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Losing Ground: What Today’s Global Refugee Crisis Tells Us About Preparing Our World For Climate Change Refugees

People return to their villages in the floodwater in Bihar, India on September 30, 2008. The flood of the Kosi River caused a slow but steady flow of water, which was relatively shallow, but tens of kilometers wide covering local infrastructure entirely.

In his historic address to Congress in September, Pope Francis likened the magnitude of the current refugee crisis to that of World War II. He urged Congress to not be deterred by the overwhelming numbers, but to recognize the refugees’ humanity, listen to their stories, and try to “respond as best as we can to their situation.” As photos of suffering and stories of the plight of refugees arriving in Europe saturate our media, his words come at a time when it has become brutally apparent that the international community has not responded adequately and humanely to the crisis at hand. And while Pope Francis prompted Americans to look toward the past — to the refugee crisis brought on by World War II — we should also be looking toward the future. As the Earth continues to warm in the coming years, the beginnings of a global refugee crisis of even greater magnitude have already begun. With today’s lackluster response to the global migration crisis as a canary in the mine for climate change refugees, it is clear we have a lot of work left to do.

An unlikely champion of the climate change refugee cause is Ioane Teitiota, born on Tabiteuea Atoll, one of the Republic of Kiribati’s 33 tiny islands, which are little more than narrow strips of sand barely rising from the ocean. On most of these islands, where the land averages little more than six feet above sea level, one would be hard-pressed to find a place where the ocean is more than a few minutes’ walk away. After four years of unemployment and struggling to recover from repeatedly knocked-down sea walls toppled by severe flooding of the family’s land, Teitiota and his wife used their retirement savings to fly to New Zealand in 2007. He was granted a work visa, but after overstaying his permitted time, he filed a series of court appeals to stay in the country. His attorney chose to present him as a refugee, a casualty of climate change, turning Teitiota, a 38-year-old migrant farmworker, into an unlikely representative for the thousands of people in Kiribati and millions worldwide expected to lose their homes due to rising seas and other consequences of climate change. On September 23, the Supreme Court of New Zealand ruled to deport Teitiota, arguing that he did not meet the legal definition of a refugee because he would not face persecution if he returned home.

Though Teitiota’s case fell into a legal void, he will undoubtedly be only the first of many victims of climate change to file pleas for refuge. The most widely repeated prediction cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change estimates that there will be 200 million climate migrants by 2050. The figure comes from the analysis of Norman Myers of Oxford University and includes “people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding.” The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is expected to be underwater by 2050, and more than one-tenth of its population has already immigrated to neighboring countries. The highest point in Tuvalu is just over 15 feet above sea level, and already, the island is temporarily submerged during tidal surges. Meanwhile, the president of the Maldives — an archipelago whose highest point reaches only eight feet above sea level — is looking to buy land on which to relocate his fellow citizens in light of alarming predictions that the country could disappear in the next 30 years. Overall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that by the end of the century, as many as 2.2 million people will be displaced from small island nations alone. And while the threat of rising sea levels (a product of both the ocean water’s expansion with warming and added glacial melt water) is grave, the most immediate threat to low-lying countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives is not outright submersion but rather increasingly frequent and severe storms. According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center and the Norwegian Refugee Council, nearly 22 million people were displaced in 119 countries by floods, storms, and other disasters in 2013, roughly three times as many as were displaced by violent conflict. Given the vulnerable position in these countries and the increasing frequency of violent storms, 2013’s numbers will be eclipsed in the next few years.

Though it didn’t help Teitiota win his case, refugees from island nations facing submersion or increased severe weather activity fall into a relatively clean-cut category of climate change refugees. However, if the definition were broadened to include the full range of people displaced as a result of climate change, many more, including the majority of refugees on the move in Europe and elsewhere, can lay claim to this label. Drought and desertification have been described as “the invisible frontline” destabilizing communities on a global scale, threatening food and water security and threatening mass unemployment and civil unrest. One of the drivers of the Syrian refugee crisis was a five-year drought, the worst ever recorded in the country, beginning in the 2007-2008 cropping season. During the drought, the United Nations estimated that levels of youth unemployment in Syria rose to a staggering 48 percent, and a recent study concluded that the unprecedented severity of Syria’s drought and subsequent unemployment rates were decisive factors pushing people toward revolution, conflict, and civil war.

Conflict fueled by climate change and desertification is not unique to Syria. Another report issued by the United States Institute of Peace asserted that “a basic causal mechanism links climate change with violence in Nigeria.” The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification asserts that the effects of desertification force many small-scale farmers and poor, land-dependent communities to choose between fight and flight. Whether or not those fleeing conflict spurred by food and water insecurity will ever be given specific protections as climate change refugees, their plight needs to be specifically addressed. The drylands of Africa, an area that includes the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and Southern Africa are home to over 400 million people, most of whom are the rural poor. In the Middle East, Syria and Jordan are predicted to lose 30 percent of their fertile land to desertification unless action is urgently taken, and the region including the Middle East and North Africa already has the most significant food deficit in the world. The combination of poverty, food insecurity, water stress, and high unemployment produces a fertile ground for political instability and violence, greatly contributing to global refugee crises such as the one seen in Europe today.

If our current global refugee crisis is the canary in the mine for climate change refugees, policymakers need to take bold steps toward recognition and action. Climate change causes forced migration directly —from vulnerable island nations, for example — and indirectly — as in Syria, following conflict spurred by severe drought. And the burden is expected to fall more heavily on developing nations, with most of today’s environmentally induced migration occurring within and between their borders. Some progress has been made: Fiji has promised to accept climate refugees from Kiribati, citizens of the Marshall Islands can live and work visa-free in the United States, and New Zealand has agreed to grant entry and work permits to an annual quota of 75 citizens from Tuvalu.

But beyond the tentative pledges of individual states and some international agencies to prepare for the direct victims of climate change, commitments need to be clarified, expanded, and enforced. In fact, a sizable minority of states have not even committed to the inadequate protection duties outlined in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. The convention defines a refugee as someone who has fled his or her country “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” As demonstrated in Teteiota’s case, the dynamics and causes of displacement have changed dramatically over the past six decades, and the existing definition — focused on persecution — needs to be expanded if it is to address the needs of climate change refugees. At the same time, it needs to be a workable definition, one to which states can be held accountable. If we’ve learned anything from the current crisis, it’s that even signatory states remain capable of sidestepping their obligations.

Additional cross-cutting adaptation and prevention measures are another place to start. Investment in agricultural research for North African and Middle Eastern regions that could benefit from innovations like raised bed technology and heat-tolerant wheat varieties for increased water productivity and sustainability could go a long way to dampen the effects of climate change. Europe’s current struggle to cope with an influx of refugees has made clear that in the looming climate change refugee crisis, calling for compassion and agreeing to take in refugees, even in substantial numbers, will not be enough. Instead, the international community must work cooperatively to stem the tide of climate change refugees at its source.

Photo: Balazs Gardi

About the Author

Katherine Lamb '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, concentrating in International Relations and Middle East Studies.