Climate refugees do not exist
By Sanjay Chaturvedi, South Asian University and Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group
NEW DELHI, June 20 – In the world of migration law, no one has succeeded in defining what a “climate refugee” is. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not endorse the term.
Worse still, the term “refugee”, as it is subscribed to by the 1951 Convention with its emphasis on fear of persecution, probably has no value for people displaced by natural disasters or climate change. – unless all concerned accept that ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ or ‘climate’ can be a persecutor.
Human mobility, compressed into the term ‘migration’, is not universal or linear – it defies simple definition. Climate-induced migration is no less complex, and by resorting to the term “climate refugee” the world risks overlooking the many interconnected issues that cause people to move from place to place, including development. unsustainable, natural disasters and climate change.
From a geohistorical perspective, the decision to move from place to place to escape the risks and threats posed by environmental and climate change is an integral part of human adaptation.
And yet, “climate refugees” are sometimes flagged as a national security issue, when the issue of climate migration could just as well have been addressed and addressed, for example, as a “human rights” issue. or “development”.
The growing view of climate-induced migration as a security issue, especially in a geopolitical climate of fear, sees homeland security responses aimed at border protection.
The plight of irregular “transit migrants” remains relatively unnoticed as they pass through intermediate countries – with their own immigration laws and border controls – acting as buffers for destination countries.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pay close attention the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human societies. It indicates that climate change impacts, risks and adaptation governance must be addressed in conjunction with – and not decoupled from – non-climate global trends.
These include loss of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, unsustainable use of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, urbanization, human demographic transformations, social and economic disparities and a pandemic.
The IPCC points out with great confidence that climate and weather extremes are increasingly leading to involuntary displacement and migration in the regions.
But “the vulnerability of ecosystems and populations to climate change differs significantly from region to region, due to intersecting socio-economic development patterns, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalization, historical and current patterns of inequality such as colonialism and governance”.
Some 3.6 billion people already live in contexts highly vulnerable to climate change, according to the IPCC. Likewise, the CIFRC World Disaster Report 2020 says the impacts of climate change are now seriously compromising the livelihoods of “millions” around the world, especially in developing economies.
The total number of people identified in the report as directly affected by climate and weather disasters over the past decade – 1.9 billion – is both eye-opening and terrifying.
Describing climate change as a risk multiplier, the report rightly points out that those displaced and displaced due to environmental degradation and/or natural disasters are far more vulnerable due to existing threats.
These include habitat loss, depletion of social capital, erosion of socio-economic resilience and already precarious life in overcrowded camps, especially for women, children and the elderly.
And yet, migrants, especially those of the anonymous irregular type, are conspicuously and largely absent from various disaster response plans and policy responses.
Regional instruments such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention of 1969 and the Cartagena Declaration of 1984, in addition to incorporating region-specific attributes into their expanded definitions, have emphasized that understanding categorical of a refugee should move away from a dictated geopolitical principle of “well-founded fear” of “persecution” to address the plight of those fleeing civil unrest, war and violence, and disasters induced or compounded by the climate, whether or not they can prove a well-founded fear of persecution.
More importantly, how do we ensure that the category of “climate refugee” is defined by the well-founded fear of climate change “victims” seeking protection and care, and not by the largely unfounded fear of those who suspect their borders? are going to be violated by thousands and millions of helpless climate migrants, especially from developing economies?
The challenge is to ensure that any attempt to widen and deepen the humanitarian space by introducing the category of “climate refugee” proves to be progressive, emancipatory and inclusive, rather than regressive, oppressive and exclusive. .
The challenge is further compounded by the lack of international legal protections for cross-border displacement induced or encouraged by environmental crises, natural disasters and the effects of climate change.
In the spider’s web of climate-induced mobility/migration, it is difficult to clearly distinguish between ‘environmental migration’ and ‘climate migration’. No wonder these categories retain their moral appeal but remain contested. The who, how, when and where of the millions of “climate refugees” to come is unknown.
And yet, this category of climate-induced migration seems to have captured the strategic attention and imagination of “national security” and “human security” narratives. How many of these millions of migrants can be clearly categorized as “climate migrants” or “climate refugees”? This is a difficult but important question to answer.
The alarming numbers are alluring, especially to those engaged in scenario-building and risk-assessment exercises for the market and the military. But the need of those at risk is location-sensitive, locality-specific and community-centered.
The question demands and deserves to be addressed in conjunction with – and not in isolation from – other forms of migration of this Anthropocene era, characterized by an unprecedented acceleration of human impact on the earth.
Sanjay Chaturvedi is Professor of International Relations at South Asian University. He is co-author of Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change (with Timothy Doyle), Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Article published with the kind permission of 360info.