15 Jan 2014 03:01:05
Dawn of the Climate Refugees
More than half a century has passed since the last mass migrations of World War II and the 1947 partition of British India. These events were triggered by violent political dissonance and the pursuit of ethnic cleansing, resulting in the resettlement of 30 million individuals. At this moment in time, we are dawning upon a new form of demographic change that threatens to bring forth the next mass migration. This phenomenon of “climate refugees”, refers to individuals forced to relocate due to the effects of climate change.
Researchers have attempted to quantify the number of affected individuals worldwide, but it has proven to be a formidable task. The most widely cited figure was proposed by Norman Myers in 2005, who predicted 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Estimates by the International Organization for Migration state that figure could rise as high as 1 billion people over the same time frame. Despite the lack of consensus to enumerate populations of climate refugees, few can deny the significance of this issue.
The story of Ioane Teitiota has increased the visibility of climate refugees worldwide, with Teitiota accepting the role of a poster child for the global campaign. Teitiota, a 37-year-old citizen of Kiribati, had sought refugee status in New Zealand but ultimately fell short in his bid to become the world’s first climate refugee. It was a telling sign that the plight of climate refugees is far from a resolution.
History would indicate that the odds of success were never favorable for Teitiota. In particular, Teitiota could not provide convincing evidence that he would face persecution upon returning to his hometown – an important criteria for refugee status as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention adopted by the United Nations. In addition, the Tribunal determined that Teitiota was in no danger of being subjected to arbitrary deprivation of life or cruel treatment if deported from New Zealand. In the end, the Tribunal ruled that Teitiota was neither a refugee nor a protected individual.
Redefining the Refugee Definition and Seeking Alternative Solutions
With countries such as Kiribati predicted to disappear within 50 years, governments are shifting their attention towards long-term solutions to address the effects of climate change. Kiribati’s President Anote Tong for instance is on a mission to find a new home for the country’s 103,000 people and has its eyes set on the nearby Fiji islands. However, the process of cross-border relocation presents major hurdles.
The issue of climate migrants raises similar concerns to those imbedded in immigration reform debates. Opponents will challenge the economic and social challenges of new migrants, such as competition in the labor market, increased burden on taxpayers and the loss of national unity. That is partly the rationale behind President Tong’s proposal to send Kiribati’s skilled workers to Fiji and prove competence in contributing towards the nation’s economic growth.
On the other hand, one could argue that countries have the moral and ethical obligation to accommodate those displaced by climate change. This follows a similar argument to why rich nations ought to help the poor. Zambia once offered asylum to the people of Kiribati, but the President passed away before his offer could come to fulfilment and the proposal subsequently disappeared.
Moreover, there is also the issue of accountability and the ultimate unfolding of the tragedy of the commons. China and the US are the largest climate polluters and create the largest negative externalities, yet the tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean bear the burden of their industrial development. Island nations are likely to favor the view that nations with historically high records of carbon emissions bear greater responsibility for housing climate refugees.
While the Dutch have opted for a future of floating homes and buildings on stilts, this is not the end-all of climate change solutions. In due time, intergovernmental organizations such as the UN will be faced with the task of creating a legal framework to address the problem of climate refugees. This may call for a revision of the definition of a refugee, and creating a new classification for climate refugees.
Some have already taken the initiative to lead climate refugee action. Last year, Prime Minister Moana Carcasses of Vanuatu announced plans to render the island a safe haven for affected victims. The declaration triggered internal discontent amongst the nation’s leaders, prompting a prominent chief to state there was no room to house the displaced.
India has ventured further to prevent the possible influx of climate refugees, erecting a 2,100 mile Berlin Wall along its border with Bangladesh. The neighboring states have a troubled past dealing with illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, most notably through the Assam movement that ended in 1985. Overcoming such political disagreements will be a necessary precondition towards reaching a climate refugee solution.
The Long Road Ahead
Teitiota’s eldest child is five years of age, but demonstrates consciousness of the environmental developments surrounding her. When the Philippines was inflicted by the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan last year, she would cry to Teitiota’s wife, “Oh mum, see that island. Is that the same as our island?” It is unsettling to hear these words muttered from a mere child, but they reflect the dire predicament of a generation born into environmental apocalypse.
This article was originally published in the January 2014 issue of Global Energy Affairs.