More than 65 million people were forced out of their homeland after the Second World War. Today, about 25 million people are living outside of their home as refugees and asylum seekers today. However, these numbers do not include people who are known as climate refugees. Climate refugees are considered people fleeing their homeland due to climate change. This means that dramatic changes in their home’s climate is threatening the livelihood of their homes. Unfortunately, people fleeing their homes do not qualify as refugees because they are not fleeing wars or prosecution. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is considered someone who is fleeing persecution or wars. But, a person who is affected by climate change does not qualify to be considered as refugee. Based on international law, a refugee is considered only if the person is facing war or persecution, then they are entitled to a refugee status. Thus, climate refugees do not qualify. But Is this fair?
The laws governing refugees and asylum seekers were created a long time ago when climate change was not considered a big of a problem like it is today. This law is outdated because it was written by the end of World War 2 when many people perished due to war and persecution. While it is time to update this law, it is feared that if the 1951 refugee treaty were to be opened for renegotiations, different politicians around the world will try to weaken the existing protocols and the Trump administration in the USA. It is known the Trump Administration blocked access to refugees from eight different countries in the Middle East and Africa, especially where there is currently war and persecution going, particularly in countries like Yemen and Syria.
In the modern world, many groups of people are fleeing their home due to different reasons. It is morally right for the wealthy nations to offer them a second chance to live or reallocate them in safer places but there is no work being done so far regarding this issue. Based on a Columbia professor, Michael W. Doyle, who is leading the effort to propose new arrangements for this treaty, he mentions that there is no expectation for that to happen anytime soon but he insists these types of conversations should start taking place now.
Several nations in the Pacific Islands are the most vulnerable to climate change and its effects. Most of all, these island nations are more sensitive to extreme weather such as floods, earthquakes and tropical typhoons. There are different nations in this area where climate change is forcing local people to flee their homes. The Republic of Kiribati is one of the nations being affected by climate change at this time. This island is located in the Micronesia in the central Pacific Ocean and is facing different challenges regarding climate change. This country is an archipelago and some of the local people have moved already to different areas of different islands due to the sea level rise on their homes. In fact, the rising sea could lead to worse erosion and this would create groundwater shortages as well as expand the intervention of salt water into their freshwater supplies, which is already happening. As a result, this would make living in Kiribati expensive since treatment to purify contaminated salt water is expensive. The increase in temperature and the dramatic change in rainfall will increase the likelihood of people getting sick such as ciguatera poisoning or dengue fever. Another challenge is the raising awareness of the possible impacts of climate change to the Kiribati residents. The less informed residents living in the rural areas of the island disbelieve the impacts of climate change in their communities. As a result, Kiribati Government has proposed different ways to deal with climate change. One is the purchase of six thousand acres in the area of Fiji in order to reallocate the population of Kiribati. It is obvious that moving the entire country to another place might not be realistic, but it will be necessary for the survival for the culture of this country. A different solution the government is trying to put in place is “Migration with Dignity”, a job training program that the government is working on. This plan would urge residents to move outside the country with qualifying skills for different types of skilled jobs. Another potential solution would be for people to migrate to wealthy nations but this is difficult since they are not considered refugees. One example is that in 2012, a migrant Kiribati worker named Ioane Teitiota applied for asylum in New Zealand. He said that due to the poor soil, he was unable to grow food and find freshwater due to the intrusion of saltwater. He was taken to the New Zealand court for overstaying his visa. His lawyer Michael Kidd compared two important points where environmental and political refugees are totally inconsistent and when it comes to refugee status, he said, “You are either a refugee or you are not”. Consequently, the court rejected his case and Mr.Teitiota was deported to Kiribati but he appealed his case to the Office of The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is expected that climate change will impact the status of being a refugee in the future.
In conclusion, I feel the need to spread awareness about this issue. It is shocking that the current US administration is doing very little to solve the potential climate refugee issue. In fact, The US administration withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement, a morally wrong decision, since the US is responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions today. Unfortunately, the excuse for the US withdrawal from this agreement was that claim that the agreement was killing of American jobs and it places an unfair burden for the President since jobs is a main priority for the US president. This treaty sets boundaries on Global Greenhouse gas emission and, in some cases, it can block the creation of American jobs in different factories throughout the USA. The best solution for this issue is global thinking on the part of the US administration. Since climate change is a global issue, global leadership is necessary but it is lacking at this moment. The resident of Kiribati blames the US for the change in climate in his home but until the US becomes more aware of its actions, Kiribati has no option other than to seek shelter somewhere else
Please watch this excellent video documenting the current life of a climate change refugee.