Climate justice and refugees

Climate change could cause a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

The climate crisis is the greatest crisis the Earth faces. It threatens the entire ecosystem that all life depends upon.

The refugee crisis is arguably the greatest challenge humanity faces. It affects hundreds of millions of people and is the dominant force shaping politics across the Earth.

Strong arguments can be made for both these statements.

The interlinking nature of the two crises, both practically and politically, is the key to finding real solutions and raises the question: why do the movements seem so separate?

The United Nations report Forced displacement in 2017 shows that the number of people displaced last year rose by several million to reach a new record high of 68.5 million. In other words, every single day more than 40,000 people are forced to flee their homes and join millions seeking safety from “persecution, conflict or generalized violence”.

This does not even count all those who are being forced to flee their homes due to climate change.  

A new report Asylum Applications Respond to Temperature Fluctuations from Colombia University looked at 104 countries and the impacts climate change will have on agriculture, which can lead to land becoming uninhabitable and conflicts over resources. Droughts in Syria that crippled farmland are one of the factors that led to that ongoing conflict. The report found climate change will lead to a 200% increase in asylum applications by the end of the century.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, 150 million people will be forced to leave their homes because of climate change by 2050.

In the Asia-Pacific region alone millions of people have already been internally displaced by floods in China and India, typhoons hitting the Philippines and rising sea levels in Bangladesh.

There are Pacific Islander people who are desperately building sea walls as their Islands are becoming uninhabitable.

In previous articles I go into this more in depth — especially looking at how people fleeing climate change have done the least to cause it and how we are moving to a state of climate apartheid.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not have a category for climate refugee. Signatory countries to the refugee convention like to point this out when refusing asylum claims from people fleeing Pacific Islands that are becoming uninhabitable. Australia’s continual flouting of the convention shows this is a political, not a technical, question.

The interlinking nature of the two crises is clear in a practical sense — climate change is leading to millions of people being displaced and becoming refugees

Anti-refugee sentiment around the world is on the rise. Australia is a world leader in cruelty towards refugees, with its boat turnbacks. The infrastructure created by former US President Barack Obama to deport masses of undocumented people is now being exceeded by President Donald Trump, as he builds his own detention centres and introduces citizenship bans.  

Europe is particularly troubling, with Italy recently turning away a ship crowded with refugees. A bloc of countries in the middle of Europe, including Germany and Italy, are seemingly forming a front to turn back refugees.

Right-wing movements are on the rise across the world and anti-refugee policy is their “solution” to rising unemployment and poverty. But the right are not offering real solutions to the climate crisis. Many boast climate change deniers from Trump to Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-immigration Dutch Party for Freedom.

To have a chance of addressing the climate crisis we must tackle the mainstream parties that assist the growing far right and change the rhetoric on refugees to one of welcome and finding solutions.

How humanity responds to these two interwoven challenges will determine whether we move towards a more equal and sustainable world.