TIJUANA, Mexico—Worsening climate from the burning of coal and gas is intensifying a range of disasters and uprooting millions of people, with wildfires overrunning towns in California, rising seas overtaking island nations and drought exacerbating conflicts in various parts of the world.
Each year, natural disasters force an average of 21.5 million people from their homes around the world, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
And scientists predict migration will grow as the planet gets hotter. Over the next 30 years, 143 million people are likely to be uprooted by rising seas, drought, searing temperatures and other climate catastrophes, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published this year.
Still, the world has yet to officially recognize climate migrants or come up with formalized ways to assess their needs and help them. Here’s a look at climate migration today.
WHO ARE CLIMATE MIGRANTS?
Most climate migrants move within the borders of their homelands, usually from rural areas to cities after losing their home or livelihood because of drought, rising seas or another weather calamity.
Because cities also are facing their own climate-related problems, including soaring temperatures and water scarcity, people are increasingly being forced to flee across international borders to seek refuge.
Yet climate migrants are not afforded refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides legal protection only to people fleeing persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group.
DEFINING CLIMATE MIGRATION
Identifying climate migrants is not easy, especially in regions rife with poverty, violence and conflicts.
While worsening weather conditions are exacerbating poverty, crime and political instability, and fueling tensions over dwindling resources from Africa to Latin America, often climate change is overlooked as a contributing factor to people fleeing their homelands.
According to the UNHCR, 90 percent of refugees under its mandate are from countries “on the front lines of the climate emergency.”
In El Salvador, for example, scores each year leave villages because of crop failure from drought or flooding, and end up in cities where they become victims of gang violence and ultimately flee their countries because of those attacks.
“It’s hard to say that someone moves just because of climate change. Is everyone who leaves Honduras after a hurricane a climate migrant?”
Elizabeth Ferris, a research professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “And then there are non-climate related environmental hazards—people flee earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis—should they be treated differently than those displaced by weather-related phenomena?”
Despite the challenges, it’s vital that governments identify climate-displaced people, Ferris added.
“The whole definitional issue isn’t a trivial question—how can you develop a policy for people if you aren’t clear on who it applies to?” she wrote.
While no nation offers asylum to climate migrants, UNHCR published legal guidance in October 2020 that opens the door for offering protection to people displaced by the effects of global warming.
It said that climate change should be taken into consideration in certain scenarios when it intersects with violence, though it stopped short of redefining the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The commission acknowledged that temporary protection may be insufficient if a country cannot remedy the situation from natural disasters, such as rising seas, suggesting that certain climate displaced people could be eligible for resettlement if their place of origin is considered uninhabitable.
An increasing number of countries are laying the groundwork to become safe havens for climate migrants.
In May, Argentina created a special humanitarian visa for people from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean displaced by natural disasters to let them stay for three years.
Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden ordered his national security adviser to conduct a months-long study that included looking at the “options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change.” A task force was set up, but so far the administration has not adopted such a program.
Low-lying Bangladesh, which is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, has been among the first to try to adapt to the new reality of migration. Efforts are underway to identify climate-resilient towns where people displaced by sea level rise, river erosion, cyclonic storms and intrusion of saline water can move to work, and in return help their new locations economically.
TRANSFORMING DEBATES ON MIGRATION
Policy debates on migration have long centered on locking down borders. Climate change is changing that.
With hundreds of millions of people expected to be uprooted by natural disasters, there is growing discussion about how to manage migration flows rather than stop them, as for many people migration will become a survival tool, according to advocates.
“One problem is just the complete lack of understanding as to how climate is forcing people to move,” said Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees, an advocacy group focused on raising awareness about people displaced because of climate change.
“There is still this idea in the Global North [industrialized nations] that people come here because they are fleeing poverty and seeking a better life, the American Dream. In Europe, it’s the same spin of the same story. But no one wants to leave their home. We’ve got to approach climate displacement as a human security issue and not a border security issue.”
Image credits: AP/Mahmud Hossain OPU