Climate Refugees: A letter for UNHCR from a Grade Five Student

by Bhavani Prakash

Climate Refugee picture flickr

Picture Courtesy www.chs.tigweb.org

I was pleasantly surprised and inspired by this passionate letter that arrived in my mailbox about the issue of Climate Refugees and what the UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees needs to do to help migrants affected by Climate Change.

It’s by Atulya Venkataraman, a Grade V student of UWCSEA, Singapore.  It reads thus:

19th May 2010.

Dear Madam,

Please allow me to introduce myself as a student in Grade 5 at United World College of South East Asia, Singapore. We are currently studying climate change and its impact on communities.  My friend Jun Oh Koo (Korea) and I are collaborating on a project to present at our school exhibition on 25th May.
While we as a civilization are working to prevent climate change and avoid catastrophes, we must prepare for calamities. There is a significant danger— many islands such as Vanuatu in the Pacific, Maldives in the Indian Ocean, costal areas of India and Bangladesh will be greatly affected and perhaps even disappear under the sea.  This would displace large segments of population living in these areas.  Many of these people are already among the weakest in an economic sense.
These displaced populations will have nowhere to go and will become refugees, similar to the refugees of a war. Currently the definition of refugees under the UNHCR is that a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” (From the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees).
It is important to notice that people who have lost their homes, their lively hoods and just about everything, because the lands they have lived in traditionally for thousands of years are a group of people who are not covered under this definition.  To paraphrase Socrates, I am neither a Greek nor an Athenian; but, a citizen of the world.
As such I believe it is my humble duty to propose that the definition of refugees as defined by the UNHCR be changed to include people displaced by climate change.  Perhaps greater minds are already dealing with this issue and I am only adding my voice in support of these great minds.  This small step will provide a giant leap of relief for millions who will unwittingly be born refugees 50 years from now.
In 2050, when I am 61, I do not know what the world will be like; but, Madam as a 11 year old today if I can get you to address this issue, my life might not be entirely wasted in playing video games rather than doing my school work as my mother always reminds me.

Atulya Venkataraman
Activist, Climate Refugees


My reply to Atulya:

Dear Atulya,

Thank you for your letter. It shows an impressive level of maturity for one as young as you.

Trust me, your life will never be wasted, given the care and concern you show for people, especially the vulnerable. Your letter indicates that you are way ahead of those three or four or even five times your age, who are too busy with their own lives to create a positive change for the world.

Your suggestion is extremely powerful.  The mere act of including climate refugees in the UNHCR definition would give the much needed attention and focus to this issue. Unfortunately, the “great minds” (borrowing your words) are dragging their feet on this important change that needs to be incorporated in the way we look at climate refugees and prepare well in advance before calamity strikes.

So far, the official UNHCR postion as quoted here in their magazine (Page 13) is, ” While agreeing that the refugee agency was already involved in a limited way in environmental issues and helping internally displaced persons, UNHCR said there were fundamental differences between the two groups.  Refugees could not turn to their own governments for protection because states were often the source of persecution and they therefore needed international assistance, it said, whereas environmental migrants continue to enjoy the same national protection whatever the state of the landscape. Lumping both groups unde the same heading would further cloud the issues and could undermine efforts to help and protect either group and to address the root causes of either type.” 

However “national protection” is not going to be very helpful, because most of the environmental migrants are from developing countries, which do not have the resources to manage this kind of large scale migration, even if most of it is internal.  These countries do not contribute to much of the global climate change, which is largely due to consumption by richer, developed nations. It is only fair that more is done to help these countries with adaptation efforts.

More people need to come forward to press for this amendment in the UNHCR definition, so yes, I am forwarding this letter with a copy to you to the UNHCR, and am also broadcasting this message through the UNHCR facebook page, Twitter and LinkedIn. I hope many people will see your message and also support this issue.

While we await UNHCR’s reply, you have work cut out for you this summer! I hope you’re game for it.

I know you’re young, but if you can get the help of a parent or an adult on social media, here are some ideas:

  1. Start an online campaign on the Petition Site  (check if there’s one already) and spread the word amongst your friends and family.
  2. Set up a Facebook Like Page for this cause. Post information and stories relating to Climate Refugees for others to understand the gravity of the situation. 
  3. Send your letter (bear in mind the word limits of each magazine/newspaper) to various online and offline newspapers and magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, Guardian, The Economist, The Ecologist, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, for example, and other regional media such as The Straits Times, The Times of India, Jakarta Post etc.

If you need any help or clarifications, let me know.

Do send us pictures of your exhibitions, and some of your write-ups and findings. I’ll be happy to post them in a blog for you.

Thank you once again. Keep up the good work!

Warm wishes,

Bhavani Prakash

Do write in to the UNHCR office in support of this issue.  Send your emails to Leigh Foster at  foster@unhcr.org 

This is a copy of the email I sent in today:

Dear Mr. Leigh Foster,
I run an environmental website focussing on green issues in Asia called http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog. I received this letter from a young boy called Atulya Venkataraman, and would like to forward his letter to your office. I support his appeal to include “Climate Refugees” in the definition of Refugees so that much needed resources and attention can be directed towards helping millions of people in poor nations by helping them adapt to the effects of Climate Change. 
The current UNHCR stand that climate refugees cannot be brought under the definition of refugees, as they continue to be given protection by their respective countries, is only in theory, as most of these countries who are affected by Climate Change do not have the resources to cope with the effects.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Best regards,
Bhavani Prakash

Further links relevant to this topic:

Please do take a look at the blogpost on Climate Refugees. This has a link to the movie trailer by Michael Nash, the video of the Tuvalu Environment Minister at Copenhagen and other links and resources related to this topic.

Update on 27th May 2010:

Atulya has since started the petition at Care 2.com called Help Climate Refugees   Please sign, and help him reach a goal of 5000 signatures.

Atulya along with the Head of Grade 5, Mr. Hugh Pollard kindly invited me to the UWCSEA Grade 5 PYP exhibition entitled, “One degree of Change” on 26th May 2010. I was impressed with Atulya’s exhibit and his enthusiasm for the cause. He had first heard of the issue of Climate Refugees on a BBC Radio program a couple of months ago, and that had captured his imagination. 

Here is Atulya (in the middle) with his team partner, Jun Oh Koo on the left and Mr. Hugh Pollard on the right.

 Atulya exhibition with Mr. Hugh Pollard

Atulya has already sent his letter to several heads of state, to the media and other bloggers, and got an acknowledgement letter from the PM of Australia.  He hopes to continue his activism over the summer holidays when his school year gets over.  We wish him the best of luck in his efforts!


Short URL: http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/?p=2878

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Posted by on May 21 2010. Filed under Climate Change, Climate Change. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Climate Refugees: A letter for UNHCR from a Grade Five Student”

  1. It is the encouragement given to the younger generation that will produce results. This is how they get inspired and motivated to sustain their interests in life. Good show!

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