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We need to talk about climate refugees

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Ask most people what the reasons for migration are and their responses would probably include examples such as poverty, unemployment, persecution, internal conflict or war. On any day in any national newspaper there will be a story about migrants - however, the headlines and sensational stories only tell a small part of the refugee story.

The World's First Climate Refugees from vladsokhin on Vimeo.

According to  National GeographicThe International Red Cross 'estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from wars and other conflicts'.  Some stories make it into the news and even become case studies on exam syllabuses. For example, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013 - and as a creeping catastrophe that causied thousands of deaths and the displacement of four million people, it is now studied in GCSE Geography.

In 2017 countries across East Africa were in the grip of a crippling drought – poor rains and harvests coupled with continued fighting left 'more than 38 million people at risk'. The focus of these stories was rightly on human suffering but the cause, being climate change, was largely unreported.

Climate Refugee Demonstrate for their Rehabilitation in Khulna, Bangladesh

Climate Refugees Demonstrate for their Rehabilitation in Khulna, Bangladesh/ Image Credit: The World Wants a Real Deal on Flickr 

According to the UN Refugee Agency, 'since 2009, an estimated one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, with an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate - or weather-related events since 2008'. The current refugee crisis faced by Europe has increased because of extreme droughts in regions of the Middle East and Africa, and yet the environmental driver is rarely mentioned.

Why isn't the government talking about it?

These people are often described as economic migrants, with all the associated stigma and stereotyping attached to people from affected countries. For many, if not most, of these people, the imperative to flee is just as much a matter of life and death as if they were escaping war.

Part of the reason for keeping this quiet may be because environment or climate migrants do not have any legal status. There is a "protection gap" for people who flee their homes and regions due to environmental factors, as they are excluded from the terms of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The convention is the basis of the current global asylum regime that obliges nations to provide asylum to anyone fleeing, "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

Oxfam has been trucking clean water in rural areas of southern Ethiopia, where poor rains left water sources dr

Image Credit: Oxfam East Africa from Flickr.

Often, climate refugees are rural and coastal residents who are forced to migrate to urban areas. Many climate refugees are internal migrants, whose movement is within their own country and therefore not seen as of any international importance – we don’t speak their language and we don’t face the same issues, so we don’t care. For our government, like many things, they are out of sight out of mind. However, this will not always be the case - we cannot hide from the evils of our pollution forever.

The science is clear. Climate change is real. Climate change is happening now and according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF),  the problem is almost entirely man-made. According to The Guardian, historically, the UK comes in as fifth most responsible for the current climate crisis.

With this in mind, perhaps this is why governments avoid the categorisation of some refugees as 'climate'. It is easier for them to separate themselves from the issue if they ignore it. 

Perhaps when London is drowning, and its residents are attempting to flee with their rescued possessions, shoulder-high in sea water, the debris of our capital floating by – then maybe ‘climate refugees’ will make it onto the front pages of every newspaper. Until then our politicians will continue to ensure us that the problems lie elsewhere. 

Read more from the Environment Section

Lead Image: CAPRA Initiative on Flickr.




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