Why the refugee crisis will get worse

Issue 
A grave site on the Marshall Islands. Pacific Island nations are facing oblivion because of human-induced warming and rising sea

The cycle path known as the Iron Curtain Trail follows the boundary that separated east from west during the cold war period from 1947 to 1989. The 7650 kilometre route that stretches from north of Turkey to the Barents Sea, 400 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, is not for the faint-hearted.

But such is the desperation of Syrian refugees that up to 20 people a month are using the route to get to the safety of the Norwegian town of Kirkenes on the Russian-Norwegian border. Here they make a formal request for asylum and are then flown to the capital Oslo for further processing.

Costas Douzinas, law professor and director of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities at the University of London, has written about catastrophe being humanity’s inescapable condition, caught up as it is in the conflict between power and overpowering.

Some form of relief from this condition is provided by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 14 declares that: “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

People crossing borders in search of protection are not in breach of any nation’s sovereign right to control their borders.

Australia was actively involved in drafting the 1948 UDHR and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This defines refugees as persons who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Although Australia is one of many countries that has committed these principles to its domestic law, it is also a leader in ignoring them and giving encouragement to like-minded European countries to follow suit.

For both the Labor Party and the Coalition, the universality of human rights is trumped by the populist political gain to be garnered by pandering to racism and xenophobia.

In January this year, an international conference on migration and climate change took place in Oslo. Jan Egeland, from the Norwegian Refugee Council which runs the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva, told the conference that natural disasters displace three to 10 times more people than all the conflicts and wars in in the world combined.

In the early 1970s, the number of people displaced by extreme weather events was about 10 million. Data from IDMC shows that 22 million people were displaced by these extreme weather events, led by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, in 2013. This is three times more than the number displaced by conflicts.

The UN panel of climate experts has shown that a sea level rise of 19 centimetres since 1990, caused by thawing glaciers in the Andes and European Alps, together with Greenland’s ice sheet, aggravates storm surges across the globe. The panel’s future projections point to a further rise of between 26 to 82 centimetres by the late 21st century.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, told the conference that governments needed to increase their planning for climate refugees. He also warned that access to resources such as food and water supplies that are being constrained by climate factors would lead to conflict.

How this occurs is evident from the recently released report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), which claims that water shortages were a prominent factor in the 2011 Syrian civil war.

According to the WRI, 1.5 million Syrians, primarily farmers and herders, lost their livelihood and their land, and were forced to move to urban areas due to dwindling water resources and their ongoing mismanagement.

The report also said that water supplies across the Middle East will deteriorate further over the next 25 years forcing people to relocate to cities which are already overcrowded. Of the 33 most water stressed countries on the planet, 14 are in the Middle East.

Despite the fact that in 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the greatest single consequence of climate change was likely to be migration with millions displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought, the 1951 Refugee Convention does not provide for protection for climate refugees.

It was this gap in the convention that caused the New Zealand High Court to reject the world’s first climate refugee claim by a person from Kiribati in 2013. The Kiribati group of islands in the Pacific Ocean is so exposed to climate change that, last year the government bought 20 sq km on the Fijian Island of Vanua Levu, 2000 kilometres away, as a possible future refuge.

The hundreds of thousands of migrants now seeking refuge in Europe are protected by UN Conventions. When these conventions are ignored, legal action in the courts can provide a remedy. There is no such avenue open to climate refugees.

Their only hope is for mass movements to exert political pressure on governments to change.

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