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Why climate refugees are the hot potato of immigration policy

November 10, 2014
by: Vanessa Ellingham
located in: New Zealand
tags: asylum seekers, climate migration, climate refugees, immigration, Kiribati, New Zealand, refugees, Tuvalu

The Red Cross estimates that the world's environmental refugees outnumber those fleeing for political reasons. And yet those suffering from the effects of climate change are yet to be protected by international law.

In August this year, a Tuvaluan family claiming asylum on the grounds of climate change had their application accepted by a New Zealand court.

Sigeo Alesana left Tuvalu in 2007 with his wife and children, seeking asylum due to the rising sea levels around their home on the Polynesian island, which had caused poor water quality, leaving their children susceptible to illnesses.

Yet, in an appeal the Alesana family was allowed to stay in New Zealand on humanitarian grounds, as they had family and social ties to New Zealand. Due to climate change not being recognised as grounds for seeking asylum, the family had previously had their application rejected. But on August 4, the judge acknowledged the effects of climate change on the family in the ruling and that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Previous attempts by another family from Kiribati to claim asylum from the effects of climate change in New Zealand had been unsuccessful and another family is currently appealing a similar decision.

The Alesana family became the first people claiming to be climate refugees to have their applications accepted in New Zealand and, most likely, the world.

Despite estimates from the International Red Cross that environmental refugees – of which climate refugees are a large part – now outnumber those fleeing for political reasons, those suffering from the effects of global warming are not protected under international law.

But climate change isn’t going to go away, and neither are those escaping its effects.

Where can they go?

Climate refugees are forced to leave their homes because of climate change and global warming – most commonly due to rising sea levels, but extreme weather events, droughts and water scarcity can also push people from their homes.

Climate refugees belong to a wider category of environmental refugees, which includes people who must leave their homes because of natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis.

Sometimes it is difficult for scientists to say whether an environmental event is caused by climate change or not – climate change has occurred many times in the earth’s billion years of history, so we are just experiencing the most recent wave.

What experts do know is that climate change is real, it is caused by human activities, it is happening now, and the number of climate refugees is on a steep rise.

At current estimates, a global temperature increase of 2-3 degrees Celsius would see anywhere between 39 and 812 million people in South Asia at risk of water stress, with the possibility of climate refugees from Bangladesh alone outnumbering all current refugees worldwide – political and others.

So are climate refugees an issue of international security, human rights, development, or all three?

Who’s in charge here?

The Global Governance Project was a research programme running from 2001 to 2011 that spanned 13 European research institutions focusing on environmental changes and sustainable development in a globalised world. The project’s findings bore key research on climate refugees that is still among the most relevant research on the topic.

Their research found that the climate refugee question tends to be framed in terms of either international security or human rights, but they argue that neither of these options is sufficient.

As climate change increases competition for natural resources, the risk of conflict is predicted to rise, threatening peace and security. So not only will climate change create climate refugees, but also political refugees. An international governing body like the UN Security Council has a vested interest in reducing this risk.

But so do those who maintain international human rights law, according to the Global Governance Project. “Climate refugees have a right to be protected from climate change impacts. Moreover, countries that are responsible for climate change have a moral responsibility to provide victims of climate change this protection.”

Though that may be the case, the Project’s conclusions argue that neither international security nor human rights bodies are best equipped to deal with climate refugees. They instead argue for a separate body charged with the responsibility of climate refugees alone, an intermediary that works with the other big players.

“We prefer to see the climate refugee crisis as a development issue, since climate refugees require protection in the form of long-term voluntary resettlement programs for collectives of people, which can often take place within their own country. Such programmes can more effectively be provided by development agencies than by security or human rights institutions.”

Perhaps that is why climate refugees are still waiting for their moment in the spotlight. The contrast of being passed around from one global body to the next like a hot potato, with the potential for resettlement within one’s own country being possible if only the right steps are taken, has created an avoidance of the issue.

Moving with dignity

Some argue that by putting the ‘refugee’ label around the necks of those who suffer at the hands of climate change, we are unnecessarily victimising them and inhibiting their ability to move on with dignity.

When those moving due to climate change have relative autonomy over where they live next, is it dignifying for them to be lumped in with political refugees, who have very little say in where they go next? Perhaps not.

Or does the label sit uncomfortably because the idea of finding our own livelihoods rendered invalid by climate change is a little too close to home?

What we do know is climate change isn’t just affecting the third world – just look at the Mississippi river delta and low-lying parts of Europe. Climate change is on our doorstep, and soon it might be flooding through the front door.

Article written by:
Vanessa Ellingham
New Zealand
More and more people will be affected by water scarcity.
What we do know is climate change isn’t just affecting the third world – just look at the Mississippi river delta and low-lying parts of Europe. Climate change is on our doorstep, and soon it might be flooding through the front door.
What we do know is climate change isn’t just affecting the third world – just look at the Mississippi river delta and low-lying parts of Europe. Climate change is on our doorstep, and soon it might be flooding through the front door.