Policy lags behind promises on environmental migration as climate change raises pressure for a global fix.
By Paul Weinberg
Published July 24, 2017
Two years ago this month, New Zealand denied the asylum request of Ioane Teitiota after his four-year legal battle failed to convince the courts he should be accepted to the country as the first refugee of climate change.
"I'm the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it's the same as me," he told the BBC from Kiribati in November 2015, two months after being deported from New Zealand for overstaying his visa.
Citing the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, Teitiota claimed rising ocean waters threatened his island home in the Pacific (population 116,000). The Kiwi courts determined the eventuality of Kiribati disappearing beneath the waves did not represent an immediate concern, since asylum seekers must prove they would face discrimination based on race, religion, membership in a social group, or a person's politics if they were to return home.
The New Zealand case left a big question mark over the increasingly urgent issue of how to accommodate climate (or environmental) migrants-people forced to flee their homes because of sudden changes to the environment that are frequently linked to global warming. Scientists say that climate change can be mitigated but not stopped entirely.
According to NASA, sea level rise is driven by two factors connected to global warming: an upsurge of water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and expanding ocean water as it warms. Kiribati's very existence, and that of similar low-lying atoll nations such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, is threatened by projected sea-level rises in the vicinity of 60 centimetres or more by the year 2100.
The inevitability of the situation is why Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati, speaks of the need to ensure "migration with dignity" for the country's population.
The World Bank, in its recent "Pacific Possible" report, recommends a gradual and planned relocation of residents from the most threatened island nations to more secure places such as Australia and New Zealand, as the better alternative to a chaotic rush to safety by future generations.
Fellow Pacific nations such as Fiji, which were particularly vocal during the November 2015 Paris climate change conference about checking greenhouse gas emissions, have already started welcoming climate change-linked refugees.
But as The Guardian reported in early May, governments in Canberra and Auckland have so far responded coolly to the idea, which tends to be framed as a security risk rather than the humanitarian crisis that it is.
Climate change-induced displacement and migration of populations is the subject of much research and scrutiny by university scholars. But very little is happening, practically speaking, at the policy level among the world's most powerful nations.
The challenge, say Canadian researchers and diplomats, will be how to convince world powers to adopt a managed migration approach that does not overwhelmingly focus on state security, but treats climate refugees with dignity, while not watering down existing human rights protections in the Refugee Convention.
Before that can happen, though, the issue will need a much higher profile, which might be where Canada could play a larger role.
According to Robert McLeman, it is difficult to quantify the number of people who potentially face displacement by manifestations of climate change, such as extreme heat, seawater rise and extreme weather.
In January 2016, the geography and environmental studies professor at Wilfred Laurier University helped organize a conference of Canadian and U.S. experts working on environmental migration, along with relevant government officials in both countries, to try to figure out where the data gaps were, and whether a list of priorities for future work could be drawn up.
At the time, there was consensus on the urgency of the environmental migration issue, but that has been dissipating under the influence of the climate-denying Trump administration in Washington, McLeman says.
There are some statistics on the scale of the challenge. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, for example, predicts that an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes by natural disasters since 2008.
Further UN research has found that 232 million people were on the move globally in 2013, and that, in 2015, 65.3 million people migrated internally or externally as a result of conflict or persecution.
McLeman says he expects improved techniques in data collection by scientists in the next five years will offer a clearer picture of climate change-induced displacement and migration-in particular in areas like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, where there is not enough precipitation to ward off dry conditions.
Ultimately, he adds, numbers over the next 20 years and beyond will depend on whether national governments keep their promises to switch to cleaner energy technologies.
"Obviously, the more [greenhouse gasses] we pump up there [into the atmosphere], the more people who are affected. So, it is a number that we can never be certain of. But you can say to people, policy-makers, decision-makers, 'Here are your options,'" McLeman says.
Managing the movement of climate refugees under existing UN rules may not be one of them, as Teitiota learned on his way through the New Zealand court system.
The Refugee Convention was designed in the wake of the chaos and devastation affecting millions of people following the Second World War in Europe. UN member states, including Canada, are obligated to provide asylum for people facing threats to their lives and restrictions on their freedom in their home countries.
But the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which oversees the implementation of the convention, defines a migrant differently, as someone who is leaving their country for other reasons-even, it appears, that country's disappearance under the waves-and yet "continues to enjoy the protection of his or her own government, even when abroad."
So, is the Refugee Convention out of date in the era of climate change? Should it be revised to accommodate the new reality of international environmental migrants and the movement of other people who face challenges in their home country not related to state persecution, such as armed conflict, a lack of economic opportunities, drought, flooding, and so on?
Sharryn Aiken, a Queen's University law professor and expert on immigration and refugee law, has her doubts. She says she worries that any effort to reopen and update the Refugee Convention would lead to the "watering down" of existing protections, especially in the current political climate of governments seeking to restrict the number of people crossing their borders.
Aiken argues that the original convention is focused on individual or group experiences of persecution. Scientists, on the other hand, are warning us that climate change-induced displacement potentially involves massive populations or whole nations.
"I don't look to the creation of a new treaty," she explains. "As a global community we have a responsibility for people who are displaced to have a welcome mat available for them."
Aiken says she is encouraged by the appointment this year of Louise Arbour as the UN secretary general's new special representative for international migration. The former Canadian Supreme Court judge has been given 18 months to develop a "global compact" on "safe, orderly and regular migration, for those not covered by the refugee convention.
Mirroring Aiken, Arbour told CBC's The House in March that "climate change and migration are currently the defining issues of the time," and that the movement of people across borders should be a positive and normal human activity, not a burden or something to fear.
McLeman is also upbeat about Arbour's task at hand, and the Canadian government's commitment of million dollars over two years to help in fulfilling her mandate. "The compact on migration will be very important in setting international policy on migration for years to come," he s ays.
Arbour's appointment follows the European Union's inability to agree on a coherent plan to deal with the influx of migrants from the Syrian civil war and other troubled countries.
She is also arriving at a time when the U.S., the largest provider of funds for UN aid agencies such as the UNHCR, is threatening major cuts and jeopardizing assistance for migrants in areas like resettlement, says Idil Atak, a Ryerson University criminology professor and a past-president of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.
The new UN special representative will also face challenges in how jealously member states defend their individual sovereign right to determine who can be admitted across their borders, she explains. "UN member states are more or less willing to discuss some of the aspects of migration management, [for example] in trade agreements. They are reluctant in terms of discussing the protection of the human rights of migrants.R 21;
Francois Crépeau is similarly guarded but no less committed to solving the problem. "I keep my expectations pretty low in order not to be too disappointed," says the McGill University law professor and UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. "I certainly hope for more but I expect less. I think [UN member] states will not be interested in a general migration regime. They will try to plug the holes in what they see as a problem today. And they will have a short-term view of what migrant governance should look like."
Crépeau says he'd like to see longer-term reforms to international governance that target policies to specific migration needs. He points to Kiribati, for example, whose government is already buying land in Fiji to prepare for the island's eventual demise. "The level of water is rising, and the people are not going to be able to survive within in the next 30 years... The water will be salinated, the land will not produce [food] because of the salt."
Crépeau is opposed to establishing a new legal category under international jurisprudence for climate change-related or environmental migrants because, he says, both designations are too imprecise. He wrote about the problem of defining this type of movement a few years ago, when expert estimates of expected climate migration ranged from 20 million to 300 million people over the next 25 years.
"My conclusion was that it is actually very, very difficult to pinpoint a migrant whose main reason for moving or migrating is the environment or climate."
Michaela Hynie prefers the term environmental migrant to climate migrant or climate refugee. The York University social psychology professor, and co-author of a policy brief on climate change and migration, agrees that a combination of social, environmental and economic factors drive people in the Global South to desperately seek shelter elsewhere.
But she adds that the decision to move is interwoven with a person's livelihood (when it becomes impossible to plant crops in a dry region) and war (when there is conflict over diminishing resources).
"Environmental migration allows us to capture all of the ways in which people are being affected by the environment and their different adaption strategies," she tells me. "Many people will migrate cyclically, or they migrate temporarily as a way of dealing with environmental change, because they don't want to give up their traditional lands, for example."
Countries in the Global North, including Canada and the United States, have more resources and infrastructure to deal with climate change and damaging environmental events - think of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the 2016 Alberta wildfires - than is the case in more impoverished states.
Unfortunately, when migrants from countries such as Syria or Somalia start crossing borders they are frequently perceived in recipient countries "as a disaster" rather than as prospective new citizens. Like other migration scholars, Hynie says she is worried that predictions of large-scale climate-related migration could be milked by anti-immigrant political forces for their own purposes.
"The concern [among some groups] is not with the welfare of the migrants, but rather using prejudice toward migrants to motivate action on climate change."
Hynie points out that Canada may see far fewer climate migrants than other countries, simply because of its geography-surrounded by vast oceans on three sides. She adds that most low-income people in the Global South, who depend on the land for their livelihood and may be forced to leave if environmental conditions worsen, will not have the means to travel further than a more hospitable part of their country, or will hop across the nearest national border.
But that should not let the Canadian government off the hook for future or present commitments. In fact, the immense scale and nature of migration today may render separate categories-for economic and environmental migrants versus convention refugees-more or less irrelevant.
Unfortunately, says McLeman, "extending our compassion for people who are being displaced...does not fit the election discourse in terms of the United States and Europe with the rise of wanting to throw up borders and walls and the fear of migrants and refugees." He estimates that worldwide about 10% of people live within coastal zones less than 10 metres above sea level. "So yes, a lot of people could be at risk."
Already, governments are not meeting their legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention to the increasing numbers of people fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East, Central America and Africa. So said Lloyd Axworthy in May in an interview with the CBC. The former immigration and foreign affairs minister was recently named chair of a new World Refugee Council, funded in part by the Canadian government, that will complement Arbour's work by developing a plan to overhaul the global response to forced migration.
"Part of the problem is that there are voids and vacuums. People look out and say, 'okay, we've got a large amount of people here, but nobody seems to be in control, managing it and understanding what needs to be done,'" he said. "A lot of the frustration that has been expressed in electoral terms in the last several years is [in response to] government not governing."
Even in Canada, desperate people on the move are tarred with the same brush, as a security problem to be "managed," says Luisa Veronis, a professor of geography, environment and geomatics at the University of Ottawa. The small numbers of people who fled the U.S. this winter, poorly clothed and risking frostbite, to claim asylum in Canada from Trump's America, have been erroneously labelled "illegal" by CBC news reports.
A strong strain of anti-migrant and anti-refugee positioning was also displayed during this year's Conservative Party leadership race. Maxime Bernier, for instance, called for the military to be deployed to seal the border.
While Trudeau government earned praise internationally for welcoming Syrian refugees in 2015-16, it has been non-committal on the recent northward migration, and is largely silent on climate change-induced displacement.
A notable exception, says McLeman (himself a former Canadian foreign service officer), was when Stéphane Dion addressed "at length" the need to do something about the people forced to move because of climate change related conditions in their countries during a speech as foreign affairs minister, before a cabinet shuffle moved the long-standing environmentalist to a diplomatic post in Europe.
Dion's successor at Global Affairs Canada, Chrystia Freeland, has directed her attention elsewhere; for example, to looming NAFTA renegotiations with the United States and Mexico.
But perhaps there are openings even there-in the no-doubt bruising negotiations Canada will have to endure with the Trump administration-for dialogue on migrant rights. Hynie argues that bilateral agreements on temporary migration, such as exist between Canada and some Caribbean countries, offer one possibly way to manage future migration.
However, the success of this strategy will depend on more countries, including Canada, signing the international convention for migrant workers and their families. "We could take leadership in developing policies that protect the rights of migrants," she says.
Freeland told the Globe and Mail at the end of May that: "now is a great moment for Canada to be ambitious at home...and be ambitious about what our voice can accomplish in the world." She was speaking of her desire to promote a Canadian foreign policy vision of an "open society" that is tolerant of difference and welcoming of newcomers.
Combined with the government's official support for Arbour, Axworthy and the UN process for reforming refugee policy, there is at least a small hope Canada could provide some resistance to western urges to fortify borders.
This article was first published in the July/August 2017 edition of The Monitor, a publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
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