EM – Environmental disasters fuel migration: Why international law must recognize climate refugees

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January 14, 2022

by Daniel L. Huizenga, The Conversation

When Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America in November 2020, they inundated cities and towns, causing catastrophic losses in the agricultural sector and contributing to food insecurity. A total of 4.7 million Hondurans were affected, and tens of thousands chose to leave the country, forming migrant caravans in a desperate attempt to rebuild their lives in the United States.

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Scientists ultimately linked this record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season to climate change, making it clear that climate change is already affecting migration.

My research deals with the relationships between law, people and the environment. In refugee law, people become refugees if they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. Persecution is currently limited to race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. That is, when people move away due to environmental degradation or natural disasters, they are not “refugees” in the legal sense.

But international refugee and human rights law can no longer focus solely on social and political persecution. It needs to be revised to account for climate change and to include “deadly environments” as a form of pursuit.

The concept of deadly environments takes into account the social, political and environmental conditions that force someone to move. Its inclusion in legal definitions would establish the environment as a contributor to the conditions of human rights deprivation and persecution.

The World Bank estimates that without radical and concerted efforts to slow climate change, 216 million people will be displaced within their own countries by 2050 . Given the scale of climate-driven migration, it is inevitable that millions of people will seek refuge across borders, even when they are invisible to refugee law.

Migration researchers agree that tying migration decisions to a single event is often inaccurate. It has become common to study climate change as a set of factors, including violence, conflict and disaster.

The uncertain speed of climate change complicates matters further. Their onset can be slow, like prolonged droughts causing food insecurity, or rapid, like hurricanes and floods destroying homes and crops.

Given this, how can we define people displaced by the climate? There is no internationally recognized definition of climate-affected migrants.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers uses the term “climate migrant” while a White House report uses “climate change-related migration” as an umbrella term. Some use the term environmental migrants, others environmental displaced persons. Like some other adamant outliers, I use the term climate refugees to emphasize the agency of those seeking refuge.

The definition debate misses the point. As British geographer Calum TM Nicholson explains, “the main problem is not the cause of the movement but the rights violations suffered by migrants”.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, climate change impacts human rights to life, self-determination, development, health, food, water and sanitation, decent housing and cultural rights. Just think of the 400,000 pastoralists in southern Ethiopia who were displaced by the climate-related drought between 2015 and 2019. They still need help for food, water and shelter.

The focus on deadly environments makes it clear that they are generated not only by climate change but also by practices along borders.

The Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy institute, reports that the world’s richest countries are spending more on militarizing their borders than responding to the climate crisis. This often includes building walls, developing surveillance technologies, and hiring armed border guards. According to the institute, rich countries are building a “global climate wall” to keep out people who are being forced to migrate with deadly consequences due to climate change.

In her book The Death of Asylum: Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement Archipelago, Alison Mountz describes , geographer at Wilfrid Laurier University, describes the steady evolution of asylum procedures in places far removed from physical borders, such as Australia’s offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Mountz argues that the growth of offshore detention centers contributes to the physical deaths of asylum seekers, as well as their political deaths, as news of drowned migrants becomes commonplace and normal.

The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) has since 2014 documented the deaths of nearly 46,000 migrants en route to safety. An estimated 23,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Crossing the border between the United States and Mexico is particularly deadly, with 2,980 deaths since 2014. According to IOM, the “leading direct causes of death identified in this area are drowning… and deaths caused by harsh environmental conditions and lack of water, shelter, food and water.”

International refugee and human rights laws urgently need to be revised to recognize deadly environments as sites of persecution.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has already made links between climate change and persecution, noting that when a state is unwilling to respond to humanitarian needs, the As a result of climate change, there is a “risk of human rights violations, including persecution”.

Deadly environments, including those that have been altered suddenly or over long periods by climate change, must be considered as places of persecution. Their presence should be government commitments to protect those displaced by climate change trigger en peoples.

Central to these efforts is building relationships between law, people and the environment. This is a step towards recognizing that people displaced by climate change are in fact refugees.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Related title:
Environmental disasters fuel migration: Why international law climate refugees must recognize
Why international law must recognize climate refugees
Environmental disasters fuel migration – therefore international law must recognize climate refugees

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