s most-wanted program is facing lawsuits and privacy complaints (forcing the agency to perhaps reconsider the use of such inflammatory labels as war criminal), its biggest concession to public pressure was the response to the Deportation is Not Entertainment campaign, which rallied thousands to decry the abuse of migrants for entertainment purposes. The agency will not air footage from the original immigration enforcement raid (though numerous of the detainees have since been deported), and CBSA seems slightly humbled. But the offensive program remains on the air, and efforts to derail it continue.

Meantime, it is never too late for Canadians to ask themselves just how mean, petty, and disgusting they are prepared to let things get. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in grassroots efforts to reverse the tide.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.

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Another Flat-Earth Argument About Immigration’s Economic Drain

Photo: Erin Zipper

The stodgy conservatives over at the Heritage Foundation released a long-expected report today that blasts immigration reform as an economic drain. The report, which is expected to be influential among conservative legislators, comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins work on its massive reform bill this week. A similar Heritage report is credited with helping to derail a previous reform effort, in 2006.

The paper is authored by Robert Rector, who came to fame as a key conservative thinker during the 1996 dismantling of family welfare, and his colleague Jason Richwine. The two claim that the “net increased fiscal costs generated by amnesty”—by which they mean the 13-year path to citizenship in the Senate bill—will cost $6.3 trillion in benefits and services for legalized immigrants over the next 50 years.

Put simply, the Heritage Foundation’s report is misleading. It focuses only on what the government spends in services and programs, minus what immigrants pay in taxes, while ignoring the vast economic contributions of immigrant communities. Nearly every independent analysis shows that immigration and immigration reform bring net economic growth. Rather than acknowledge this reality, the Heritage report reinforces a familiar trope about people of color as “takers,” a cultural rather than economic argument that conservatives have consistently invoked when trying to cut safety net programs.

A Flawed Analysis

There are lots of problems with the report. But quickly, here’s their claim. Because most newly legalized immigrants are low-income, legalization will cost the government $6.3 trillion more in benefits and services than newly legalized immigrants will pay in taxes over the next five decades. The bulk of that spending, they say, is on public education, the safety net, social security and health care. They’re most concerned with paying for school for kids and social security for aging immigrants.

Without digging into whether those calculations are right on their face, the report misses most of the story about immigrants’ relationship to the economy. As with anyone, immigrant communities’ economic impact is more than just how much any given family receives in benefits minus how much we pay in taxes. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office plans to use a so-called dynamic scoring method when it analyzes the immigration bill.

As the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews writes:

They also assume [immigration reform has] no other economic impact of any kind. That’s so implausible that even the CBO, which is famously conservative with regards to incorporating economic effects of policies, took direct economic effects of adding people to the workforce into account when evaluating the 2006-7 reform bill. They found that legalization, even paired with increased border security spending, would mildly cut the deficit over 10 years, by about $12 billion.

The CBO plans a similar analysis this year.

Even some on the right side of the GOP challenge the Heritage methodology. Sen. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said in a statement, “The Congressional Budget Office has found that fixing our broken immigration system could help our economy grow. A proper accounting of immigration reform should take into account these dynamic effects.”

Missing The Point

The Heritage report accurately notes that CBO analyses look only 10 years into the future, which means it won’t account for additional benefits that that these immigrants will be eligible for if they become citizens. Immigrants on the 10-year provisional path to citizenship will be denied access to all government programs, including Obamacare healthcare exchanges. But existing research on immigration suggests that legalization provides a boon to the economy in the long term by increasing immigrants’ economic prospects in the future.

Take this research from the Immigration Policy Center on the 1986 immigration reform legislation. Rector and Richwine claim that immigrants are a drain because in aggregate those who are given legal status will remain poor and uneducated. But the IPC analysis finds precisely the opposite to be true. In the years after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act:

the educational attainment of IRCA immigrants increased substantially, their poverty rates fell dramatically, and their home ownership rates improved tremendously. Moreover, their real wages rose, many of them moved into managerial positions, and the vast majority did not depend upon public assistance.

And immigrants tend to stimulate the economy by starting businesses. Here’s what the Brookings Institutehas to say:

immigrants are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than U.S.-born citizens…Such investments in new businesses and in research may provide spillover benefits to U.S.-born workers by enhancing job creation and by increasing innovation among their U.S.-born peers.

The same is true for of immigrants who don’t have lots of education, especially at the local level where immigration has for years been “revitalizing small-town America once plagued with a shrinking tax base and dim prospects for economic growth,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Here’s another problem with the report. The research lists public education as the most costly part of government spending on immigrant families—$13,000 of the annual $24,000 the authors say taxpayers spend on a family. That’s an absurd thing to be upset about. Education for all Americans is expensive, but it’s an investment in our collective future. Moreover, the majority of the kids in question were born here in the United States. They’re not immigrants at all, according to our Constitution.

If you want to read a filing cabinet full of studies on the positive economic impact of immigration reform, check out this Immigration Policy Center fact sheet.

But facts aren’t the point of the Heritage study. The point is to provide an escape hatch for Republicans who oppose the broadly popular legislation. Yesterday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told the NY Times he hoped to hold the bill up in committee long enough for it to die. “The longer this legislation is available for public review, the worse it’s going to be perceived,” he said Monday. “The longer it lays out there, the worse it’s going to smell.” As Senators propose amendments this week, don’t be surprised to see lawmakers, including those who oppose reform outright, citing the Heritage Foundation in an effort to stench up the room.

From colorlines

Quelling xenophobia in South Africa’s townships

Abdullahi Wehliye’s shop in Philippi has been robbed seven times since 2010

PHILIPPI, 14 May 2013 (IRIN) – This week marks five years since tensions between foreigners and South Africans living in impoverished communities across the country erupted in xenophobic violence, leaving more than 60 people dead and tens of thousands displaced, their homes and businesses robbed and abandoned. 

Since May 2008, various initiatives have been established to detect early warning signs of future xenophobic attacks and to improve responses. But while no further outbreaks have occurred on the scale of the violence five years ago, attacks on foreign nationals have continued. On average, one person was killed every week in 2011, according to the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA).

The looting and victimization of foreigners has also remained a feature of the frequent service delivery protests that have rocked South African townships in recent years, as has the near impunity of perpetrators.

In a statement released on 13 May, CoRMSA concluded that “much more still needs to be done to promote peaceful communities”.

Tensions high

Philippi Township, 25km southeast of Cape Town, has been a hotspot for xenophobic violence in Western Cape Province post-2008. In an area where nearly 60 percent of residents are unemployed, according to census data, Ward Counsellor Thobile Gqola, estimated that foreign nationals run more than half of businesses.

“Generally, people are happy to live side-by-side; the problem starts when it comes to business,” he told IRIN.

Most of the violence has been directed at Somali refugees who run many of the small grocery stores known as ‘spaza’ shops in the township. Like many other Somali traders in Philippi, Abdullahi Wehliye, 28, opened a shop there after losing his shop in neighbouring Khayelitsha Township during the 2008 xenophobic violence.

“I lost everything; I had to start over,” he told IRIN as he served customers through a metal grill, a security precaution that has done little to protect him from crime.

Wehliye said his shop had been robbed seven times since it opened in 2010. During one incident in 2012, his brother was shot and killed. Although he reported all of the robberies, no arrests have been made. Of 60 Somali shopkeepers in the area, who have formed an association that Wehliye chairs, all have had their shops robbed and the vast majority have experienced shootings, Wehliye said.

A 2012 study by Vanya Gastrow and Roni Amit, of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, found that Somali-run shops suffered disproportionately from crime, including attacks orchestrated by competing South African traders. Their vulnerability to such attacks was found to be partly the result of their lack of access to informal justice mechanisms and community structures.

In township settings, noted the researchers, leaders of local street committees, most of which fall under the authority of the South African National Civic Association (SANCO), often play a more important role in responding to crime than the formal justice system.

“People in townships still respect their ‘chiefs’,” said Charles Mutabazi, director of the Agency for Refugee Education, Skills, Training and Advocacy (ARESTA), a Cape Town-based NGO.

Peace monitoring, community building

ARESTA partnered with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to start a project in Philippi in 2012 that identified 20 community leaders in each of the townships’ five wards and trained them to be “peace monitors”. The three-day training included mediation and conflict-resolution skills as well as information about the rights of migrants and refugees.

“There’s a lot of conflict here,” said Vra Mdledle, a SANCO member and secretary to a ward counsellor who went through the training last year. “When you’re in SANCO, they don’t give you training, they just nominate you. ARESTA gave us skills we could use in our communities.”

She gave the example of a Somali shopkeeper in her area who had recently experienced an arson attack. Following a similar attack last year, he alleged that local police had pressured him to drop the case.

“I called all the peace monitors, and we decided to accompany him to the police station,” said Mdledle. “We asked to see the station commissioner and demanded that the previous case be reopened. I saw the police are not really doing their job.”

Although the focus of the project is to promote diversity and quell xenophobic tensions, the peace monitors do not limit themselves to advocating for foreign nationals. Locals also suffer as a result of police negligence, said Mdledle, and there are many situations that demand conflict-resolution skills in this densely populated township.

Voyiseka Nzuzo, 24, who went through the ARESTA training in February, said peace monitors in her area had recently intervened after the family of a nine-year-old rape victim beat and stabbed a man they believed to be the perpetrator. “We found that the child had pointed out five different people. We went to the police station and tried to convince the case investigator they had the wrong suspect,” she told IRIN.

Peace monitor, Lufefe Mdunyelwa in his barber shop

As the owner of a barber shop with foreign customers and the founder of a local business association that includes South Africans and migrants, Lefefe Mdunyelwa said he already had friends from other countries before he became a peace monitor, but that he still learned a lot from the training. “I learned that each and every person is just living for themselves; nobody’s trying to steal your business,” he told IRIN.

Noticing that the foreign members of his association were often discriminated against when it came to the issuing of business permits and the charging of rent by municipal officials, he said his association is now advocating for equal treatment.

Although ARESTA has made efforts to include members of Philippi’s Somali community in the peace monitor training and quarterly peace marches, Mutabazi said participation had been disappointing.

Wehliye, who is one of eight Somalis to have gone through the training, said language remained a barrier, and Gqola, the ward councillor, said foreign nationals often stayed away from meetings aimed at facilitating dialogue between local and foreign business owners because they felt intimidated.

Wehliye said he signed up for the training because “after we’d been robbed so many times, I wanted to know what rights I had. I learned I had the same rights [to justice] as local people. I feel empowered.”

Becoming a peace monitor has also brought him into contact with local leaders whom he works with to resolve conflicts. “I now feel like a member of the community,” he told IRIN.

Mutabazi said the success of the peace monitor project lay in its emphasis on changing the mindset of influential community leaders. Whether it will be rolled out in other townships will depend on funding, but Mutabazi is convinced that the value of the training has been tested.

“It’s empowering [participants] to be better community leaders. If we’re leaving that kind of legacy behind, it’s very good for promoting social cohesion.”


Milagros for Migrants exhibit by Deborah Barndt & Min Sook Lee in Toronto Mayworks Festival – May 13-17

Honouring Ontario’s Farm Workers

Milagros for Migrants is a multi-media exhibit that explores the relationship between food and labour justice and places migrant workers’ issues in the broader context of global corporate agriculture.

By: Artist/Activists Min Sook Lee (CAP Coordinator and instructor) Deborah Barndt

On display during this years Mayworks Festival –

May 13th – 17th, 2013

Ryerson University, Oakham House
63 Gould Street
First Floor – Room G

large deb poster 1

large deb poster 2


Margaret Cho, Alice Walker and 100 More Artists Call for Humane Immigration Reform

From colorlines

by Julianne Hing, Wednesday, May 8 2013, 1:05 PM EST

Artwork by Ray Hernandez

On Tuesday more than 100 artists, comedians, writers and musicians issued a statement calling on Congress and President Obama to pass humane, inclusive and just immigration reform.

The signers, whose statement is available at, say immigration reform must include five basics:

End the detentions and deportations that cause separation and suffering for families; Preserve families by expediting the visa process and retaining longstanding policies that reunite and stabilize families; Ensure all immigrants have basic workers’ rights; Provide equal immigration rights to LGBTQ individuals and families; and Create a clear roadmap to citizenship that includes all 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Because, they contend, “Migration is natural and beautiful. The human truth is that all people move, and all people have rights. Creating a just and humane immigration process is a moral and cultural imperative that secures the future of a vibrant nation.” Their calls come just as the Senate is taking up its immigration bill.

Take a look at the list of supporters in full; it’s a who’s who of smart artists. Novelists Ha Jin and Teju Cole support humane immigration policy. As do filmmakers Mira Nair and Robert Redford, along with comedians Negin Farsad and Margaret Cho, and actors Rosario Dawson, Blythe Danner and Alfre Woodard. Who wouldn’t want to be in such good company?

To kick off the campaign, which is a collaboration between The Culture Group, Air Traffic Control, and CultureStrike, artists Favianna Rodriguez, Ray Hernandez, Julio Salgado and Jason Carne created images with the campaign’s signature butterfly attached to it. Check out their work below:

by Favianna Rodriguez

by Jason Carne

by Julio Salgado

by Ray Hernandez

To and from persecution: LGBTI refugees in Africa

Refugees and asylum seekers face a host of challenges when crossing borders, but the obstacles are particularly pronounced for LGBTI persons.

08 MAY 2013 11:42 – KYLE KNIGHT Mail & Guardiandownload

“LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex] asylum seekers and refugees face a range of threats, risks and vulnerabilities throughout the displacement cycle,” said Volker Türk, director of international protection at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

“And while the world has come a long way since first recognising asylum claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the 1980s, residual factors ranging from criminalisation to disbelief result in LGBTI people suffering at the hands of a variety of actors as they flee oppression and seek safety,” he said.

A new edition of the Forced Migration Review (FMR) released on April 29 highlights many of the remaining challenges for LGBTI migrants and asylum seekers.

According to UNHCR, targeting people based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity for persecution, discrimination, and harassment can stem from the belief that they are encouraging unwanted or unnatural social change.

LGBTI people leave home for the same reasons as everyone else: to flee war, persecution, and oppression; to seek stability, education, employment, and freedom.

In situations of upheaval or conflict, sexual and gender minorities have become targets for scapegoating or “moral cleansing” campaigns, compounding the inherent vulnerability created by unrest, activists say.

LGBTI persecution
LGBTI people experience torture, violence, discrimination, and persecution in countries around the world, sometimes deliberately carried out by the state and often conducted with impunity.

Homosexual acts are punishable with the death penalty in five countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen), as well as some parts of Nigeria and Somalia, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, the oldest and only membership-based LGBTI organisation in the world, reported in 2012.

According to research by Human Rights Watch, gay Iranians are fleeing, frequently to Turkey, due to the state-sponsored persecution they face at home, while thousands of LGBTI people have sought international protection in Europe in recent years on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

And while few countries keep LGBTI-specific data, Norway and Belgium, which both track asylum decisions based on sexual orientation and gender identity, have shown a steady uptick in recent years.

From 2008-2010, LGBTI asylum decisions in Belgium increased from 226-522.

During the same period in Norway they increased from 3-26.

But information about abuses against LGBTI people – called “Country of Origin Information” (COI) in the asylum process – can be scant in hostile countries, argued Christian Pangilinan, a Tanzania-based refugee lawyer cited in the Forced Migration Review (FMR).

For transgender people, COI can mislead agencies, such as in Iran where authorities “allow transsexual surgery as a forced method of preventing homosexuality rather than supporting trans identities,” according to a gender expert’s FMR chapter.

Crossing borders of geography and identity
The multiple document checks migrants might encounter can be particularly difficult for transgender or gender-variant people.

While international standards for travel documents officially recognise three genders – marked M, F, or X – only a handful of countries have incorporated the third category, meaning that high-security travel environments, such as airports or emergency residential camps, can threaten humiliation or exclusion to people whose gender identity or expression is different from what is indicated by their documents.

Sexuality and gender are nuanced personal matters.

According to research by psychologists, some individuals may have had limited experience expressing or experiencing his or her deeply-felt sexual orientation or gender identity, and may outwardly appear very different than how he or she feels – to the extent of even being in a heterosexual relationship.

With the asylum process taking increasingly extended periods of time, some may start the migration or asylum process with one identity, and change over time, complicating the matter both personally and administratively and exposing the individual to further discrimination or ill-treatment.

UNHCR’s guidelines for claims to refugee status based on sexual orientation and gender identity take the progressive step of acknowledging that “sexual orientation and gender identity are broad concepts which create space for self-identification” which may “continue to evolve across a person’s lifetime”.

Nonetheless, according to UN Office of Drugs and Crime guidelines, discriminatory attitudes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity can mean the credibility of LGBTI people is dismissed by authorities.

“That no one should be compelled to hide, change or renounce his or her identity in order to avoid persecution is a central tenet of refugee law, and this applies to sexual orientation and gender identity on equal footing with other claims,” UNHCR’s Türk told IRIN.

“There is no space for decision-makers determining refugee status to expect them to conceal who they are.”

Safety and security 
“There is harassment in the camp against us, sometimes beatings,” said Yoman Rai, a 19-year-old Bhutanese refugee living in a camp in Nepal.

“We have a protection unit and complaint mechanism, but we are still facing problems,” he said, adding that just last month a transgender woman was beaten by other people in the camp.

Security in refugee camps is complicated and contingent on numerous, unpredictable factors.

For members of the LGBTI community, vulnerabilities are exacerbated.

Sexual abuse is common, but often goes unreported because the right questions are not being asked, and because survivors of sexual violence are reluctant to report events that will “out” them to legal authorities.

Life can be particularly difficult in a refugee camp (David Swanson, IRIN)

Life can be particularly difficult in a refugee camp Explained Rai: “Many Bhutanese are not `out’ to anyone except for the outreach workers because they still believe being LGBTI will put them in danger and negatively affect their resettlement process,” adding that the outreach educators’ network was operated by a Nepalese LGBTI rights NGO.

Emergency shelter settings – such as relief camps or refugee housing – pose specific challenges for transgender people.

Access to male-female gender-segregated facilities, such as dormitories or bathrooms, can be perilous.

New research is exploring how immigration detention centres can respect and protect LGBTI residents, a US-based prisons expert explained in FMR.

For LGBTI migrants who end up in urban areas, research has shown that cities can be unwelcoming and unfamiliar and access to basic social services limited by scant local resources, exclusion of foreigners, or limitations to access including finances, language, and cultural barriers.

“The single most threatening factor for these migrants is isolation,” said Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organisation for Refugee Asylum and Migration (ORAM), a leading advocacy group for refugees fleeing persecution due to sexual orientation or gender identity.

With UNHCR data showing the average major refugee situation lasting 17 years, these circumstances can impinge on a significant portion of an individual’s life.

Migrant populations are generally more at-risk for HIV due to disruption and displacement, and according to UNAIDS are often overlooked in host-country HIV policies.

“It is critical that refugee organisations identify what the best ways of offering protection are, such as providing access to safe shelter, requesting expedited resettlement, and, if possible, working with the police and refugee communities to address specific threats of violence,” said Duncan Breen, a senior associate in the refugee protection programme at Human Rights First.

Evolving frameworks 
Recent UN reports and statements demonstrate increased international attention to the human rights of LGBTI people.

On the programme level, agencies have begun to adjust to include considerations of sexual orientation and gender identity.

For example, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is implementing a “safe space” project for refugees at its four US Refugee Admissions Program Resettlement Support Centers.

Jennifer Rumbach, IOM resettlement support centre manager for South Asia, told IRIN the programme is designed to help LGBTI refugees at “every step along the way – whether during counselling, interviews, orientations, travel, or post-arrival … “Disclosing sexual orientation and gender identity overseas works to the refugees’ benefit because it ensures we can provide appropriate and respectful services, ask questions that are critical to their resettlement experience, and try to get them any special help they need while they wait to be resettled,” she explained.

But ORAM’s Grungras warned: “We have to be extra careful to talk with refugees and migrants on their own terms – to understand them as they understand themselves, and not label them as “LGBTI” just because it fits our programmes.

” In spite of challenges such as a dearth of respectful terms used in some languages referring to sexual and gender minorities, IOM’s programmes also attempt to engage with local terminology.

“While it’s important for staff to understand sexual orientation and gender identity terms used by the international community, we make special efforts to use relevant and respectful local terminology in our signs, handouts and interview and counselling scripts,” said Rumbach.

Supporting and protecting LGBTI people as they migrate requires nuance, sensitivity, and an appreciation of evolving identities, legal frameworks, and programmatic potential. – IRIN


America’s first climate refugees

Newtok, Alaska is losing ground to the sea at a dangerous rate and for its residents, exile is inevitable.
By Suzanne Goldenberg in Newtok, Alaska

What is a climate refugee?

The immediate image that comes to mind of “climate refugees” is people of small tropical islands in the Pacific or of a low-lying delta like in Bangladesh, where inhabitants have been forced out of their homes by sea-level rise.

The broader phenomenon is usually taken to be people displaced from their homes by the impact of a changing climate – although the strict definition of a refugee in international law is more narrow including people displaced by war, violence or persecution, but not environmental changes.

With climate change occurring rapidly in the far north, where temperatures are warming faster than the global average, the typical picture of the climate refugee is set to become more diverse. Sea ice is in retreat, the permafrost is melting, bringing the effects of climate change in real time to residents of the remote villages of Alaska.

These villages, whose residents are nearly all native Alaskans, are already experiencing the flooding and erosion that are the signature effects of climate change in Alaska. The residents of a number of villages – including Newtok – are now actively working to leave their homes and the lands they have occupied for centuries and move to safer locations.

Unlike those in New Orleans forced to leave their homes because of hurricane Katrina, their exile is not set in motion by a single cataclysmic event. Climate change in Alaska is a slow-moving disaster. But its effects are already very real for the native Alaskans who will be America’s first climate refugees.

Sabrina Warner keeps having the same nightmare: a huge wave rearing up out of the water and crashing over her home, forcing her to swim for her life with her toddler son.

“I dream about the water coming in,” she said. The landscape in winter on the Bering Sea coast seems peaceful, the tidal wave of Warner’s nightmare trapped by snow and several feet of ice. But the calm is deceptive. Spring break-up will soon restore the Ninglick River to its full violent force.

In the dream, Warner climbs on to the roof of her small house. As the waters rise, she swims for higher ground: the village school which sits on 20-foot pilings.

Even that isn’t high enough. By the time Warner wakes, she is clinging to the roof of the school, desperate to be saved.

Warner’s vision is not far removed from a reality written by climate change. The people of Newtok, on the west coast of Alaska and about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the state from Russia, are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, very possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away.

The Ninglick River coils around Newtok on three sides before emptying into the Bering Sea. It has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 100ft or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave, becoming America’s first climate change refugees.

It is not a label or a future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup’ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands.

But exile is undeniable. A report by the US Army Corps of Engineers predicted that the highest point in the village – the school of Warner’s nightmare – could be underwater by 2017. There was no possible way to protect the village in place, the report concluded.

If Newtok can not move its people to the new site in time, the village will disappear. A community of 350 people, nearly all related to some degree and all intimately connected to the land, will cease to exist, its inhabitants scattered to the villages and towns of western Alaska, Anchorage and beyond.

It’s a choice confronting more than 180 native communities in Alaska, which are flooding and losing land because of the ice melt that is part of the changing climate.

The Arctic Council, the group of countries that governs the polar regions, are gathering in Sweden today. But climate change refugees are not high on their agenda, and Obama administration officials told reporters on Friday there would be no additional money to help communities in the firing line.

On the other side of the continent, the cities and towns of the east coast are waking up to their own version of Warner’s nightmare: the storm surges demonstrated by hurricane Sandy. About half of America’s population lives within 50 miles of a coastline. Those numbers are projected to grow even more in the coming decades.

What chance do any of those communities, in Alaska or on the Atlantic coast, have of a fair and secure future under climate change, if a tiny community like Newtok – just 63 houses in all – cannot be assured of survival?

But as the villagers of Newtok are discovering, recognising the gravity of the threat posed by climate change and responding in time are two very different matters.

Remote location


Newtok lies 480 miles due west of Anchorage. The closest town of any size, the closest doctor, gas station, or paved road, is almost 100 miles away.

The only year-round link to the outside world is via a small propeller plane from the regional hub of Bethel.

The seven-seater plane flies over a landscape that seems pancake flat under the snow: bright white for land, slightly translucent swirls for frozen rivers. There are no trees.

The village as seen from the air is a cluster of almost identical small houses, plopped down at random on the snow. The airport is a patch of cement newly swept of snow, marked off for the pilot by a circle of orange traffic cones. The airport manager runs the luggage into the centre of the village on a yellow sledge attached to his snowmobile.

Like many if not most native Alaskan villages, Newtok owes its location to a distant bureaucrat. The Yup’iks, who had lived in these parts of Alaska for hundreds of years, had traditionally used the area around present-day Newtok as a seasonal stopping-off place, convenient for late summer berry picking.

Even then, their preferred encampment, when they passed through the area, was a cluster of sod houses called Kayalavik, some miles further up river. But over the years, the authorities began pushing native Alaskans to settle in fixed locations and to send their children to school.

It was difficult for supply barges to manoeuvre as far up river as Kayalavik. After 1959, when Alaska became a state, the new authorities ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point.


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It takes two hours from Anchorage to fly to Bethel and another 90 minutes in a smaller plane that stops in villages on the way, to reach Newtok.Photograph: Richard Sprenger

That became Newtok. Current state officials admit the location – on low-lying mud flats between the river and the Bering Sea – was far from perfect. It certainly wasn’t chosen with a view to future threats such as climate change.

“The places are often where they are because it was easy to unload the building materials and build the school and the post office there,” said Larry Hartig, who heads the state’s Commission on Environmental Conservation. “But they weren’t the ideal place to be in terms of long-term stability and it’s now creating a lot of problems that are exacerbated by melting permafrost and less of the seasonal sea ice that would form barriers between the winter storms and uplands.”

It became clear by the 1990s that Newtok – like dozens of other remote communities in Alaska – was losing land at a dangerous rate. Almost all native Alaskan villages are located along rivers and sea coasts, and almost all are facing similar peril.

Alaskan villages are at risk because of climate change
million could be the full cost of moving just the one village, Newtok
Source: US GAO

federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages – or 86% of all native communities – were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening.

study by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the effects of climate change on native Alaskan villages, the one that predicted the school would be underwater by 2017, found no remedies for the loss of land in Newtok.

The land was too fragile and low-lying to support sea walls or other structures that could keep the water out, the report said, adding that if the village did not move, the land would eventually be overrun with water. People could die.

It was a staggering verdict for Newtok. Some of the village elders remember the upheaval of that earlier move. The villagers were adamant that they take charge of the move this time and remain an intact community – not scatter to other towns.

And so after years of poring over reports, the entire community voted to relocate to higher ground across the river. The decision was endorsed by the state authorities. In December 2007, the village held the first public meeting to plan the move.

The proposed new site for Newtok, voted on by the villagers and approved by government planners, lies only nine miles away, atop a high ridge of dark volcanic rock across the river on Nelson Island. On a good day in winter, it’s a half-hour bone-shaking journey across the frozen Ninglick river by snowmobile.

But the cost of the move could run as high as $130m, according to government estimates. For the villagers of Newtok, finding the cash, and finding their way through the government bureaucracy, is proving the challenge of their lives.

Five years on from that first public meeting, Newtok remains stuck where it was, the peeling tiles and the broken-down office furniture in the council office grown even shabbier, the dilapidated water treatment plant now shut down as a health hazard, an entire village tethered to a dangerous location by bureaucratic obstacles and lack of funds.

Village leaders hope that this coming summer, when conditions become warm enough for construction crews to get to work, could provide the big push Newtok needs by completing the first phase of basic infrastructure. And the effort needs a push. When the autumn storms blow in, the water rises fast.

Changing climate

Climate change remains a politically touchy subject in Alaska. The state owes its prosperity to the development of the vast Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the Arctic Coast.

Even in Newtok, there are some who believe climate change is caused by negative emotions, such as anger, hate and envy. But while some dispute the overwhelming scientific view that climate change is caused primarily by human activities, there is little argument in Alaska about its effects.

Life in the arctic climate

In Newtok, Alaska, almost half of the year the temperature is below freezing.

Today’s forecast – livSource:

The state has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country over the past 60 years. Freeze-up occurs later, snow is wetter and heavier. Wildfires erupt on the tundra in the summer. Rivers rush out to the sea. Moose migrate north into caribou country. Grizzlies mate with polar bear as their ranges overlap.

Even people in their 20s, like Warner and her partner Nathan Tom, can track the changes in their own lifetimes. Tom said the seasons have changed. “The snow comes in a different timing now. The snow disappears way late. That is making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they are starting to lay their eggs when there is still snow and ice and we can’t go and pick them,” Tom said. “It’s changing a lot. It’s real, global warming, it’s real.”

On days when the clouds move in, and the only sound is the crunch of boots on snow and the distant buzzing of snowmobiles, it’s difficult to imagine a world beyond the village, let alone a threat.

But Warner has seen the river rip into land and carry off clumps of earth. “It’s scary thinking about summer coming,” she said. “I don’t know how much more is going to erode – hopefully not as much as last year.”

Warner was raised in Anchorage and Wasilla, mainly by her non-Yup’ik father. But she was introduced to Yup’ik food and Yupi’ik ways by her mother, and she has taken to village life since moving to Newtok in December 2011 to be with Tom.

Even in those short months, she said she can see the changes carved out on the land behind the family home. “When I first got here the land used to be way out there,” she said, pointing towards the west. “Now that doesn’t exist any more. There is no land there any more.”

The river claims more of the village every year. Warmer temperatures are thawing the permafrost on which Newtok is built, and the land surface is no longer stable. The sea ice that protected the village from winter storms is thinning and receding, exposing Newtok to winter storms with 100mph winds and the waves of Warner’s nightmare.

When the wind blows from the east or south, the land falls away even faster. The patch of land where Warner picked last summer to practice shooting was gone, on the other side of a sharp drop-off to the river. “The summer came, 15 or 20ft of land went just from melting, and then after we had those storms in September another 20ft went,” she said. In an average year the river swallows 83ft of land a year, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Some years of course it’s more.

Living on the edge


Erosion is bringing the Ninglick River to Sabrina Warner and Nathan Tom’s doorstep

The reddish-brown house where Tom and Warner live with their son Tyson and elderly relatives is the closest in the village to the Ninglick.

Warner fears her house will soon be swallowed up by that hungry river. “Two more years, that’s what I’m guessing. About two more years until it’s right up to our house,” she said.

The house is now barely 200 paces away from the drop-off point. It’s become a sort of tourist stop for visitors to the village, and an educational aid for teachers at the local school. Last year, one of the teachers set out stakes to mark how fast the river was rising. At least one has already been washed away.

But it won’t be long before nobody in the village is safe. Other homes, once considered well back from the river, now regularly flood.

Over the years the river, in its attack on the land, engulfed a few small ponds – some fresh water, some used as raw sewage dumps – spewing human waste across the village. Last summer it almost carried off a few dumpsters filled with old fridges and computers. It swept away the barge landing, and infested the landfill.

Sometimes, though, the river gives up treasure: villagers walking newly exposed banks have discovered mammoth tusks and fossil remains.

During one storm last autumn, Warner stayed up until 4am, waiting to see if the waves would engulf the house. “I was scared because it looked so close because our window is right there. I was just looking out, and you can see these huge waves come at you,” she said.

It’s not easy living with that fear every day, she concedes. Anxious residents want to know that their future will be safe. They are exhausted by the years of uncertainty and fed up with a village left to decay, with leaders’ energy and every scrap of funding focussed on the relocation.

“Considering that our house is the closest, I would like it if they would at least let us know if we are going to have a house over there [at the new site]”, said Warner. Tom’s grandmother, who needs oxygen, lives with the couple. It would be tough to move her in the event of a disaster, although she claims she is not at all afraid.

The young couple go through times when they can’t deal with the talk of relocation. Tom bought a big tent some time ago and the couple have talked about camping out at the site chosen for the new village, just to get away – from the stress, from the drama of village politics – until things are settled.

But the relocation keeps being put off.

“A few years ago, they said next year. And then last year they said next year. And next year, they are probably going to say next year again,” said Tom. But he soon perks up. The village has sent local men, including Tom, for training as construction workers.

“It’s picking up,” he said. “I’m not afraid any more. The erosion is really fast. I know the state is going to deal with it pretty fast. They are not going to leave us hanging there.”

Thesis Hatement

Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor.


Illustration by Luke Pearson

Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path.


Well, what if I told you that by “five hours” I mean “80 hours,” and by “summers off” I mean “two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning”? What if you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—because, as Ron Rosenbaum pointed out recently, the “dusty seminar rooms” of academia have the chief aim of theorizing every great book to death? And I can’t even tell you what kind of ass you have to kiss these days to get tenure—largely because, like most professors, I’m not on the tenure track, so I don’t know.

Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school, but not, Ron Rosenbaum, because my doctorate ruined books and made me obnoxious. (Granted, maybe it did: My dissertationinvolved subjecting the work of Franz Kafka to first-order logic.) No, I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.

You might think your circumstances will be different. So did I. There’s a little fable from Kafka, appropriately called “A Little Fable,” that speaks to why this was very stupid:

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world gets smaller every day. At first it was so wide that I ran along and was happy to see walls appearing to my right and left, but these high walls converged so quickly that I’m already in the last room, and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run.”

“But you’ve only got to run the other way,” said the cat, and ate it.

The mouse wasn’t going in the wrong direction so much as it was walking cat food the entire time. A graduate career is just like this, only worse, because “A Little Fable” lasts three sentences and is made up, while graduate school lasts at least six years and will ruin your life in a very real way. But, as in the fable, this ruin is predestined, and completely unrelated to how “right” you do things.

Other well-meaning academics have already attempted to warn you, the best-known screed in this subgenre being William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities? Just Don’t Go.”* But this convinced no one. It certainly didn’t convince me! Why? Because Pannapacker is a tenured professor. He pulled it off, so why can’t you? After all, someonehas to get these jobs.

Well, someone also has to not die from small-cell lung cancer to give the disease its 6 percent survival rate, but would you smoke four packs a day with the specific intention of being in that 6 percent? No, because that’s stupid. Well, tenure-track positions in my field have about 150 applicants each. Multiply that 0.6 percent chance of getting any given job by the 10 or so appropriate positions in the entire world, and you have about that same 6 percent chance of “success.” If you wouldn’t bet your life on such ludicrous odds, then why would you bet your livelihood?

Don’t misunderstand me. There is unquantifiable intellectual reward from the exploration of scholarly problems and the expansion of every discipline—yes, even the literary ones, and even if that means doing bat-shit analysis like using the rule of “false elimination” to determine that Josef K. is simultaneously guilty and not guilty in The Trial. But there is one sort of reward you will never get: monetary compensation from a stable, non-penurious position at a decent university.

So you won’t get a tenure-track job. Why should that stop you? You can cradle your new knowledge close, and just go do something else. Great—are you ready to withstand the open scorn of everyone you know? During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.)

When this happens to you—after you have mailed, at your own expense, the required 60-page dossiers to satellite campuses of Midwestern or Southern universities of which you have never heard; after you endure a deafening silence from most of these institutions but then receive hope in the form of a paltry few conference interviews; after you fork out $1,000 to spend your Christmas amid thousands of your competitors at the Modern Language Association convention; after said convention, where you endure tribunal-style interviews in hotel suites where you are often made to perch in your ill-fitting suit on the edge of a bed; after, perhaps, being invited to a callback interview at a remote Midwestern or Southern campus where your entire person will be judged on the basis of two meals and one presentation; after, at the end of all this, they give the job to an inside candidate they were planning to hire all along—when this happens, and it will, it will feel as if the entirety of your human self has been rejected because you are no good at whatever branch of literature-ruining you have chosen.

This is probably not true. On the contrary, you are probably spectacular, due to the manic professionalization of the literary disciplines meant to create Ph.D.s who can compete. Everyone has a book contract, peer-reviewed publications, and stellar teaching evaluations. This was not the case when today’s associate professors were hired in the boom of the late 1990s. But don’t resent them for insisting that it has “always been hard out there”—just let them buy you lunch. You may also be tempted to resent the generation of full professors teetering ever precariously toward retirement, and thus cleaving ever more resolutely to their positions. Leave them alone—they won’t be replaced when they leave anyway; their “tenure lines,” as they are called, will die with them.

No, you will not get a job—not because, like Kafka’s mouse, you went in the “wrong” direction, but because today’s academic job market is a “market” in the sense that one stall selling fiddlehead ferns in the middle of a strip mall is a “farmer’s market.” In the place of actual jobs are adjunct positions: benefit-free, office-free academic servitude in which you will earn $18,000 a year for the rest of your life.

But how did this happen? Colleges and universities have more students than ever—and charge higher tuition than ever—so whither the humanities professorship amid all the resort-like luxury dormitories and gleaming student centers? Is the humanities professorship extinct because at this very second, thousands of parents of wide-eyed college freshmen are discouraging them from taking literature, philosophy, foreign languages or history (the disciplines that comprised a college education in its entirety for thousands of years, but whatever), even though quite unlike humanities Ph.D.s, humanities B.A. degrees are actually among the most hirable? Or is it, as Rosenbaum andothers have suggested, that the overproduction of obtuse torrents of jargon has caused my profession to hasten its own irrelevance?

Who cares? None of this will be sorted out in the five to 10 years it takes you to get a Ph.D. So don’t. Sure, you may be drawn to the advanced study of literature like my late grandmother to her three daily packs of Kools—but in the 1950s, smokers didn’t know any better. In 2005 when I began my own Ph.D., I should have known better, but I didn’t. Now that you know better, will you listen? Or will you think that somehow you can beat odds that would be ludicrous in any other context?

Look, smarty-pants, let me put this in overcomplicated language you can understand: Ludwig Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by proclaiming that anyone who “understood” the work would know to discard everything in it after reading it, to “throw away the ladder” after reaching the top, as it were. But with academia, you don’t need to put yourself through five to 10 years of the hardest work you will ever do, followed by four years (and counting) of rejection and dejection, simply to conclude that the experience was ill-advised. When it comes to graduate school, you should just chuck the ladder before you try to climb it. You’ve only got to run the other way.

Slate  April 5, 2013


Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently recived her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

2013411102316570734_20On April 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that 76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors – an all-time high. Unlike tenured faculty, whose annual salaries can top $160,000, adjunct professors make an average of $2,700 per course and receive no health care or other benefits.

Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse.

No one forces a scholar to work as an adjunct. So why do some of America’s brightest PhDs – many of whom are authors of books and articles on labour, power, or injustice – accept such terrible conditions?

“Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces,” speculates political scientist Steve Saidemen in a post titled “The Adjunct Mystery“. In other words, job candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal – even if this means living, as Saidemen says, like “second-class citizens”. (He later downgraded this to “third-class citizens”.)

With roughly 40 percent of academic positions eliminated since the 2008 crash, most adjuncts will not find a tenure-track job. Their path dependence and sunk costs will likely lead to greater path dependence and sunk costs – and the costs of the academic job market are prohibitive. Many job candidates must shell out thousands of dollars for a chance to interview at their discipline’s annual meeting, usually held in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In some fields, candidates must pay to even see the job listings.

Given the need for personal wealth as a means to entry, one would assume that adjuncts would be even more outraged about their plight. After all, their paltry salaries and lack of departmental funding make their job hunt a far greater sacrifice than for those with means. But this is not the case. While efforts at labour organisation are emerging, the adjunct rate continues to soar – from 68 percent in 2008, the year of the economic crash, to 76 percent just five years later.

Jobs report sees reduction in
US unemployment

Contingency has become permanent, a rite of passage to nowhere.

A two-fold crisis

The adjunct plight is indicative of a two-fold crisis in education and in the American economy. On one hand, we have the degradation of education in general and higher education in particular. It is no surprise that when 76 percent of professors are viewed as so disposable and indistinguishable that they are listed in course catalogues as “Professor Staff”, administrators view computers which grade essaysas a viable replacement. Those who promote inhumane treatment tend to not favour the human.

On the other hand, we have a pervasive self-degradation among low-earning academics – a sweeping sense of shame that strikes adjunct workers before adjunct workers can strike. In a tirade for Slate subtitled “Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”, Rebecca Schuman writes:

“By the time you finish – if you even do – your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you.”

Self-degradation sustains the adjunct economy, and we see echoes of it in journalism, policy and other fields in which unpaid or underpaid labour is increasingly the norm. It is easy to make people work for less than they are worth when they are conditioned to feel worthless.

Thomas A Benton wrote in 2004, before tackling the title question, “Is Graduate School a Cult?”:

“Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realise that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified PhD’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy.”

Benton’s answer is yes, and he offers a list of behaviour controls used by cults – “no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate”, “access to non-cult sources of information minimised or discouraged” – that mirror the practices of graduate school. The author lived as he wrote: it was later revealed that “Thomas A Benton” was a pseudonym used by academic William Pannapacker when he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education – a publication said to employ more pseudonyms than any other American newspaper. The life of the mind is born of fear.

Some may wonder why adjuncts do not get a well-paying non-academic job while they search for a tenure-track position. The answer lies in the cult-like practices Pannapacker describes. To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not “serious” or “dedicated” to scholarship. It does not matter if you are simply too poor to stay: in academia, perseverance is redefined as the ability to suffer silently or to survive on family wealth. As a result, scholars adjunct in order to retain an institutional affiliation, while the institution offers them no respect in return.

Dispensable automatons

Is academia a cult? That is debatable, but it is certainly a caste system. Outspoken academics like Pannapacker are rare: most tenured faculty have stayed silent about the adjunct crisis. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it,” wrote Upton Sinclair, the American author famous for his essays on labour exploitation. Somewhere in America, a tenured professor may be teaching his work, as a nearby adjunct holds office hours out of her car.

“It is easy to make people work for less than they are worth when they are conditioned to feel worthless.”


On Twitter, I wondered why so many professors who study injustice ignore the plight of their peers. “They don’t consider us their peers,” the adjuncts wrote back. Academia likes to think of itself as a meritocracy – which it is not – and those who have tenured jobs like to think they deserved them. They probably do – but with hundreds of applications per available position, an awful lot of deserving candidates have defaulted to the adjunct track.

The plight of the adjunct shows how personal success is not an excuse to excuse systemic failure. Success is meaningless when the system that sustained it – the higher education system – is no longer sustainable. When it falls, everyone falls. Success is not a pathway out of social responsibility.

Last week, a corporation proudly announced that it had created a digital textbook that monitors whether students had done the reading. This followed the announcement of the software that grades essays, which followed months of hype over MOOCs – massive online open courses – replacing classroom interaction. Professors who can gauge student engagement through class discussion are unneeded. Professors who can offer thoughtful feedback on student writing are unneeded. Professors who interact with students, who care about students, are unneeded.

We should not be surprised that it has come to this when 76 percent of faculty are treated as dispensable automatons. The contempt for adjuncts reflects a general contempt for learning. The promotion of information has replaced the pursuit of knowledge. But it is not enough to have information – we need insight and understanding, and above all, we need people who can communicate it to others.

People who have the ability to do this are not dispensable. They should not see themselves this way, and they should not be treated this way. Fight for what you are worth, adjuncts. Success is solidarity.

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University.