Should people displaced by climate change impacts be considered as refugees? Are there climate refugees or are people forced to move out of their territories by climate impacts qualified to be seen as such? The answer has repeatedly been a No. The continued rejection of the notion that there are climate refugees essentially denies reality while hiding under specious legal arguments.
The legal cover is the definition contained in the United Nations’ 1951 refugee convention. That convention states that a person qualifies as a refugee if there is “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Many governments refuse to accept the fact that things have changed since 1951 and that the definition of who a refugee is should be reviewed. We find this reticence not only among countries intent to shut their borders against persons facing climate tragedies, but also civil society groups pandering to the wishes of politicians in their countries or regions. It is particularly worrisome when individuals and groups determine only to demand for what they imagine policy makers would accept.
There are a number of things wrong with this position. One of these is that those who only demand for changes that they imagine are acceptable to policy makers are merely engaging in self-censorship in situations where policy makers may actually need to be better informed. Secondly, such positions obscure realities and places short term interests over long term good. Thirdly, people who kowtow to policy makers in situations like this end up ceding their sovereignty to persons elected to actually serve them.
At a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, in December 2018, leaders from 164 countries adopted the UN Global Compact on Migration by which they defined a common approach to migration. The Compact recognised climate change as a driver of migration. While this should have been celebrated as a major shift in the direction of addressing the humanitarian situation, a number of European Union countries together with the United States of America and Australia opted not to adopt the Compact. It is obvious that leaders of such countries are happy to build physical and virtual walls at their borders against persons displaced by climate impacts in a bid to secure their own perceived privileges, until the storms literarily come knocking at their doors.
Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that about 140 million people will be displaced globally by desertification by 2045 and the World Bank estimates that a similar number will face internal displacement in parts of Africa, Latin America and South Asia from impacts of climate change by 2050.
The fact that climate impacts are increasingly wreaking havoc on communities, territories and nations is acknowledged by most rational persons. Some of these impacts, including droughts, desertification, sea level rise and related loss of territory creep in slowly and may not make headline news because displacement is not sudden but happens by instalment, as a slow tide. Displacements relate to sudden storms and flooding. Communities face a cascade of impacts from environmental changes. Disaster and degradation cause conflicts and displacements. Conflicts and displacement in turn cause environmental degradation. It is a vicious circle that demands urgent climate action.
To avoid accepting that there are climate refugees, there have been efforts to categorise persons that are forced to move externally or internally. Thus, we hear of internally and externally displaced persons as distinct from refugees. While the definition of refugees confers certain international rights and protections on the individuals involved, the internally displaced persons remain within the jurisdiction of governments that may have caused their predicament and as such, they are exposed to grave dangers and have limited protections.
Perhaps the most poignant fact that should put us to shame was brought out by campaigners at the USA-Mexican border who argued that they did not cross the border but that the border crossed them. Much of the territories into which Mexicans are barred from entering was originally Mexican. Now, the border crossed them. That deep statement can be amplified across the world. National and political boundaries are not set in concrete and came to existence long after human communities had lived together in harmony and solidarity. Events such as colonialism and the partitioning of territories through conquest and banditry brought in boundaries that we see today. Our national boundaries crossed and balkanised us on that infamous 1984-85 Berlin conference table. Fighting to keep threatened individuals from crossing such fundamentally illicit boundaries is a mark of myopia and loss of imagination and memory.
It is time for the world to wake up and accept persons displaced by climate change as climate refugees. A rejection of this class of persons simply compounds the challenges they face and sentences more to death in their efforts to find their way to safety. Shutting the borders against these persons can be compared to shutting people into burning houses rather than opening up ways for escape to safety. Involuntary movements occasioned by climate change or any other factor is not a pleasure trip for the victims. It often means a disruption of their economies, culture and even spirituality. It is more than a mere movement.
The closing of borders remains a political tool for politicians who raise nationalistic fervour and stoke xenophobic fears for their own advantage. Refugees are seen as a threat to the enjoyment of certain national rsources and that must be kept out. What is often forgotten is that humans have, over the millennia, been on the move, migrating from one point to another. If we agree that there is a point of human origin, then we should all accept that we are migrants no matter where we find ourselves at present. This thought brings to mind the words of Peter Tosh, the great reggae artiste who sang: Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.
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