20th June is World Refugee Day. It’s an international day to “honour refugees around the globe”. According to the UNHCR, the day is “an occasion to build empathy and understanding for their plight and to recognize their resilience in rebuilding their lives”. But World Refugee Day should go beyond promoting awareness and empathy with refugees. It should be a reminder that we need to work (and consistently be working) towards better national and international legislation to protect refugees. And that’s work that environmental activists should care about too. Here’s why.
Getting clear on definitions
Those who aren’t familiar with refugee issues often don’t know the differences between the various terms used to describe people who are on the move. The official and internationally defined term “refugee” came into being in 1951. That is when countries around the world signed the Geneva Convention (the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). The Convention further outlined the rights of the displaced. And the legal definitions of nations and states to protect them.
According to the Geneva Convention, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Refugees have already fled their countries, and have a right to international protection.
In contrast, according to Amnesty International, asylum-seekers are people who have left their countries of origin and are seeking protection from persecutions and serious human rights violations in another country. But they have not been legally recognised as “refugees”. As for migrants, there’s currently no accepted legal definition. However, most organisations understand migrants to be people who are staying outside of their countries of origin, who are not asylum-seekers or refugees.
FEATURED IMAGE: via @climateincolour | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Graphic with a grey textured background and blue, black, yellow illustrated cut-outs of faces on top, with a text box, in yellow, with black text, in the middle; the text reads: “There is no global consensus on the definition of a “climate migrant” or “climate refugee” because those who are displaced by climate do so due to a spectrum of factors. Not only this, but climate change usually acts as a “threat multiplier” that acts in addition to or, on top of, a combination of social, political and economic issues.”
What does the environmental movement have to do with refugee and migrant justice?
Most people associate the environmental movement with saving biodiversity and conservation efforts, reducing natural resource use and pollution, and the like. They often equate environmental activists with “tree-huggers”. We care, people assume, about the environment. But climate justice activists often draw attention to something else: people. And more specifically: climate refugees and migrants. Because the climate crisis doesn’t just impact our environments, it will impact—and is already impacting—communities.
No one knows exactly how many climate migrants exist now. But the estimated numbers are high. Here are some examples of studies that are attempting to quantify the problem. According to the World Meteorological Organization’s State of the Global Climate Report, disasters caused more than 23 million people a year to relocate over the past decade. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that there were at least 55 million internally displaced peoples by the end of last year. And of the new displacements, 30 million were due to floods, storms or wildfires. Leading them to conclude, that climate disasters have caused more internal displacement than war, in 2020.
Last year, a major report, the 2020 Ecological Threat Register, estimated that by 2050, the climate crisis could displace 1.2 billion people. With all of these numbers, you would think that action has been taken to address the issue. And yet, as professors Katharine M. Donato, Amanda Carrico and Jonathan M. Gilligan write for Fast Company, “when droughts, floods, or sea-level rise force [people] to leave their countries, [they] often find closed borders and little assistance.”
The law doesn’t protect climate refugees and migrants
Donato, Carrico and Gilligan share that “today’s laws, regulations, and international agreements about migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees offer few, if any, special protection to those forced to leave because of climate conditions. National laws focus primarily on violence and conflict as drivers of forced migration and rarely consider environmental stress. In fact, no nation’s immigration system currently has environmental criteria for admission.”
“International agreements such as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees mention the impacts of natural disasters and environmental degradation, but they are not legally binding.” The reason why this is so? Only up until recently, scholars have identified wars and conflicts as the main sources of displacement. “Environmental refugee” as a term only became popular among scholars in the 1980s. Scholars used the term to describe those forced to flee their homes because of disruptions related to environmental events, such as desertification, deforestation, land degradation, and rising sea levels.
In fact, as you might have realised, the international definition of “refugee”, doesn’t include climate change. All of this comes together to create a huge problem, for a situation that’s becoming even more urgent. As Donato, Carrico and Gilligan explain, because international law doesn’t recognise climate refugees and migrants, these migrants end up being subject to immigration laws of their destination countries. Which, of course, being insufficient, leads to migrants having nowhere to go. Often, they also have not many prospects… because of the discriminatory nature of these laws.
“Lacking resources, climate migrants are likely to be poorer than most other international migrants. This may put them at a disadvantage as more countries’ policies scrutinize the economic prospects of immigrants before permitting them entry.”
What kind of climate refugees and migrants are there?
This post by Intersectional Environmentalist distinguishes between the different types of refugees and migrants. Sudden-onset events, like earthquakes and hurricanes, cause short-term displacement. This means that displaced peoples can return home if the repair of local infrastructure is successful. Of course, aid and repair efforts are not always effective. And when these events happen often, there may not be enough time to respond. On the other hand, there are slow-onset events, like sea-level rise and epidemic disease. These impact human rights, including access to water, health, and housing, as well as the rights to civic participation. Often, these slow-onset events lead to lasting environmental damage and prompt international migration.
We can link the climate crisis to both types: sudden-onset events and slow-onset events. Although people often envision the crisis as the former type. This post by climate and social justice advocate Mariah Padilla highlights that climate change exacerbates food insecurity, water scarcity, resource competition, and more. This is so because the climate crisis manifests in droughts, flooding, extreme storms, etc., that affect available resources and life-sustaining activities like agriculture. So it’s not just flooding, forest fires, drought, intensified storms, and other natural disasters that force people to flee their homes and conditions.
Broadly speaking, we could say that sudden-onset events trigger internal displacement. But slow-onset events (which are also affected by sudden-onset events) trigger international migration. And the climate crisis is at the root of all this.
Sudden-onset events are only getting more common…
The climate crisis is getting visibly worse as the days go on. Many of us—the privileged populations—think the climate crisis is far away in the future. We think of it as an “apocalypse”. It is true that if we don’t turn things around (by rapid decarbonisation, and a great shift away from our current system, among other things), we would see catastrophic conditions. But it is also true that climate disasters are already happening. Sudden-onset events, the kind that we think of when we think: “climate apocalypse”? They’re only getting more common.
But to who?
In March this year, the Red Cross stated that we need “urgent international action”, “to address the rising risk of climate-related displacement”. It highlighted data that shows disasters such as storms, droughts, fires, and floods internally displaced more than 10 million people from September to February. In those six months, there were 12.6 million internally displaced people. 80% of these displacements were caused by disasters, “most of which are triggered by climate and weather extremes”.
But the key question here is: where? Who? Who are the ones who get to think of the climate crisis as a far-away dystopia, a future apocalypse? And who are the ones who experience that in the now?
The Red Cross says that Asia suffers much more than any other region from these displacements. Its report covered case studies “about assisting communities affected by drought in Afghanistan. Seasonal cyclones and monsoon rains, which lead to flooding and landslides, in Bangladesh. And a dzud, a term for extreme winter conditions that cause mass livestock loss, in Mongolia.” Specifically, the report also notes Typhoon Goni, the world’s most ferocious storm last year. Typhoon Goni hit the Philippines: “Three storms hit the Philippines in as many weeks, leaving over three million people destitute.”
The Asia Pacific Migration and Displacement coordinator noted that climate disasters are “taking a terrible toll on some of the poorest communities already reeling from the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Which brings us to this…
The climate crisis is a threat multiplier, and it affects the most vulnerable
In the world of climate justice activism, this isn’t a new concept. Erica Bower, a PhD student who studies human mobility in the context of climate change impacts, notes that climate change is a threat multiplier. This means that climate change “can exacerbate economic insecurity or political instability, which in turn may lead to migration.”
In the context of the “dry corridor” of Central America, for example, Bower explains that “climate change extremes such as droughts may hinder crop production. Without a consistent source of food or income, a farmer may seek other livelihood opportunities in a nearby city or further north. When combined with poverty or violence, a drought may make the perilous journey north seem to be a more promising adaptation or survival strategy.” This is related to the slow-onset events, that we mentioned earlier, but it’s also related to the sudden-onset events.
As the Red Cross explains, climate change as a threat multiplier means that there is “compounded impact”. This “makes recovery [from sudden-onset events] longer and more difficult”. And “people barely have time to recover and they’re slammed with another disaster.” And as the Instagram post by Intersectional Environmentalist makes clear… there are original vulnerabilities, because of environmental, economic, demographic, and/or political stress. These become aggravated, because of trapping factors like economic, health, social, political and geographic reasons. Such as insufficient means, disabilities, lack of support networks, political conflicts, etc.
FEATURED IMAGE: via UN Environmental Migration Portal | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Graphic version of above-explained relationship between original and aggravated vulnerability, with a full textual explanation here.
What is the profile of climate refugees and migrants?
Again, to whom do these sudden (and slow) onset events happen? It’s worth considering the profiles of climate refugees and migrants. The World Bank projects that climate change will drive 143 million people in Latin America, Africa and South Asia alone to leave their homes by 2050. Donato, Carrico, and Gilligan note that many of these people come from poor regions that “have contributed little to global warming“.
This is a racial justice issue. As climate justice activist Helena Bennett writes: “If wealthy, white people were forced to leave their homes due to climate change, there would be uproar”. Bennett points to the example of the Australian bush fires. But now, she says, “BIPOC are fleeing from their homes at alarming rates and no one is talking about it.” Padilla concurs, contending that “[c]limate displacement is most definitely a racial issue.”
“The people and nations that are home to the most climate refugees are simultaneously bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change were the nations that were exploited for their natural resources during the age of colonialism. It is no surprise that these nations are not considered “Western” and are not predominantly white. Climate change is the direct result of hundreds of years of extraction, colonialism and slavery.”
It is not new that the climate crisis affects the most vulnerable
Countless studies have discussed this. And many activists have repeated this over, and over again. It is worth repeating. The 2020 Ecological Threat Register, examining 157 countries’ exposure to eight ecological threats, and assessing their capacity to withstand them, found that sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa—all in the “Global South”—faced the most ecological threats. Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Mozambique, and Madagascar “face a combination of threats and a growing incapacity to deal with them”.
The issue is that “[w]ealthier, more developed regions in Europe and North America face fewer ecological threats and would be better able to cope with them”. Although they too have to deal with wider and more indirect threats, there are 16 countries, including wealthy countries like Sweden, Norway, and Ireland, that face no threat.
Again, it bears repeating that poorer countries with very low carbon footprints bear the brunt of the carbon emissions of wealthy nations. The report, “Hunger Strike: The Climate and Food Vulnerability Index”, found that “the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world generate less than half a ton of CO2 per person. Collectively, they generate just 0.08% of total global CO2”. (The food insecurity comes from being on the frontlines of the climate crisis. They’re facing higher temperatures, lower crop yields, unreliable rains, and more.)
The injustice has led to the international movement Fridays For Future to popularise the term MAPA. “MAPA” is short for “Most Affected Peoples and Areas”. And it’s a term to describe “some communities and regions of the planet, who contribute the least to the climate crisis but suffer the most”.
Meanwhile, powerful countries shirk responsibility
The post from Intersectional Environmentalist notes that powerful countries aren’t taking responsibility. Instead, “recent nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric in Europe and the US [prevent] governments from embracing policies that support climate refugees as a new class under international law. Borders continue to function as they were originally intended to: by supporting colonialism and the criminalization of marginalized groups.” Worse, Europe and the US are increasingly militarizing their borders. It’s in fact become a “lucrative business”. While profiting off the lives of vulnerable communities. And fuelling xenophobic sentiments too.
Most recently, US Vice President Kamal Harris has made headlines for her first international trip to Guatemala. Harris, to the migrants seeking asylum, said: “Do not come.” She named corruption and human trafficking as the most pressing causes for migration from the country. But, she failed to acknowledge the climate crisis. We know, of course, that the US is deeply responsible. (Being a wealthy nation with wealthy citizens, housing destructive corporations and protecting the fossil fuel industry, and its history of colonialism notwithstanding.) The US is responsible, and continues to be responsible, for much of the climate crisis.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weighed in to remind Harris, and the US, of their hypocrisy. “First,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.” There is, of course, much more that countries like the US can do. Amnesty International USA has even published an entire list of recommendations the US government can do to address climate displacement.
Where to from here?
Amnesty International USA’s list of recommendations includes: policies that enhance pathways for admission and protection. Strengthening of multilateral and regional cooperation. Providing support to address loss and damage. And of course, reducing the likelihood and extent of climate-related displacement to begin with. This means that any effort to get countries and corporations to be more in line with their climate targets (which in turn should be aligned with the IPCC recommendations) will help.
But climate justice activists argue that we must do more. Beyond legislating and getting involved with organising around legislation, we must reframe how we view the refugee and migrant crisis. And that starts with ending the all-too-common saviour complex. Which can underlie well-meaning efforts to “help”.
No (white) saviours
Climate justice activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan is based in Manila, Philippines. She is an organiser with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and the Fridays For Future Philippines and International chapters. She writes, in an essay for the Bad Activist Collective: “As someone from the Global South, or as some of us in the climate movement like to say, MAPA… it can be so difficult to have your voice heard, what more listened to and valued. More often than not, we are reduced to sad stories and statistics – an anecdote in a speech.”
“That is not what I want people to think of when they think of me or my country. Yes, the Filipino people have experienced so much heartache and devastation, but we are not a nation that is to be pitied; our revolutionary spirit is strong and kicking, and if our “white saviors” really want to help us, you should amplify our voices and put a spotlight on how we fight back. We are not tools for your personal gratification, we are not tools for you to illicit emotion in your audience.”
So we must remember that we should not reduce these climate refugees and migrants to mere numbers. We should not reduce their trauma to pity parties. And if we want to “help”, we cannot position ourselves as saviours. Instead, as Tan writes: “silence the room, make space for us, stand united and fight with us. Do not lump us together and expect all of us to know the nuances and context of the trauma of each country, of each sector of society, of each person. We each have a voice. We each have our own unique story to tell and share – and people need to listen.”
Just the tip of the iceberg
What we’ve covered here is just the tip of the iceberg. As Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, and lifelong campaigner against racial and economic injustice, says, there are “complex causes of migration and climate displacement”. [And if we do not acknowledge them] we risk acknowledging the “systematic, unequal power relations” that are relevant in understanding “why, when and where people move”. When we talk about forced displacement and migration, we cannot simplify the problem. We cannot simply say that their conditions are poor. Why are their conditions poor?
Beyond that, we also have to acknowledge that it’s not a problem that we can generalise. Migration and climate displacement looks different, as Tan says, everywhere. Climate researcher Joycelyn Longdon, too, reminds us that we can’t lump people together. We can’t “render real people invisible, and strip them of their humanity, especially as “climate migration” or “climate refugee” already feeds into and sits under the incredibly anti-migration narrative that villainises Black, Brown, poor and marginalised people.”
Climate reporter Alexandra Tempus warns against apocalyptic predictions, headlining numbers, and news reports. Tempus argues that even well-meaning attempts at “nailing down a global number of climate refugees by a specific calendar year can be problematic, conjuring images of apocalyptic invasions and fanning the flames of nationalism and xenophobia already spreading across the globe.” She adds that it might even misrepresent the problem. Since the “majority of climate migrants move within their own countries, often slowly over time, and usually not very far.” All of this is to say that again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. To truly understand the problem, we must zoom in further to specific, local contexts. We must fight over-simplification and over-generalisation.
What can we do?
So to begin with, we need to reframe the issue. And again, we must not simplify the multifaceted issue. Because that obscures the power structures and ongoing oppression that is worsening the crises. Longdon says that we must “[r]efrain from using general or stereotypical phrases to describe complex issues”. She adds, that we should “take opportunities to challenge [our] understanding of climate displacement as a problem, inherent to wider environmental and socioeconomic issues. Most of all, try [our] best to move away from perpetuating the already vile and discriminatory fears around the movement of people.”
Climate, politics and social justice activist Helena Bennett recommends “[a]ny activism that encourages the Paris Agreement being met”. (The climate crisis, after all, is one of the roots of the crisis.) “Support NGOs and charities who are protecting and preserving the rights of climate refugees”. Such as Environmental Justice Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, War on Want, and more. Support local chapters of these organisations. Work with them to better immigration laws. Work against xenophobic sentiments.
Padilla adds that donating to these organisations is important. And demanding action from those in power (i.e. our governments, corporations we’re linked to, etc.) will also help. But beyond these actionables? Padilla highlights educating ourselves and those around us about the refugee crisis. While amplifying the voices and stories of communities facing displacement. (Some collectives and platforms to follow include: Fridays For Future MAPA and Our Climate Voices). Above all, she says, we need to stand with, not for, refugees (and migrants).
Because solidarity, at the end of the day, is not merely a show of empathy. It’s not merely a day of awareness, either. It’s ongoing, sustained efforts. And we must be in it for the long haul.
FEATURED IMAGE: via UN | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Children in the village of Tebikenikora, on Kiribati’s main Tarawa atoll. Kiribati, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, faces rising water levels and the brunt of the climate crisis despite contributing little to carbon emissions.
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