Climate refugees: the hidden crisis

Tokelauns protest climate change.
June 24, 2017

There are countless reports from NGOs, scientists and government agencies on climate refugees.

For example, last year more than 2 million people had to gather their possessions and flee as floods hit the Yangtze River in China. But, despite this becoming one of the world’s greatest issues there is very little activism around climate refugees in the developed world.

As refugee rights groups focus on ending the barbaric practice of governments locking out people fleeing war and persecution and climate campaigners fight the latest coalmine, the lack of collaboration between the two is startling.

A September 2015 statement by 350.org in the lead up to the Paris climate talks, titled “Why (we as) climate activists stand with refugees” is an exception. It looks at the role climate change played in triggering the Syrian conflict and how the governments that are the worst climate offenders are also at the forefront of persecuting refugees. It speaks of the need to unite civil and environmental struggles against the powers-that-be.

However, it is only a statement. The movement needs to raise the plight of people whose island nations are becoming submerged under rising sea levels. A look at the climate crisis and refugee crisis shows the two are now more interconnected than ever before.

A report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found 24.2 million people last year were internally displaced by natural disasters such as floods and storms — natural disasters that are either caused or worsened by climate change. This included two typhoons hitting the Philippines that displaced about 5 million people and floods in Bihar, India, that displaced more than 1.6 million people.

There are also many island nations in the Pacific Ocean, such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Carteret Islands, that are rapidly becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels as temporary sea walls are washed away. The Carteret Islands population has begun resettling on nearby Bougainville. Scientists have already concluded that five islands in the Pacific Ocean have become submerged.

The Environmental Justice Foundation says over the next 40 years 150 million people will be forced to leave their homes due to droughts, extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

A report by the Global Humanitarian Forum Geneva showed that 99% of the deaths from climate change disasters are in the world’s least-developed countries, which account for 1% of global emissions.

People fleeing climate change have done the least to cause it. Countries such as Australia and the US, which created their wealth on the back of the exploitation of the Third World and climate vandalism, are locking people out in the interests of protecting their “way of life”.

Just as Western countries turn back people fleeing their wars, they do the same to people suffering the worst effects of climate change.

Australia, the world’s highest per capita emitter of carbon emissions, has refused all requests by the people of the Carteret Islands for aid and relocation to Australia.

The Australian government claims it is because people fleeing climate change are not classed as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). While that is technically true (the UNHCR does not have a category for climate refugees), this is hardly the reason.  

The UN itself recognises climate refugees as a major world crisis. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “Climate change [is] now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement. These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily. As forcibly displaced is not covered by the refugee protection regime, they find themselves in a legal void.”

There are organisations doing worthwhile advocacy work campaigning for the UNHCR to include a category for climate refugees. But they often face opposition from the West, including Australia. 

Some interesting technological solutions to the crisis have been put forward, such as the Seasteading Institute’s proposal to construct floating cities where Islands are becoming submerged. The first floating island pilot project is due to begin development in French Polynesia next year.

However, what is needed for a crisis that encompasses millions of people across the globe is a political alternative to the actions of rich countries. We have seen US police shooting people trying to flee the poor suburbs of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and immigration agents deporting people to countries the US continues to bomb.

The Australian government locks up people in offshore detention centres who are fleeing wars it is involved in and denies refugee status to people fleeing environmental disasters from which Australia has profited.

There are countless examples across Europe of walls, inhospitable camps and armed forces being deployed to keep people out of the countries that have destroyed their homes. An alternative is needed.

The climate and refugee crises are fundamentally crises of capitalism. Rich countries and corporations have been colonising and environmentally vandalising poorer countries in the pursuit of profits, leaving them vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Rich countries have a responsibility to help resettle people displaced by climate change. This should be part of paying an “ecological debt” to the Third World countries they have pillaged.

To achieve climate justice for the millions who will be affected by climate change, complete system change is needed.

Dealing with climate change and the refugee crisis requires an internationalist approach, where borders are opened for people fleeing the effects of climate change.

Finding ways of uniting the two struggles is crucial to achieving this. Together, another world is not only possible, it is necessary for our collective survival.

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