What Are We Doing About 'Climate Refugees'?

In September 2015 I returned home from two and a half months in Bangladesh to discover that the British media had exploded with news of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe. I was shocked and saddened by the photos and stories, but at the same time thought back to the flooding that I had seen that summer.

The 2016 Global Climate Risk Index rates Bangladesh as the sixth most vulnerable country in the world. Already there are people who have had to physically move their homes multiple times as the sea level rises. (For a more detailed description, read my blog here.) In a country with a population of approximately 150 million, more and more of the land is going underwater. With that in mind, surely the refugee crisis is only just beginning?

By 2050 there will be around 200 million people displaced by climate change worldwide. To put this in perspective, this is twenty times the number of refugees currently under UNHCR protection. However there is currently no international legal framework in place for these people to fit into.

The 1951 Convention describes a refugee as:

"A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

Unfortunately, this means that those who have had to leave their homes because of environmental reasons do not fit this description. The worst thing about environmental issues is that the countries experiencing the effects are not usually the main contributors to the problem. Furthermore, many people displaced by climate change are displaced within their own country, not outside of it.

This means that currently there is no obligation for states to help those displaced by climate change. There are many people on the verge of being homeless and we aren't doing anything about it.

In 2015 two families tried to claim asylum in New Zealand, both from Pacific islands that are significantly affected by environmental issues. Neither the Alesana nor the Teitiota families were granted asylum on climate-related grounds, however the Alesana family managed to prove their family connections to New Zealand.

None of us did anything to determine where we were born. Why do we deserve stability, security and a home when so many people around the world have none of those things? Why do we deserve to live with extravagance when others are barely surviving?

So much of the time it seems as though political decisions are based on trying to deal with the consequences of a situation, rather than the cause. It is easy to think about the short-term and difficult to think 35 years into the future. However in this instance, by the time a crisis hits it might be too late.