In a follow-up to our post last week on ‘Never Again,’ let’s talk about climate migration. Currently, there are climate migrants, but as climate change intensifies, the trickle of migrants will turn into a flood of refugees, particularly from the countries and regions most vulnerable to climate change. These are not necessarily regions prone to conflict, so they are not on our collective radar. And because they are not prone to conflict, we have a hard time reconciling the idea that people leaving these countries are, in fact, refugees.
Why is this? Perhaps because we are conditioned by media to narrow our understanding of what a refugee is to focus on those people who are fleeing conflict, and even then there are arguments that some of those fleeing are really just economic migrants. Making matters more complicated is the fact that the definition of refugee supplied by the Oxford dictionary is “A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” There is some grey area here because technically, climate change is not a natural disaster (although of we want to be pedantic, it is; in fact it is one of the greatest disasters of our times) because in the frame of this definition, a natural disaster would be a one-off event. Apologies to the poor people of Fiji who have faced not one but two intense cyclones in the past two months; a scenario unheard of prior to the rapid warming of global temperature. Moreover, refugees are granted the rights of asylum because generally they are not able to communicate with their own governments: for fear of reprisal in cases of persecution, and the absence of functioning government in the cases of conflict or natural disaster.
This grey area will soon become a real problem that the world collectively will have to face. While refugees from conflict have protection and the right to seek asylum under the 1951 United Nation’s Refugee Convention (but not really, see our previous article), there is no such protection mechanism for those seeking protection if they have been displaced due to climate change. In the current anti-migration climate where people who recognize that they will lose their homes and livelihoods to climate change and attempt to ‘proactively’ migrate, for lack of a better term, the challenge to justify the reasons for their migration is even more difficult. Host country refugee response is based on reactive rather than proactive policies.
What is frustrating in this instance is that, unlike conflict, the impacts of climate change are far more predictable and thus preparing for them should seem like a reasonable, farsighted approach to climate change adaptation. With conflict, despite the best conflict analysis around, no one can predict when, how or by whom a conflict will start, how many will be displaced and the overall destruction that will be wrought. While the world debates just how to deal with refugees and migrants fleeing from conflict and violence, with many countries doing their best to demonstrate why they are not responsible for assisting refugees or cannot help, the likelihood of any serious discussion around migrants and refugees leaving their homes and livelihoods as a result of climate change impacts is extremely low.
In a recent Devex article, Mariam Traore Chazalnoel from the International Organization for Migration, noted that participants at the COP21 in December 2015 understand that they must do something to prepare for and address climate-displacement, the issue being firmly on their radar, “but what that something is, is not exactly clear… this is a very bureaucratic process.” Yes, I’m sure it will excruciatingly bureaucratic.
But here’s the thing: isn’t the ‘something that needs to be done’ already clear to everyone? People living in small island states will lose their countries, people living in arid regions will be simply unable to stay in their homes if they wish to survive. The evidence is there. The Paris Agreement pushes preparedness and adaptation, and in some cases, migration is the heart and soul of this concept. So why are we not preparing? Even the city government of Miami, Florida, has begun to push the issue heavily because the city will soon be inundated due to rising sea levels. Some initial cases have been lodged in courts in New Zealand by Pacific islanders seeking asylum due to the impacts of climate change on their homes. Sadly, their claims were rejected. Too bad, as New Zealand had the opportunity to set precedent on how such cases should be dealt with as the tide of people making such claims will begin to increase…
Given that global frameworks are years in the making, perhaps regional policy frameworks are the better option, examining what vulnerable countries can do to invest in potemtial host country for future migrants and refugees, and host countries working closely with vulnerable countries to overcome legal hurdles for future refugee flows. Take those precedent cases such as in New Zealand to understand the legal, human rights and socio-economic implications of refusing asylum to due to climate change. Would it not be better to begin accepting some cases now, of those people at the forefront of climate change such as in Kiribati or Tuvalu, than to wait until the situation becomes a crisis and countries are faced with thousands of people at a time rather than a few dozen? Is integration not much cheaper and quicker in smaller groups?
Of course, because it is the countries that people flee to that tend to make the rules – countries that have yet to experience the life and death impacts of climate change – it is unlikely that much will happen beyond extensive bureaucratic processes that result in more statements about these things ‘taking time.’ Here, again, evidence of the world preferring to respond reactively when it is almost too late. Turns out we educated people don’t do well learning the lessons that we spout so emphatically to those that need action, not just platitudes.