Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Planning Ahead for Climate Refugees
distributed 6/29/18 - ©2018

This week, the US Congress was unable to pass legislation on immigration. Again. Tomorrow, protest events will be held in over 700 locations across the country, demanding an end to the separation of immigrant families and the "zero tolerance" policies on the southern US border.

But it isn't just the United States that's having a hard time. The European Union is struggling to deal with migrants, too. Just today, an agreement was reached in the EU to restrict the movement of refugees and to develop systems for processing asylum claims. It remains to be seen whether the European member states will follow through.

Other parts of the world also struggle with the complex problem of people crossing national borders. Millions of people are moving for a multitude of interlocking reasons.

The issues are hard. The arrival of people perceived as "other" is stirring opposition in many of the countries. Relief agencies and government programs are overwhelmed. Desperate people will move, even when it is dangerous. They will move, even when it is inconvenient for the nations where they hope to settle.

And it is only going to get worse as climate change continues to intensify.

The United Nations estimates that 21.5 million people have been displaced annually since 2008 due to "weather-related, sudden onset hazards." There is "high agreement" among scientists that climate change, along with other drivers, is expected to increase those numbers.

A retired US brigadier general, Stephen Cheney, said:

If Europe thinks they have a problem with migration today ... wait 20 years. See what happens when climate change drives people out of Africa -- the Sahel [sub-Saharan area] especially -- and we're talking now not just one or two million, but 10 or 20 [million]. They are not going to south Africa, they are going across the Mediterranean.

One widely cited study, from the United Nations University, suggests that there will be 200 million environmental migrants by 2050.

It is essential that we think ahead so that nations can act with justice and compassion when the flow of migrants increases so dramatically.

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On a very practical level, one of the first needs is to expand and clarify the terminology of migration. There's a lot of talk about "climate refugees," which speaks vividly to most of us, but the term runs into enormous legal difficulties.

The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provides the framework for defining who is a refugee. The convention was designed to protect those fleeing persecution, war or violence. It does not apply to those who are displaced by environmental factors. So, in the language of international law, there can't be a refugee on the basis of climate and environmental disasters.

The notion of a climate refugee also suggests that there could be a clear-cut decision about why people move. If your low-lying island is swallowed up by the ocean, that may be true. Around the world, though, the factors and motivations are complex. The British Climate and Migration Coalition spells out an example.

Climate change could have an impact on drought and then on farming. This may mean that people move as the income from their farming declines and they need to find other work. Are they climate refugees? It could well be that if they had access to other non-farming work nearby that they wouldn't move. So is it climate change that has caused them to move? Or is it the fact that their local economy lacks alternative employment?

It is widely recognized that a deep drought in Syria contributed to the economic, political and religious unrest that erupted into civil war. Climate change is a factor in the humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees, but it is impossible to say if someone fleeing that war is primarily a "climate" refugee.

A first task for the international community is to establish new categories for evaluating migrants -- climate and otherwise. A document from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees sketches out a framework for addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. The framework has four stated objectives: (a) ease pressures on host countries; (b) enhance refugee self-reliance; (c) expand access to third-country solutions; and (d) support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

Perhaps some broad conditions can be identified where the need for international engagement is evident. Off the cuff, I can envision UN declarations of drought across a region that would legitimate the need for cross-border migration. Issues of sea level rise that would overwhelm an entire nation could be defined -- not only for low islands, but for a country like Bangladesh where rising seas contaminate water supplies for a large region. Amazingly, we may reach a point where some areas of the world might be deemed uninhabitable in the face of rising temperatures. (A city in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman set a record temperature this week of almost 109 degrees F -- as the LOW temperature of the day. The high temperature peaked at over 121 F, and it was over 107 degrees for 51 straight hours.) When air conditioning is not widely available, extreme heat is not a livable climate.

The descriptions never can be exhaustive, but the expanding climate crisis can be better addressed if we can look ahead and reach some agreement on the kind of exceptional conditions that will cause migration.

Another challenging question for the category of climate-related migration has to do with what nations should provide help.

Do we expect neighboring countries to be the first line of assistance when people are displaced? Should there be a greater responsibility for those nations that have been less devastated by climate impacts? Should the nations which have had the greatest contributions in creating the climate crisis be called upon to provide the most assistance -- with both relocation and financial aid? That, of course, would place the greatest obligation on the United States. Is this nation willing to accept that responsibility?

The issues in identifying climate migrants are complex. The international agreements needed to provide helpful responses will be overwhelmingly difficult. So it is essential that those discussions be started in earnest, right now.

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The other side of climate migration equation is also essential. Actions to reduce the severity of climate change will reduce the number of people who are displaced by climate disasters. If we are honest about the political and practical challenges of a 10-fold increase in refugees, the challenges of rapidly reducing emissions might not appear so hard.

The Environmental Justice Foundation lists several priority areas for protecting climate refugees. First on their list is a call to all countries "to rapidly and fully implement the global climate agreement agreed in Paris in December 2015 and support efforts to raise their emission reduction pledges over time in line with its goal to phase out man-made emissions and keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C on pre-industrial levels."

Prevention of an extreme climate crisis is the best way to provide justice for those who would otherwise be displaced.

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This week's news in the US and Europe shows the need to address the complex issues of migration and refugees. In coming years, climate impacts will add to the number of migrants, and the difficulty of dealing with those displacements. Ethically and practically, we need to be honest about this growing crisis. The nations of the world need to work now on defining appropriate responses.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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