The Next Generation Refugees


UNCHR/Arnold


Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia are the highest refugee-producing countries in the world. The public has heard about their stories for so many years that it has become almost desensitised to this information. Although this is all happening on the other side of the planet, it is a fact. It is an extremely unpleasant side effect of war.


What most people are not aware of is that it is much more common for people to abandon their homes due to climate change rather than conflict. And the frequency of this phenomenon is about to increase. In 2021, the number of wildfires, droughts, weather phenomena was dramatic, and it continues to grow.


A refugee is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”


Climate refugees do not fit this term. In fact, there is not a specific term to define them. Their reason for migrating and seeking asylum is not religion, nationality, or beliefs. It is climate change. The increasing temperatures due to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, the droughts that leave fields cropless, the melting glaciers that cause flooding, and the sea levels rising to name a few, place them in the exact same position as ‘real’ refugees. They have to flee to survive: physically, mentally, economically.


Brookings, 2021


Climate change is a rapidly evolving issue. Economic growth, consumerism, and greed are increasing the need for energy and related economic activities. What should be happening—cutting down on fossil fuels and practices that extend environmental degradation—is a discarded afterthought and a mere promise for the future. The impact of the climate crisis is magnified every single day.


According to the New York Times, the living conditions of 800 million people could seriously diminish in the next few years. It is expected that 200 million people will need to migrate because of climate change by 2050. People that are employed by the crops of their land will be doomed in the face of an intense heat wave. Others will have to abandon their homes because they will be destroyed by fire, water, or wind. Whole islands and chunks of land will disappear underwater. It looks like the natural elements are fighting back against our damaging activities.


In 2017, 60% of the people displaced in the world had to flee their homes because of a natural disaster. South Africa, Northwest Africa, and Central America are some of the areas that have already faced the phenomenon in a scarring manner.


Today, Syria is facing another extremely serious and depressing crisis. In 2011, sometime before the ongoing conflict occurred, a drought took place that debilitated agriculture and the farmers who depended on it. As a result, the terrorist organisation IS was able to recruit a larger amount of people due to their desperate circumstances. The effects of climate change are placing people in impossible positions where they have to take difficult decisions.


People who have been displaced, meaning that they had to abandon their destroyed homes and hometowns, are the perfect candidates for exploitation. Food, water, and shelter insecurity have resulted in many documented, but mainly undocumented, cases of modern slavery. Forced labour, marriage, and prostitution are often the terrible side effects of climate displacement. Refugees have to face the extreme stress and agony of leaving their homes or even their deceased loved ones behind. They have to flee to an unknown country whose language they do not speak. They have to manage the insufficient living conditions of sleeping in tents and ‘hotspots'. After all is said and done, they also have to avoid abuse. Refugees may survive the trip, but their human right are not protected. When they do survive, they are not even considered as such.


Josh Haner/New York Times/Redux Pictures/USIDHR



Climate refugees are not officially called so by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency that protects the rights of refugees. Its refusal to grant them refugee status stems from a variety of reasons. The agency does not have the right resources to address them and their needs, and no other organisations were founded to take care of the situation. Whereas in other issues the will of the public can influence the direction an organization or government chooses to follow, in this case its beliefs are not on the right side. It has been detected that in the US and especially Europe, which has accepted a huge number of refugees in the last decade, cases of nationalism and xenophobia are spreading like a disease. A majority of national citizens do not wish to see more people show up ashore, nor do they want to welcome them.


Consequently, the UNHCR calls these people “environmental migrants”. But this loose term is not doing them any favours, nor does international law.


To this day, no binding agreement or policy has been issued to protect environmental refugees and their rights. The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 which defines and protects refugees from being deported back to their home countries, does not include them. They are not even safe from deportation, let alone eligible to be taken in and protected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights only states that people can seek asylum in other countries if they are being persecuted.



In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council took a step in the right direction, adopting the Global Compact on Safe, Olderly and Regular Migration which concretely states that climate change and environmental degradation are among the causes of population movement and displacement. It urges the governments to work on legislation for the relocation and visa options of environmental migrants. This document is certainly not legally binding but acts as proof that current policy is inadequate.


During this year's United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), the topic, although present in the program and up for discussion, was severely overlooked even though it was the perfect time and place for change to happen. There is a massive need for policy and international mechanisms to be developed to protect the rights and lives of people who are collateral victims in the multiplying challenges of the climate crisis. The term ‘refugees’ needs to be redefined, or a different legal category of involuntary migration needs to be founded to be then included in a hard law framework. If those measures are not taken soon, the peril is only going to worsen in the future as we move to higher degrees of temperature and desperation.


References


5 facts on climate migrants. Institute for Environment and Human Security. (2015, November 26). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://ehs.unu.edu/news/news/5-facts-on-climate-migrants.html


Addressing Climate Refugees and Displacement Involving Island Nations. Usidhr.org. (2021, September 10). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://usidhr.org/climate-change-and-human-rights/


Climate refugees – the world's forgotten victims. Climate Champions. (2021, August 17). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://racetozero.unfccc.int/climate-refugees-the-worlds-forgotten-victims/


Climate refugees. Climate Refugees. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.climate-refugees.org/


Lavelle, M. (2021, November 1). By 2050, 200 million climate refugees may have fled their homes. but international laws offer them little protection. Inside Climate News. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02112021/climate-refugees-international-law-cop26/


Lustgarten, A. (2020, July 23). The Great Climate Migration has begun. The New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html


Podesta, J. (2021, July 1). The climate crisis, migration, and refugees. Brookings. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/


Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. Amnesty International. (2021, June 1). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants/


UN. (2018, December 19). Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. A/RES/73/195 - e - A/RES/73/195 -desktop. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://undocs.org/A/RES/73/195


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). The 1951 refugee convention. UNHCR. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Where do refugees come from? UNHCR. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/59ca6ad77/where-do-refugees-come-from.html


Tetsuji Ida, S. S. W. and E. W. (n.d.). Climate refugees – the world's forgotten victims. World Economic Forum. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/climate-refugees-the-world-s-forgotten-victims/



Image Sources


Image 1. Arnold, R. United Nations. Podesta, J. (2021, July 1). The climate crisis, migration, and refugees. Brookings. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/


Image 2. Podesta, J. (2021, July 1). The climate crisis, migration, and refugees. Brookings. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/


image 3. Josh Haner/New York Times/Redux Pictures in Addressing Climate Refugees and Displacement Involving Island Nations. Usidhr.org. (2021, September 10). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://usidhr.org/climate-change-and-human-rights/




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Konstantina Manta

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