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Climate migration: it’s here and it’s big

By Zofia Garstka

The climate crisis holds hands with the migration crisis, we must now lend a hand to the Global South.

The climate change crisis is something that is being talked about more and more frequently. We all know about it. As it stands, climate change has not affected the Global North as severely as other continents. Despite that, there have been annual reports of wildfires in Italy, Greece and California over the past several years, as well as reports of severe drought in Southern Europe. All countries are dealing with the effects of climate change, yet still, the countries most affected by it are the ones in the Global South. Most severely, we can see the impact in Africa and multiple regions in Asia, as well as among numerous island states on the Pacific, with some of them, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, or the Maldives, on the brink of destruction.

With the climate crisis come multiple issues. Arguably, one of the most daunting is climate migration. In the last decade, there were around 21.5 million displacements each year caused by natural disasters. According to the Institute for Economics & Peace, by 2050, there might be 1.2 billion climate refugees. This is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed by all governments, but especially the governments of the Global North. Historically, those governments are the ones that would be considered the “polluters” of the world, and they have a responsibility to help the suffering communities.

According to the 1951 UN Geneva Convention, a refugee is a person who is being persecuted based on religion, race, nationality, membership to a particular social group or political opinion. They have the right to seek international protection. Even though, in actuality, their situation is complicated, with many European (and non-European) countries closing and fortifying their borders. International laws do not cover climate refugees, so they remain unprotected and cannot claim asylum based on natural disasters. 

The overwhelming majority of climate refugees come from politically, economically and socially unstable areas. It is rarely the climate concerns that are the only reason for migration. However, that is becoming a more prevalent factor. With the global temperature at an all-time high, we can expect climate change to become the primary reason for migration.

There are a few things that are already in motion. One is the Great Green Wall programme, which aims to create a green barrier across Africa. By 2030, 100 million hectares of land should be restored from severe drought. It has been in the works for almost a decade now, and it’s about 18 percent done. It is unlikely to be done on time, but it is, nonetheless, a step in the right direction. When this project is finished, it will be a significant resource for climate refugees. Creating 10 million workplaces will ensure that people who unfortunately had to leave their homeland will have a place to stay, work, and a purpose to live. Losing everything can send people into a spiral of despair, and this will ensure that they have something to look forward to, to create a new home.

Another solution that has been seldom used is called ‘managed retreat’. It is a planned movement of people whose lands are becoming uninhabitable. It was implemented in Louisiana to move 37 Indigenous families from the shore, which was being consumed by rising sea levels. It is a solution that many governments should plan for, yet almost none of them are at the moment. Only the governments of islands in the Pacific Ocean are actively planning the movement of their citizens due to how pressing the issue is.

Managed retreat is not being implemented because it is costly. Relocating around 100 Indigenous people cost the US government around $50 million. No government is willing to implement it as it will not be met with approval from the voters and people in power. Yet, with climate migration growing, this is what we should be doing: not just evacuating people who have just lost everything in a flood or other natural disaster but proactively moving them to places they choose.

As Ama Francis expressed during a conference in Davos, Switzerland, in January this year, there are solutions to the problem of climate migration. However, no one seems to be interested in those. According to Francis, new, simple laws should be created to address this crisis. Ones that are welcoming rather than restricting. We make it so easy for goods and products to cross borders and not enough effort for people to do the same safely, and most importantly feeling welcomed into their new environment. This needs to change. Accepting refugees and migrants, changing the narrative and mindset of “migrants coming here to steal and destroy”, but treating them as equals and people who we can work with to make the world a better place is something that we, as a society, need to work on actively.

Right now, the most important thing is listening to people who are suffering and who know the reasonable solutions. Coming together rather than being divided. Earth is the only place where humans can live, and we can all thrive if we have love and compassion for other human lives.

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