The refugee ‘crisis’, as opposed to the inability of the West to mobilise themselves enough to stop contributing to it, has been dominating global news headlines since 2015. Far right-wing movements have been gaining steady momentums and spreading like a wildfire (environmental pun unintended) globally, as an ugly nationalist rhetoric encourages an open racially hostile environment where xenophobia thrives. However, there is a larger migration crisis looming which has been triggered by an apathetic approach to climate change, one which we are even more woefully underprepared for.
One report predicts that within the next 30 years, we could see an estimated 140 million people migrate because of the effects of climate change. Perhaps the idea that you might have to leave your home due to the devastating effects of climate change might not be something that plays on your mind, but it is fast becoming a nightmarish reality for several communities around the world.
According to an IPCC report published this October, we have 12 years in order to meet the goal of keeping global temperatures from increasing more than 1.5⁰C in order to begin the process of combating climate change. This will prevent the frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as droughts or heavy rainfalls, ease the pressures on the steadily melting Arctic ice, prevent sea levels from rising and help to preserve endangered coral reefs. These changes in weather would, for some, mean that their homelands will become either inhabitable or will cease to exist because they will simply sink.
One such example comes from the Marshall Islands, a group of over a 1000 islets located in the North Pacific Ocean, who face the prospect of losing their homes in the next few decades if the 1.5⁰C target is not met. Rising sea levels will spell doom for the low-lying atolls because continuous floods of seawater further inland will irreparably contaminate their freshwater supplies, leaving the islands uninhabitable.
Another is a present reality found in Bangladesh: those leaving behind their homes in the low-lying coastal regions because of the rising frequency of deadly floods. It is thought that by 2050, 1 in 7 people in Bangladesh will have been displaced as a result of climate change. 2 million people are thought to have been displaced as a result of flooding within the last 3 years with 9% displaced across international borders.
These are only two examples of how pressing the dangers of climate change are for some of the world’s population and they will continue to rise in numbers if we do not work towards the all-important 1.5⁰C target. What is more concerning is that these ‘climate refugees’ have no recognised status as there is very little legal framework set up to deal with this kind of mass migration as a result of climate change. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention recognises those who may be fleeing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or memberships of a particular political or social group - but not those who may be fleeing climate change.
The unpleasant reality of the situation is that there is no conversation let alone consensus surrounding the status and rights of those who would be migrating due to the effects of climate change. Given that there is no international law which addresses this issue, the displaced would be left even more vulnerable. The Kampala Convention adopted by the African Union in 2009 is the first piece of legislation which imposes a duty on states to help those who have been internally displaced as a cause of natural events and is effective in 55 countries in the continent. It is imperative that the rest of the world begins to explore and answer the necessary questions so the rights of those whose lives will have been already devastated by climate change are not wholly compromised.