When most people think of refugees, they imagine the millions of people around the world who have been forced to abandon their homelands in search of a better life. But animals can also be appropriately characterized as refugees, says Sociology Professor John Sorenson.
Having written about human refugees fleeing war and famine in the Horn of Africa, he says many of the issues that drive people from their homes also turn animals into refugees.
With the approach of World Refugee Day on Thursday, June 20, a day set aside by the United Nations Human Rights Commission on Refugees, Sorenson urges people to think beyond the traditional image of refugees to include their animal counterparts.
As areas of the world become uninhabitable for animals, as well as humans, more migration is inevitable, he says.
“They are going to be driven out of their own environments by our destruction of the climate system. There’s going to be no place for these animals to live in their natural environment,” he says. “And, as they come into contact with people who are trying to protect their crops and so on, there’s going to be more conflict.”
In April, Sorenson travelled to Indonesia, where he was an invited speaker at a symposium on the theme of animals and humans. While there, he gave a guest lecture on environmental sociology at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. The trip was an opportunity to discuss his work in critical animal studies, animal-human relations, speciesism and related forms of human oppression.
“Indonesia is certainly facing a lot of serious issues such as deforestation for palm oil plantations and loss of biodiversity,” he says. As forests are cut down, the animals who live in them effectively become refugees, he says. “It’s a very sad situation.”
Sorenson’s visit to the Yogyakarta Wildlife Rescue Centre provided a close-up look at some animal refugees.
The centre includes a sanctuary for wildlife such as orangutans, gibbons, macaques, sun bears, eagles and parrots, all rescued from the illegal pet trade, he says. While an improvement from the terrible conditions of the pet trade, Sorenson admits the centre is not ideal. Staff try their best to care for the animals, but funds are limited.
At the sanctuary, he was dismayed to see orangutans — “really huge animals that require a lot of space and travel long distances through the forest” — living in tiny cages that don’t allow them much movement.
“That’s the only place for them now,” he says.
The hope is that these animals will be rehabilitated and relocated, but many are not used to living in nature.
“Training them to be wild animals again is difficult,” Sorenson says. “Many can never be reintroduced to the wild. And, if there’s no place for them to go, then a life in captivity is their sad fate.”
Meeting local people who are working to improve the lives of animals is an important part of Sorenson’s travels.
“A distinguishing aspect of critical animal studies is that it’s not just academics writing papers about these issues. There’s also interaction with activists and people working on the ground to help animals,” he says.
In the face of relentless news reports about the decimation of wildlife populations, biodiversity loss, pollution and the climate crisis, “it seems to me that we should all be talking about these things every day,” he says.
“We should get out of this anthropocentric focus that has been so much a part of sociology, but also a part of everybody’s outlook toward the world,” he says. “Our relations with other beings are really important.”