Hussh | Is the West turning its back on climate migrants

Is the West turning its back on climate migrants?

// Hidden Stories Series

Is the West turning its back on climate migrants?

October 5, 2023
Unlike even a few years ago, scientists are almost unanimously aligned in their thinking: natural disasters are increasing at an alarming rate due to climate change.

This increase is affecting communities around the world—and most notably and disproportionately those in already highly vulnerable regions.

The impact isn’t merely ecological but socio-economic too, resulting in masses migrating in search of safer ground in neighbouring countries.

Yet, while the environment raises alarm bells, policy choices (like those evident in the UK) muffle the cries of climate migrants, painting them with broad strokes of suspicion rather than as the humans they are.

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2023 has been a year full of climate-related calamities.

Afghanistan grappled with temperatures so freezing that they led to the tragic deaths of both people and farm animals. Brazil battled torrential rain, which unleashed landslides, killing dozens. Malaysia, drenched by an unforeseen monsoon, witnessed more than 50,000 of its inhabitants displaced.

Even regions that had managed to skirt the effects of the climate crisis until now, including parts of Canada and New York, choked on the wild smog of wildfires.

What’s worrying is that this isn’t a random anomaly, but a worrying trend. Data from Oxfam’s “Inequality Kills” report reveals that disasters related to climate have become a daily occurrence over the past five decades.

Low and middle-income countries, which often have the least to do with causing climate change, bear the brutal brunt, accounting for over 91% of deaths from these disasters.

Yet, as countries like Uganda grapple with the twin challenges of hosting refugees and battling climate-induced droughts, more developed nations seem oblivious to their responsibilities.

Despite common misconceptions, many refugees don’t necessarily head westward immediately. Data suggests 70% of refugees look for solace in neighbouring nations. Those who do head to countries like the UK often have specific reasons—a family connection, linguistic familiarity, or the allure of a better life rebuilt in the ashes of their lost one.

Regrettably, rather than responding with empathy, the UK’s policies have often been marked by suspicion.

Legislation such as the Nationality and Borders Act and the Illegal Migration Act not only discourages but actively penalises desperate people who might have chosen unconventional routes to seek refuge.

The gravity of this decision can’t be understated. The UN Refugee Agency and Human Rights Office have openly denounced these acts, viewing them as dilutions of the UK’s commitment to human rights and refugee protections.

The political landscape isn’t bereft of voices of reason, however. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently offered a scathing critique of the Illegal Migration Act, rightly highlighting that such legislation won’t stymie the waves of migration driven by conflict or climate change.

But these voices are often drowned amidst a manufactured narrative.

The government’s myopic focus on “illegal migrants” comes across as a diversionary tactic, obscuring real issues like the rising cost-of-living and the energy crises.

This steering of the narrative is also one used to avoid addressing the historical climate debt owed by many in the Western world and Global North.

For over two centuries, “developed” nations have industrialised and grown their economies, reaping the benefits at the expense of contributing masses of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that are now driving climate change.

The vast disparities in per capita carbon emissions between the Global North and the Global South underscore an undeniable truth: the West’s affluence has come at a cost, a cost largely borne by those in less developed countries.

Developing nations in the Global South are now confronting the compounded challenges of adapting to a changing climate they had little role in creating, while simultaneously striving for their own economic development.

By closing their borders, Western countries are not only reneging on their moral responsibility but are also turning a blind eye to the stark imbalance of climate injustice. There’s an implicit debt owed, a recognition that the West has had its turn to grow and prosper and should now lead in remedying the damage and assisting those who suffer the most.

The refusal of many Western countries to accept climate migrants is more than just a failure in refugee policy; it’s an abdication of their historical responsibility.

Interestingly, while the narrative vilifies migrants, history, and even present circumstances underscore their value.

The UK has often turned to migrants to invigorate its economy, especially during crises. Comprehensive studies reveal that rather than being a burden, migration has often provided a fiscal shot in the arm, with one decade-long study estimating a positive net contribution of about £25 billion from immigration.

However, the real crisis lies in recognising and addressing the plight of those displaced due to environmental reasons.

As natural disasters surge, we see regions becoming uninhabitable, forcing inhabitants to relocate. According to the World Bank, by 2050, projections indicate that close to 86 million Africans might need to migrate within their continent due to environmental triggers.

Yet, many of these climate migrants remain unprotected, caught in the quagmire of definitions and classifications. As per existing conventions, these displaced individuals don’t qualify as refugees, rendering them ineligible for the essential support that refugee status would confer.

So, where do we go from here?

It’s evident that amendments are necessary at both international and domestic levels. The laws that today define refugees need an urgent relook to incorporate the reality of climate-induced displacement.

Whether it’s an additional protocol to the 1969 OAU convention or broader policy shifts, the world must awaken to the intertwined fates of climate and migration.

As the planet warms and seas rise, our definitions, policies, and most importantly, our empathy, must expand in tandem.

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