Whither Go Climate Refugees?

by Bhavani Prakash

Millions of people face the risk of being dislocated from their homes due to the effects of climate change. However there is no global framework to handle the humanitarian and political crisis when it explodes. Should UNHCR, UN’s refugee agency expand its definition to include “climate refugees” or do we need an entirely new convention?
Should nations start building up funds towards disaster when it strikes, where richer nations pay up their ‘ecological debt?’ Whatever the approach, this is an issue that demands urgent global attention and policy responses.

The slow pace at which world leaders and nations are crawling towards even a rudimentary climate deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would make it appear as if climate change were a remote eventuality.

For millions of people in the world, climate change is here and now. It’s a stark truth staring at the homes of 50 million people as they escape flooded towns and villages, eroding shorelines or barren and thirsty lands.  It is estimated that 200 million people, mainly in Asia and Africa will be dislocated by 2050.  If the less than optimistic climate change scenario pans out, a 4 degree rise in global temperature in the next 50 years could well move out a billion people.

Map showing areas at risk from climate change
Courtesy: Emmanuelle Bournay from UNEP (See link for larger map)

The Human Face of Climate Change

Abstract and aggregated numbers convey little of the hardship that people facing the brunt of climate change have to endure.

Sandstorms relentlessly expand the desert in China by 2,500 square kilometres every year. 90,000 tonnes of sand blow through the village of Longbaoshan, Heibei province from the Gobi desert, making its way to Beijing and onwards to Japan and Korea.

For many of those who move on, it is often a catch-22 situation. Jian Bing Li works long hours in Beijing at a restaurant kitchen after having left behind her life as a peasant, and her only son with her father in the village. She vents out her frustration as quoted in Collectif Argos’s book called “Climate Refugees,”

“I hate this city. There’s too much pollution, too many cars, too much noise.  But I hate Longbaoshan just as much. There’s too much sand there now. Rain no longer falls from the sky. It’s become impossible to make anything grow.”

Peter Caton’s photoessay entitled  “Sinking Sundarbans” shows how poor Bangladeshis living on the low-lying Sundarban delta are suffering from the consequences of rising sea levels as well as Cyclone Aila which hit with brutal force in May 2009. They talk poignantly about losing their land, their lack of drinking water which is either too salty or contaminated, and the ordeal of having to wade through neck high water.

Entire island nations face the risk of being submerged. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)’s Vice Chairman Antonio Lima says in The Telegraph,“We are going to be the first human species endangered in the 21st century. We are going to be in danger of going extinct.”

This fear is voiced by ordinary people and ministers alike. Easter Molu is a school teacher in Tuvalu, a small south-west Pacific island nation with 9 atolls only one metre above sea level. She is quoted in the aforementioned book as asking her students rhetorically, “Just imagine that the sea level begins to rise – are you scared?  I’m VERY scared. Over the past few years, during the spring tide, water has been seeping out of the ground and into my house. That’s never happened before.”

Last year at the COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen, Tuvalu’s Environment Minister made a tearful plea for world governments to take action on climate change urgently, as the fate of his people depended on it. A grown man breaking down in front of an international audience shows the weight of anxiety and fear facing his nation.

When people are forced to move, they have to leave behind their cultures and traditions, their communities and bonds, their language and way of life, like the migrants from Shishmaref, Alaska. A traditional hunting community, the residents have been forced to give up centuries old lifestyles due to coastal erosions and adopt completely new occupations.  Integrating with mainstream Americans is a process that has meant a loss of their very identity.

International Law and Climate Justice

Photo by DK Fonne: Statues of Sudanese "Wandering Refugees" at Copenhagen COP15

With millions of people facing the risk of dislocation, the issue of climate refugees is a humanitarian time-bomb waiting to explode. There is no legal or institutional framework for this, neither is it on nations’ list of priorities to address this at a global level.

UNHCR, UN’s refugee agency does not include climate refugees in its mandate, which considers “refugees” as people who have escaped their country due to fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

Climate refugees are, according to The Global Governance Projectpeople who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.”

Climate Change is not strictly speaking a form of persecution or torture perpetuated by the state. Neither do the people displaced form a unique social group. Most of the refugees are, initially at least, migrants within their own borders, which also refutes the legal notion that they should be outside their country.

If a nation such as the small island of Tuvalu in the Pacific atoll disappears, the citizens are not intentionally being denied their nationality. The loss of the state itself is not recognised by international law.

The UNHCR’s current position is that it can’t handle the burden of climate refugees, due to inadequate funding and concerns about diluting its responsibility to the refugees under the conventional definition.  The agency feels here (Page 13) that environmental migrants or refugees should come within the ambit of national governments whose protection they continue to enjoy.

Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation who has championed extensively the cause of Climate Refugees says in the Guardian article, “Creating new legal obligations to accept environmental refugees would help ensure that industrialised countries accept the consequences of their choices. In certain circumstances, the suggestion that the solution must lie at the national level could be absurd – the national level may be under water.”

Besides, developing nations are least equipped politically, socially, financially or technologically to handle a major wave of environmental migrants.

Dr. Janos Bogardi of United Nations University feels that a new convention or category of refugee, best addresses this to avoid UNHCR diluting its current commitment.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of Climate Justice. The poor and vulnerable of developing nations who are most at risk from climate change had very little to do with it. It is the moral responsibility of developed nations who have been large emitters to repay their ‘ecological debt.’

A strong advocate of this approach is Dr Atiq Rhaman of Bangladesh Centre for Studies (BCAS) and a member of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) who has been campaigning for a global approach for the last two decades. He suggests, “Each country must take responsibility for- in other words, transport and accommodate – a quota of climate refugees proportional to its past and present greenhouse gas emissions.”

Small island nations are clamouring for a global “climate change insurance fund” which would provide funding to relocate and rehabilitate climate refugees in the event the entire state goes under water.

At the COP15 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, it was proposed that developed nations mobilise US$10 billion per year between 2010 and 2012, and up to US$100 billion by 2020 annually. This represents only 0.8% to 8% of richer countries’ national defence budgets. In contrast, about US$2 trillion was spent on the financial bailout, and over US$1 trillion for the Iraq war.  Does the world have its priorities right?

What is the way forward?

Some nations are beginning to take action themselves. In 2008, the Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed declared he was setting aside state funds to buy a new home for his entire island nation of 300,000 in India, Sri Lanka or Australia. Maldives is the lowest lying nation in the world with an average ground level of 1.5m above sea level, and faces a high possibility of being submerged with rising sea levels.

President Nasheed however admits that this is not as easy as it sounds. Neighbouring countries like India are themselves grappling with explosion in migrant populations. The country is also erecting a 2,500 mile barbed fence to prevent illegal immigrants entering from the borders with Bangladesh.  Other nations like Australia and in the west have stiff immigration laws.

Climate Refugee Demonstation at Dhaka

Activists and NGOs feel massive awareness needs to be raised about the urgency of the climate refugee issue. Shamsul Momen Palash from the Green Bangla Coalition, a grassroots organisation cutting across political affiliations at Dhaka University has organised a “Mobile Climate Refugees Camp” from 29 November to 11 December 2010 during the two week long COP16 Cancun climate summit. It aims to register its concerns about climate refugees to the COP16 conference authority through 194 national focal points and organizations, activists, journalists and students attending the sessions.

He told us, “The climate refugee crisis is definitely going to become the biggest ever political crisis sooner than later, unless we think of a comprehensive global relocation or rehabilitation plan in advance. So it needs the urgent attention of global leaders.”

The root of the problem is the rate at which greenhouse gases continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, for which richer nations have been historically responsible, with increasing contributions from the likes of China and India as their economies grow rapidly.

Business as usual either with respect to climate change or the issue of climate refugee is simply not an option.  If there is any hope for the millions, it lies in decisive, unambiguous, global action.  And the time for that is right now.


About the writer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk.com She was inspired to research and write about the subject of Climate Refugees after receiving a Letter for UNHCR from a Grade 5 student , Atulya Venkataraman.  As emphasised in the above article, it is an issue that needs urgent international attention by world governments, policy makers and refugee agencies like the UNHCR to avoid it from becoming a large humanitarian, political and social crisis.

She can be contacted at bhavani [at] ecowalkthetalk.com


Photo courtesy By DKFonne Claus Fonnesbech  His description of the image:

“Climate refugees. Notice the power plant in the background. The symbolism kills me. These three sculptures are standing at 10 meters tall and is inspired by the Sudanese female refugees walking through the desert. Here, as part of an installation for the COP 15 climate change summit in Copenhagen, they are there to symbolize the 200 million of climate refugees that UN’s panel of climate change experts expect will be present in the following 40 years. These “wandering refugees” are part of sevenmeters.net – a global warming activity for the COP15.”

Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Letter for UNHCR from a Grade 5 student
EWTT: Climate Refugees
EWTT: Climate Change in Asia? Who Cares If Bangladesh Drowns?
EWTT: Stories of 4 women: Climate Change in Bangladesh (Videos)

Treehugger: Global Warming hits world’s women hardest- especially when they don’t have equal rights


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Posted by on Dec 6 2010. Filed under Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, Green Activism, Sustainable Agriculture/GMO/Organic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “Whither Go Climate Refugees?”

  1. [...] Which one? – Singapore Urban Explorers: The Forgotten Tombs of Upper Pierce – EcoWalktheTalk: Whither Go Climate Refugees? [Thanks [...]

  2. [...] Which one? – Singapore Urban Explorers: The Forgotten Tombs of Upper Pierce – EcoWalktheTalk: Whither Go Climate Refugees? [Thanks Bhavani] – FTP: Preserving Singapore’s past: A losing battle? – Temasek Hedge: Update: [...]

  3. Great article.

    So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as ―those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

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