Saturday, June 20 is the annual World Refugee Day. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) was chartered in 1950 to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Today, 65 years after the UN was chartered, we see more people displaced from their homes than ever before, and we see a changing climate that threatens to leave millions and millions more without a home to go back to. In some extreme cases, climate change will leave people without even a homeland to go back to, as rising seas threaten entire island nations.
In recognition of World Refugee Day, the UNHCR released its annual “Global Trends” report. This one is subtitled “World at War” in recognition that 2014 saw the highest amount of displaced people in the world. It says almost 60 million people are displaced refugees, either internally or internationally. The report shows how nearly half of those refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. It is a report that is both depressing and familiar: we are no longer surprised by these wars and the carnage they have wreaked. Watch the UNHCR’s summary video below:
As we have discussed often in this blog before, climate change will act as an “accelerant of instability” that will make conflict more likely – and with more conflict, there will be more refugees. For several years, there’s been a discussion about how climate change alone (without conflict) will cause migration and refugee flows. Under strict interpretation of international law, we cannot call people who migrate because of climate change “Climate Refugees” because the term “refugee” is strictly defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention as osmeone who:
“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Therefore, a “migrant” is legally different than a “refugee.” A migrant is voluntarily leaving their homeland. A refugee was forced to leave because they have no protection from their own state. Refugees are therefor given a privileged status in international law.
The overlap between migrants and refugees, however, becomes complicated by climate change. Like with conflict, climate change is likely acting as an “accelerant” of already existing trends in migration. However, there will be some migrants who could be defined as refugees because they literally will not have a homeland to go back to.
Perhaps because of the ambiguity about why people migrate, there is a wide variety of estimates about how many people will be displaced by climate change. I’ve seen studies saying 100 million people will be displaced by global warming. Or 250 million. Even 1 billion people could be on the move, according to reports.
Notwithstanding this ambiguity, the visual of people or entire populations chased off their homelands because of rising seas or encroaching desert is compelling. Unfortunately, the reality is rarely as clear-cut. Most of the cases won’t be as stark as families who have to leave their homeland on Kiribati because it has vanished beneath the waves. Even in Bangladesh, a poster child for the threat of climate migration because of the vast numbers living in low-lying deltas of the Brahmaputra, Meghana, and Ganges rivers, land washed away by encroaching seas is often replaced (at least partially) in other places of the delta by new sediment from upstream. How do we define people displaced from their homes in such an environment?
Regardless of how many climate migrants there will be, or whether the international community affords them the legal protection of “refugee” status, there is likely to be growing numbers of people on the move. That should be concerning, especially given how difficult of a problem Europe and US is facing with current waves of migrants. The latest surge across the Mediterranean in Europe has seen over 50,000 migrants land in Italy by sea so far this year, mostly traveling from Libya. In 2014, the US saw 47,000 unaccompanied minors arrive over the Southern border with Mexico, mostly from Central American countries. In the Bay of Bengal, a surge of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar is stressing regional ties. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is that those flows have caused such fierce problems, while they are only a small portion of the 60 million total refugees that the UN estimates, and an even smaller number compared with future flows due to climate change.
It is long past time for a more effective refugee regime. Figuring out how to both respect national sovereignty and individual dignity is a challenge – but the world has no choice in facing it.
Below, I’ve embedded a trailer to the 2010 documentary “Climate Refugees.” I saw the movie some years ago (see my blog post about it) and thought it quite good at the time. It features Vice Admiral Lee Gun (Ret), then President of ASP, among many other dignitaries.