Finding a Place for Climate Migrants

Lauren Weaver is a first-year law student at McGill. She graduated Summa cum Laude with a B.A. in French and International Studies from the University of Oklahoma in 2012 and received her M.A. in French Studies from New York University in 2015. Lauren previously worked as an immigration paralegal at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP. She is a Student Advocate with the McGill chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project and serves as the External Chair for the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers at McGill.

As the effects of global climate change bring extreme weather events, melting ice caps, and rising tides, experts have begun to examine these environmental shifts as risk factors for human displacement and forced migration. Professor Jennifer Leaning asserted that climate issues likely played a role in the current European refugee crisis during her keynote speech at Harvard University’s September 2017 symposium, “Climate Change, Migration and Health.” Following an extended drought in northern Syria that ravaged the agricultural industry, a million people were forced to migrate internally, contributing to the unrest that would eventually become a civil war. However, there are other risks associated with climate change that could potentially lead to forced migration, such as rising sea levels that put entire island nations like Kiribati at risk. Unfortunately, the current framework for status determination in refugee and asylum law was not designed to address these types of migratory situations and leaves entire populations without options for resettlement abroad.

Initially drafted to protect European refugees following World War II, the 1951 Refugee Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol defines a refugee as:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Somali refugee camp in Eritrea

This definition makes sense within the postwar context and the aftermath of the Holocaust, which left millions of refugees who had been targeted for religious, ethnonational, and political reasons. The current state of migratory issues, however, differs drastically from that of 1951. While some displaced peoples—such as the Rohingya of Myanmar—are still fleeing persecution based on their status as an oppressed minority, millions more are displaced both internally and externally by civil war, political and economic instability, and most recently by the effects of climate change.

Among the largest risk factors for climate-driven migration are flooding, extreme weather events, and desertification. In the Sahel belt of sub-Saharan Africa, a 90% shrinkage of Lake Chad since the 1960s has contributed to the displacement of 2.5 million people in the region. These changes are exacerbated by the area’s extreme poverty and could lead to increased political instability and conflict over resources. Meanwhile, the government of Fiji has published a list of 60 villages in need of relocation as a result of the rising waters that are slowly eating away at the beaches of the island nation. While displaced peoples in larger countries may be able to relocate internally to escape the most devastating effects of climate change, many more will be forced to leave their home countries altogether for lack of adequate shelter and resources. These people would be ineligible for refugee status, benefits, and resettlement under the current framework administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Floods in Sahrawi refugee camps in southwest Algeria

The lack of protection under current international refugee and asylum law leaves few options for climate change migrants. Although some developed nations may introduce temporary immigration programs following particularly devastating natural disasters, these will not address the colossal scale of eventual climate migration needs. Migrants may also find themselves uprooted again and forced to return to their home countries, as is the case of the 50,000 Haitian and 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants displaced by earthquakes whose Temporary Protective Status in the United States is set to expire in 2019. In the wake of such migratory crises, experts and activist groups have argued that the 1951 Refugee Convention does not address the full breadth of contemporary displaced migrant populations, and have called for the recognition of climate change as a driver of migration by the United Nations.

Contemporary migration problems, including those driven by climate change, will require a re-examination of how we determine the circumstances under which a person has the right to leave their country of origin and establish a life abroad. Whether the solution is to redefine “refugee” or to set up an entirely new system for climate migrants is unclear. What is clear, however, is that inaction on the part of the international community, particularly industrialized nations, is unacceptable. As the primary contributors to climate change, the industrialized nations have an ethical responsibility to mitigate climate change and its consequences for the developing world. Opening our borders and communities to those who have lost and will lose their homes to climate change is not a kindness or a favor; it is a duty.

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