TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — The worsening climate, driven largely by burning of coal and gas, is uprooting millions of people, with wildfires smashing cities in California, rising seas overtaking island nations and droughts exacerbating conflicts in different parts of the world.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, natural disasters drive an average of 21.5 million people from their homes worldwide every year. And scientists predict that migration will increase as the planet gets hotter. Rising sea levels, drought, scorching temperatures and other climate-related disasters are likely to uproot 143 million people over the next 30 years, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this year.
Yet the world has yet to officially recognize climate refugees or find formalized ways to assess their needs and help them. Here’s a look at climate migration today.
WHO ARE CLIMATE MIGRANTS?
Most climate migrants move within the borders of their home countries, usually from rural areas to cities after losing their homes or livelihoods due to drought, rising sea levels, or some other weather disaster. As cities also confront their own climate-related problems, including rising temperatures and water shortages, people are increasingly being forced to flee across international borders to seek refuge.
However, climate migrants are not granted refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which only grants legal protection to people fleeing persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.
DEFINE CLIMATE MIGRATION
Identifying climate refugees is not easy, especially in regions marked by poverty, violence and conflict.
As deteriorating weather conditions exacerbate poverty, crime and political instability, and stoke tensions over dwindling resources from Africa to Latin America, climate change is often overlooked as a factor contributing to people fleeing their homelands. According to UNHCR, 90% of the refugees under its mandate come from countries “on the front lines of the climate emergency”.
In El Salvador, for example, large numbers of people leave their villages every year because of crop failures due to drought or floods and end up in cities where they become victims of gang violence and eventually flee their lands because of these attacks.
“It’s hard to say someone is moving just because of climate change. Is everyone leaving Honduras after a hurricane a climate refugee?” Elizabeth Ferris, a research professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “And then there are non-climate-related environmental hazards – people fleeing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis – should they be treated differently than those displaced by weather-related phenomena?”
Despite the challenges, it’s important that governments identify climate-displaced people, Ferris added.
“The whole problem of definition is not a trivial question — how can you develop a policy for people if you’re not clear to whom it applies?” she wrote.
While no nation offers asylum to climate migrants, in October 2020 UNHCR released legal guidance opening the door to provide shelter to people displaced by the effects of global warming. It said climate change should be considered in certain scenarios when it intersects with violence, although it stalled on redefining the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The Commission acknowledged that temporary protection may not be sufficient when a country’s situation changes due to natural disasters, such as an earthquake.
More and more countries are preparing to become safe havens for climate refugees. In May, Argentina created a special humanitarian visa for people from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean displaced by natural disasters, allowing them a three-year stay.
Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden ordered his national security adviser to conduct a month-long study that also examined “options for the protection and resettlement of individuals directly or indirectly displaced by climate change.” A task force has been set up, but so far the administration has not adopted such a program.
Low-lying Bangladesh, which is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, was one of the first to try to adapt to the new reality of migration. Efforts are being made to identify climate-resilient cities where people displaced by sea-level rise, river erosion, cyclones and saltwater intrusion can move to work and in turn economically support their new locations.
TRANSFORMING MIGRATION DEBATES
Political debates about migration have long focused on closing borders. Climate change is changing that.
With hundreds of millions of people expected to be uprooted by natural disasters, how to manage, not stop, migration flows is a growing debate as proponents say migration will become a survival tool for many people.
“One problem is simply the complete lack of understanding of how climate is forcing people to move,” said Amali Tower, founder and chief executive officer of Climate Refugees, an advocacy group focused on raising awareness for people who are displaced due to climate change. “There’s still this notion in the Global North (developed nations) that people come here to escape poverty and seek a better life, the American Dream. In Europe it’s the same twist of the same story. But no one wants to leave them. We need to approach climate displacement as a human security issue, not a border security issue.”
The Associated Press’s climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.