Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began. The report noted that on average 24 people were forced to flee each minute in 2015, four times more than a decade earlier, when six people fled every 60 seconds. Forced displacement worldwide, based on data from governments, partner agencies and UNHCR’s own reporting, found a total 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, compared to 59.5 million just 12 months earlier.
Our media continually remind us of the racial and political conflict that is contributing to this situation in areas such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. however there are others that we hear less about. Iran, Sri Lanka, Somalia, South Sudan, Myanmar to name of few, but they don’t usually grab the headlines, unless there is an event that is deemed to be newsworthy e.g. people in trouble at sea, terrorist incident etc. A quick search on the internet will reveal the countries of origin and the number of people leaving their homes to seek a better life. The Refugee Council provides a quick snap shot of the countries of origin of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate (top ten) in 2014. http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/getfacts/statistics/ intl/countries-origin-refugees-unhcrs-mandate-top-ten- 2014/
So how is this relevant to climate change? The language surrounding what is being referred to as “migration” is quite complicated and uses terms such as “internally displaced persons”, “stateless persons”, “asylum seekers “etc. However if we confine our thinking to those who are forced to flee their homes due to the long-term effects of climate change - erratic weather, droughts, and the gradual loss of land due to rising sea levels – are they, or will they, be considered to be refugees and therefore have the same legal and humanitarian rights as those that are fleeing persecution?
It would appear that they may not, as the UNHCR defines a refugee as… A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. http://www.unrefugees.org/what-is-a-refugee/
Julia Blocher, writing a review of an interview with Peter Singer, provides the following information:
Human mobility in the context of climate change is complex. Limits to a more nuanced understanding of this issue may be due to a lack of agreement on the legal definitions and the methodological choices made to project numbers of environmental migrants, as well as - importantly - an understatement of the agency and adaptive capacities of people. Communities in coastal and low-lying areas that may be affected by sea-level rise in the future are affected today by recurrent natural hazards, coastal erosion, land subsidence, and saltwater contamination of arable land.
Empirical studies, including from the United Nations University, have explored how migration contributes to livelihoods and household adaptation strategies.
Experts tend to agree that the types of movements that might fall under that moniker “climate migrant” are varied and complex. Robust estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre fall short of accounting for people living in prolonged displacement, displaced across borders (generally agreed to be a minority), or migrating away from their homes due to the long-term effects of climate change. People migrating due to loss of land may be the largest – and would be considered labour migration under current definitions.
Julia also points out that climate change experts have largely been reluctant to attribute individual weather events to climate change, thus making it difficult to attribute displacement due to climate- or weatherrelated disasters, to climate change.
(As the climate changes, are 750 million refugees predicted to move away from flooding? Julia Blocher The Conversation August 4, 2016)
So will the people living on islands in the Pacific Ocean, who are losing their homes due to rising sea levels, be considered “refugees”? Given the huge number of refugees/asylum seekers/displaced persons etc. that already exist, how will they be viewed? Will the developed world see that they have a responsibility to them given that the global response to action on climate change has been patchy at best? How will Australia respond?
Naomi Klein reminds us in her 2016 Edward W. Said London Lecture, of the many assaults on environment which result in the displacement of people, particularly indigenous people, who then have no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere. In particular she reminds us of the environmental challenges of the Middle East and states that they are impossible to ignore by those of us who are interested in geopolitics. The region is intensely vulnerable to heat and water stress, to sea-level rise and to desertification. She draws our attention to the “aridity line” defined by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline.
The so-called ‘aridity line’ encompasses areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year. This has been considered to be the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation.
The Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers to the city in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war. It’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head, but the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n11/naomi-klein/let-them-drown
So has the current conflict in the Middle East been influenced by climate change? What other areas of our world will see social and political unrest develop in the setting of a changing climate? What will the world do to meet the ongoing needs of displaced people who are forced into seeking refuge elsewhere. All food for thought.
BSFG December Newsletter, 2016
Elliott Negin (2015) 'Think Today's Refugee Crisis is Bad? Climate Change will Make it a Lot Worse' Union of Concerned Scientist article shared by Ecowatch 30 June 2015 (accessed 17/5/2017)
Award winning 2010 documentary 'Climate Refugees' - article and trailer
National Geographic 'Years of Living Dangerously' - video trailer below