Elahe Zivardar is an Iranian architect, artist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker based in the US. She was held in Nauru from 2013 to 2019.
In 2013, I fled Iran, got into a boat from Indonesia, and headed to Australia to seek asylum. Instead of receiving help or support, I was imprisoned on the remote and impoverished Pacific island of Nauru for six years, by the Australian government. But today, I live and work in the United States as a graduate student in architecture, artist, filmmaker, and journalist. Through my art, I communicate my story to the world because our words have meaning and power. Words can make the difference between hope or hatred, freedom or fear.
So when I read dehumanising headlines about climate and migration, using harmful terms like “swarms”, “floods”, or “biblical proportions” of people, I know something is wrong. Climate change affects all of us but especially communities on the frontlines of climate breakdown where sometimes families have no other choice but to leave their homes for safety. Just like I did.
When I left, the last thing I expected was a prison. The offshore detention centre on Nauru was a place designed to torture asylum seekers by denying us our human rights and detaining us indefinitely. We went without clean water and electricity for days at a time. The environment was polluted with heavy metals because we were imprisoned inside a former phosphate mine. We lived in plastic tents surrounded by toxic black mold and cadmium laced dust from the nearby phosphate processing plants. There was asbestos dumped next to our living quarters.
Despite the health conditions and poisons we were subjected to, we were routinely denied medical treatment until our conditions worsened and twelve of us died from this lack of treatment. All of this harm was inflicted on small children and pregnant women as well. All of this was done with the full knowledge of the Australian authorities.
I believe it is my responsibility to warn against adopting such policies and deliberately torturing vulnerable people. But we all have the responsibility and a role to ensure safe pathways and care for people on the move. For too long, the climate movement in the Global North has failed to stand with us, often using threat-based language against migrants in a cynical attempt to motivate climate action from Global North governments – rather than fighting for climate justice for all. But it’s not too late and it starts with the words we use.
In a world grappling with the intertwined challenges of climate change and displacement, the narratives we choose matter. Through a lens of justice and solidarity, we can have open dialogue that goes beyond the polarising narratives often found in the media. We can talk about real-world solutions that embrace both the right to stay and the right to move with dignity. Migration is part of the solution to the climate crisis, ensuring that people are able to adapt to a changing environment.
In order to help climate communicators learn more about the layered realities of climate-linked migration and messaging that works, a group of climate and immigrant justice groups have developed “Connecting Climate Justice and Migrant Justice: A Guide to Countering Dangerous narratives.” Please read this guide and learn how you can centre justice when you discuss climate-driven migration and help paint a fuller picture of life in a climate changed world.