Environmental changes have always been a driving force for migration. From natural disasters to drought and flooding, changes in the environment impact lives and livelihoods, forcing people to abandon their homes. Over the last 40 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people forced to migrate as a result of environmental factors. Catastrophic storms are more common, areas suffering from prolonged drought have tripled in the last 40 years, and rising sea levels put coastal communities at risk. By 2050, the International Office of Migration estimates that as many as 250 million people could be displaced as the result of environmental impacts. Unlike those displaced by war or systemic violence, people forcibly displaced as the result of environmental change are rarely recognized as refugees when they cross borders.
Forced migration due to effects of climate change will impact all countries. The United States could see 13 million people internally displaced as a result of rising sea levels by 2045, especially along the east and gulf coasts. The majority of the communities facing permanent inundation are socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Around the globe, drought has already led to displacement and related social tensions as rural communities are forced to move to urban areas. The origins of social conflict and violence are certainly complex, but as climate change forces the movement of people, tensions increase. In Syria, for example, “record drought and massive crop failure beginning in 2006 led to the mass migration of predominately Sunni farmers to Alawi-dominated cities, increasing sectarian tensions and generating conflicts over diminished resources.” Rising food prices in 2007 and 2008, from drought and increased transportation costs, led to protests across the globe, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. The UN estimates 144 million people were driven into poverty by the increase in food prices by 2011. In Niger alone, 5.1 million people became food “insecure.”
In Haiti the intersection of environmental degradation, climate change and forced migration is apparent. At the root of this crisis is the transformation of the rural economy that began under the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934. Haiti’s economy was re-engineered as an export platform to feed U.S. interests, from agriculture to banking. By the mid-20th century deforestation, soil erosion, insecure land tenure and population growth was driving an exodus from rural areas to cities. However, in the last 30 years these trends have accelerated. Under pressure to lower tariffs for imports from the United States, Haiti saw the local market for staple crops such as rice collapse. De-forestation accelerated, leading to a situation today where only 3% of Haiti’s tree canopy remains. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced, forced into urban areas not equipped to handle the influx of people. Today, less than half of Port-au-Prince’s population was born there. Areas like Cite Soleil, with over 400,000 people, are overcrowded and under-resourced. The rapid growth of insecure building and overcrowding is the reason that the 2010 earthquake was so deadly, killing up to 300,000 people.
People migrating to major cities like Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitien are in effect moving to coastal areas. Here rising seas, more intense storms, and areas of extreme drought combine to create a recipe for recurrent disasters. Mudslides in 2004 killed tens of thousands of people near Gonaives, as treeless hillsides collapsed on the city. Every new storm brings with it the risk of crop failure, flooding and further soil erosion. Overcrowding has also increased the risks of disease. When UN troops introduced cholera in to Haiti in 2010, the disease spread rapidly, killing 9,400 individuals and infecting hundreds of thousands of people.
Interconnected with the process of internal displacement is outward migration. Nearly one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, primarily seeking work on sugar plantations and other agricultural positions. Tensions have resurfaced in recent years leading to mass expulsions of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, whose government denied citizenship to people of Haitian descent. Over the last thirty years, the United States has been the primary destination for Haitians with 650,000 people moving to the U.S. since 1986. However, tensions have mounted within the U.S. over immigration - leading to the suspension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which covered over 50,000 Haitian migrants. Meanwhile, other countries with less restrictive policies are becoming a destination. It is estimated that close to 105,000 Haitians, equivalent to 1% of the population, moved to Chile alone last year.
The confluence of environmental degradation, climate change, and forced migration in Haiti is part of a global process driving people into insecure situations; exacerbating political conflicts and violence. There is no easy solution. Clearly, binding agreements to reduce emissions and move the planet away from a fossil fuel based economy is necessary. Even if this is acheived, the process must be inclusive. Alternative fuels are no panacea if accompanied by the expansion of extractive industries and agricultural practices that further drive forced migration. In the interim, people are already being forced to migrate.
International law is behind the times
The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who has a 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 to or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. The Convention does not cover people who are forced to migrate due to environmental reasons when they cross borders. The result is a variety of short-term measures, such as TPS in the United States, that affords very little protection to people whose status can change overnight. Within the United States, at least, there needs to be more effort to craft lasting solutions, that offer people who previously migrated an opportunity to seek permanent residency.
Currently there are efforts to recraft refugee and migrant laws. For example, the United Nations’ International Office of Migration is overseeing the creation of A Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The draft compact should be completed this year. However, enforcement mechanisms will be limited. In the United States and Europe in particular, migration is re-crafted as a crisis for the receiving country and thus there is resistance to any kind of binding obligations to accept more people. Given the current political environment it is not surprising that Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Compact negotiating process in December last year.
Until there are binding protections afforded to migrants as well as binding agreements to ameliorate the worst impacts of climate change, the world will face increasing migration, accompanied by ongoing political conflict. The current zero-sum, nationalistic orientation of so many, who view migrants as a threat rather than as fellow human beings in need of solidarity, continues to infect any effort for change. We must be better than this.