December 12, 2019
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The Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley released a new report on climate change and migration titled Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied on December 10 (International Human Rights Day). The new report is one of the most extensive yet on the relationship between climate change and migration. Though it covers now well known themes concerning the lack of protection offered to people displaced by climate change under current international law, the authors of the report put forward an interesting new framework for understanding persecution that separates agents of persecution from territoriality, and ties the concept to a state’s ability to adapt/protect people from sources of dislocation. The goal of the report is to contribute to the creation of a new international convention on the rights of climate change refugees.
The authors begin by assessing the scope of the problem, and the relative silence about it:
Nearly absent within the mainstream public discourse is recognition and coverage of the role of the climate crisis in driving and exacerbating mass movements of people via short-term and long-term natural disasters. Estimates of the extent of climate-induced global migration vary significantly, but the numbers remain alarming. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), there were 28 million internally displaced persons (displaced persons who remain within the affected state) in 2018 due to conflict, violence, and disasters. Weather-related hazards triggered the vast majority of the new displacements (17.2 million), with storms and tropical cyclones accounting for 9.3 million displacements and floods accounting for 5.4 million displacements. According to the IDMC, over 253.7 million people have been displaced by natural disasters from 2008 to 2018, with such disasters displacing three to 10 times more people than conflict and war worldwide.
Once people cross a border their status changes - and if fleeing environmental or weather related catastrophes they have no clear legal protection. Under current international law they would not be considered “refugees” as they are not fleeing political, racial or religiously motivated persecution and thus lack the limited protections that designation provides. Instead, these climate refugees, if provided protection at all, fall under national and/or regional regimes.
Thus, across international humanitarian law, human rights law, refugee law, and other bodies of law, protections for climate-induced displaced persons forced to cross international borders are limited, piecemeal, and not legally binding. International migration following short-term disasters is only occasionally protected under humanitarian visas and state-specific measures as with the United States’ Temporary Protected Status designation, though such protections are often provisional and not legally binding.
The authors offer an alternative framework for understanding persecution as one of the policy recommendations they make at the end of the report.
This report proposes two possible pathways forward: the creation of a new refugee convention, the Convention Relating to the Status of Climate Refugees, or the amendment of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Regardless of the pathway forward (other than whichever offers the path of least resistance), the agreement must satisfy two major requirements. It must first qualify individuals and communities that cannot avail themselves of government relief from the effects of the climate crisis as those who are “persecuted” and thus allowed to formally make a claim for asylum in a country of their choosing. Secondly, it must do so without demanding that such status be linked to a specific “actor” of persecution (whether a private or public entity or agricultural or industrial process). Under either agreement, and in conjunction with the existing circumstances covered under the 1951 Refugee Convention, “climate refugees” would be guaranteed legal protection as follows:
- Situations of sudden- or slow-onset disasters (not necessarily linked to the climate crisis) if authorities deny reasonable assistance and protection to certain people because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion and as a consequence expose them to treatment amounting to persecution. The same is true where a natural disaster impact meets the threshold of a persecution because it is the consequence of a respective governmental policy with a discriminatory impact on a specific group of persons possessing such attributes. Such circumstances are covered under the existing 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Situations of violence, serious human rights violations, or armed conflict triggered by disputes over shrinking natural resources if persecutory measures are based on the race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion of affected persons. Such circumstances are covered under the existing 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Situations where a person—regardless of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion—fleeing the effects of the climate crisis might be fleeing a nation and government that has not turned against its citizens but rather cannot protect its citizens. Some of the people experiencing the most disastrous effects of the climate crisis are living within nations that have long recognized the issue at hand and that have appealed to the international community for support. The new Climate Refugee Convention or revision of the existing 1951 Refugee Convention would account for this by not demanding identification of a specific “persecutor,” especially one internal to one’s country of origin.
The context for this discussion is a concept they present call “petro-persecution.”
The use of fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions have been transforming the earth’s climate and putting the world’s most vulnerable communities at risk. Such “petro-persecution” born of our global dependence on petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, and the global investment patterns behind this dependence, puts pressure on countries to protect their communities from climate impacts. This is a nearly impossible endeavor across the Global South, especially when it comes to island nations threatened by sea-level rise and climate-vulnerable periphery nations that have long been forced into labor-intensive production and extraction of raw materials for the Global North.
Through militarized borders, the criminalization of migration, fewer resettlements, and limited refugee protections, climate refugees also experience “petro-persecution” when it comes to the process of resettlement itself, especially from across the Global South to the Global North.
In addition to making this case for a new international legal framework based on a more complex notion of responsibility for persecution, the report provides useful background on multiple aspects of climate and migration. There are detailed case studies of 10 countries, interviews with climate activists, and a detailed review of national, regional and international law impacting the question of how to treat climate refugees.
And then there is the elephant on the global stage:
An instrumental part of addressing the crisis of climate-induced migration is addressing the climate crisis itself. Across industry, transportation, electricity, and other economic sectors, confronting the climate crisis requires the decarbonization of energy, the democratization of ownership and distribution of energy, and the decommodification of energy (i.e., clean, renewable energy as a human right). Not without challenges, national, regional, and international organizations and actors have begun taking steps to tackle manufacturing, mining, agriculture, construction, and other parts of the industrial sector dependent upon fossil fuels and contributing to the climate crisis.
Though not emphasized in the report, we know the country that is pushing back against all of these efforts is the United States. The United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, has not signed onto the recent global compact on migration, and absolutely refuses to accept responsibility for its historic role as the greatest contributor of greenhouse gases, by, for example, withdrawing from the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, established to “to address loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change, including extreme events and slow onset events, in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”
Instead, the United States’ government is currently removing almost every path to asylum it can - not expanding it to meet the new global reality of displacement, while also doubling down on the use of carbon based fuels - which guarantees the problems of displacement will only get worse. Of course, the U.S. government is not alone, as increasing migration is driving a nationalist backlash against immigrants around the globe. But the U.S. is unique in that the scope of its economic and military presence globally means it is a necessary - if not sufficient - partner for any international agreement to succeed.
Though not directly related to migration, Greta Thunberg winning Time’s person of the year for her climate activism is perhaps a hopeful sign. The adults in the room are clearly getting nothing done. Perhaps the next generation will be the one to get it right.