Europe is in the midst of a massive migrant crisis as people flee from nations of conflict in the Middle East. A refugee in this context has been defined by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention as a person with “well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social group or political opinion, and are unable, or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.” Today, though, there is another irrefutable reason for people to flee their homeland; climate change. A brief review of the changes reveal that the world has already warmed over 1 degree Celsius, with global consensus that irreversible changes will happen at 2 degrees Celsius. The oceans have historically risen about one foot per century (although this is noticeably accelerating and could be near 10 feet by 2100). Climate change is making heat waves and droughts more intense, rain patterns more extreme and floods stronger. It is not a question of if there will be displacement, but when.
There is contestation about whether millions of people will be granted refugee status as the terms ‘climate refugee’ and ‘environmental refugee’ are currently not legal categorizations recognized under the 1951 Convention. The UN today instead refers to ‘environmental migrants’. There is a void in the legal system and classification can be difficult and legitimacy contested. Connecting a single event and climate change is difficult and often inconclusive. Ahmed, a Syrian refugee located in the Calais camp in March, noted that in his experience people do not often leave because of drought or environmental reasons. He added, “Now after the war it’s gotten harder to get water in some places.” In contrast, many correlations have been made between the coupling of drought and poor policy that forced people to move to urban centers in Syria, propelling and solidifying revolution. Scientists estimate that the drought on the Fertile Crescent has displaced 1.5 million Syrian farmers and even led the warring factions to use the decreased food supply as a weapon. While the internal conflict will likely run it’s course, the negative impacts of climate change have a much longer time span and will get increasingly worse.
The global nature of the problem is undeniable. In 2011, 13 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan needed food and water from the worst drought in the region in 60 years. The refugee camp that was formed, Dadaab in Kenya, was the biggest in the world with 520,000 people. In Zambia, the Kariba Dam, an essential source of electricity and stability via hydroelectric power, is at 13% of capacity. In Bangladesh about half a million people move to Dhaka to escape monsoon floods in rural villages every year. Water will continue to encroach on their land, accelerated by melting glaciers in the Himalayas and cyclones. Multiple island nations in the South Pacific are worried about simply not existing in a few years, including Tuvala, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands.
Ioane Teitiota, a man from Kiribata, filed for asylum to New Zealand last year and was rejected, and consequently deported, in September. He is in danger of inadequate fresh water and fragile sea walls flooding his low-lying home. He could have been the world’s first climate refugee, but his is just one story. There are about 20 million people from over 100 countries displaced in 2014 due to geophysical or weather related disasters, a number that was doubled in 2010. Even the United States, a major player in creating the climate disaster, is not immune. Just take the Isle of Jean Charles in southern Louisiana, which is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.
This information focuses on what is currently happening, not to mention what could come to fruition given predictions about sea level rise and extreme weather by the end of the century. Numbers of climate refugees could get into the hundreds of millions even by 2050. The consequences will be global, though it comes as no surprise that developing nations will hurt the most. Even in the COP21 Paris Climate talks in November 2015 there was little focus on the issue. While the discussion appropriately focused on greenhouse gas emissions and reducing global temperatures, a cleaner world is inextricably linked to human justice. A right to homeland is a major concern.
The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee agency, recognizes the threat and has an Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility though, frustratingly, the most recent news is from 2009. The Nansen Initiative, funded largely by Norway and Switzerland, is the most relevant and action-oriented organization advocating protection for displaced people due to climate change. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) is also working to protect climate refugees and their human rights via their climate campaign.
The questions become: what will millions of people without access to food and clean water do and how will developed countries deal will mass migration estimated to be upwards of 25 million people? Foremost, the definition of a refugee needs to expand. In light of the the current situation it becomes strikingly clear that infrastructural and legal protection, even those recognized by international law, are not adequate for migrants. Basic human rights must be met for the refugees of today if we have any hope to deal with the refugees of the future.