Is the World Ignoring Climate Change Migrants?
There are millions of people on this planet today already directly affected by climate change. While large swathes of the global population are currently buffered from the immediate impacts of climate change on their daily lives, those in low lying countries are already grappling with the havoc it creates. This is, in turn, driving climate change migration to other places which are yet to be more severely affected. This begs the question, are migrants being welcomed as they abandon everything they have ever known, or are they being ignored? We will let you be the judge.
What are the projections for environmental migration?
Figures by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reveal that in 2018 alone, there were 17.2 million new displacements of people following disasters, with 764,000 relocating mainly due to drought. The majority of disaster driven displacements are being seen in the Philippines, China, Ethiopia, and India. Projections by the UN International Organization for Migration by 2050, suggest that across the world, we can expect to see between 25 million to one billion climate migrants. This is further reinforced by the Italian thinktank, Centro euro-Mediterraneo sui Cambiamenti Climatici (Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change) (CMCC), who state that 200 million is the most widely cited estimate and that we will see people "moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis". At 200 million, the volume of climate change migrants will be ten times greater than today's numbers; a truly sobering thought.
What is driving climate change migration?
According to CMCC, while sudden natural disasters (e.g. hurricane Katrina) cause people to abandon their homes, towns and cities, they tend to return once the aftermath has dissipated. Slow-onset impacts of climate change, such as desertification, loss of drinking water, and impaired soil fertility typically lead to longer-term migration to new places. That said, a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) makes the point that while the scientific understanding of climate change is increasingly well understood, the impact on human populations is much less so. This is due in part to the unpredictability of the factors at play. While flooding (for example) may cause problems for crop growing, sanitation, and pose an immediate risk to human survival, knowing at which point a population decides to migrate involves a complex interplay of many variables.
It is established that climate change effects are and will continue to change, for example, as the hydrological cycle becomes more intense. Rising hydrological intensity will increase the volume of rain and flooding, causing top-soil being washed away. In other places, rain levels will decrease. The IOM state that "by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to have up to 10 per cent less annual rainfall in its interior". This will severely impact on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa, leading to a lack of food and ultimately starvation. Crop yields are also expected to fall by 30% in central and Southern Asia around 2050, and fish stocks are expected to migrate towards the poles; again leading to the depletion of food stocks in densely populated parts of the world.
A duty to welcome climate change migrants?
Unfortunately, in recent decades, many countries have shown their indifference to embracing migrants from other parts of the world. As things stand, not only is there no legal protection available to climate change migrants, countries are not obligated (let alone willing to welcome) them. In the opinion of the European parliament, there is a definite 'protection gap' for 'climate refugees', who lack a formal international definition and are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The convention covers persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion, but not displacement due to environmental factors. While it is true that most affected by climate change resettle internally, those who do move beyond their national borders cannot formally seek resettlement in another country. This is especially of concern for those who simply cannot move internally, such as residents of pacific islands now severely impacted by rising sea levels. The EU Parliament states, "residents of the small islands of Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu, where one in ten persons has migrated within the past decade, cannot be classified as refugees, even though those who remain are 'trapped' in worsening environmental conditions".
There exists, therefore, contention between the notion of a someone who is internally displaced due to climate change, and a person classified as a refugee. The former should be able to rely on their national government for protection, but the latter cannot. For this reason, the EU takes the view that a new system is required which recognises at an international level that climate change displacement is a matter to be tackled, but for any specific solutions to be worked out by regional groupings.
The sooner we wake up to the urgent need to reach an agreement on helping those affected by climate change displacement, the better. There is little doubt that as a global society, much needs to be done to both recognise the growing phenomenon of climate change displacement, both internally and externally, and to find solutions. While human migration is nothing new to our immigration solicitors, this is a new scenario for our modern global society. The idea of regional groupings working together to meet the needs of a collection of neighbouring nations is one which may prove effective. No country, whether north or south, east or west will be able to escape climate change and its impacts. Caring for our neighbours may ultimately prove the only option for long-term human survival because ultimately, we never know when we may need assistance ourselves in the future.
As former United Nations Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon stated:
"Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family."
These are sage words we should all heed.