Natural disasters caused or exacerbated by climate change are becoming all too common nowadays. Millions of people are affected by such events, their suffering often broadcast by mainstream and social media while governments struggle to intervene adequately. We however have not paid much attention to one crucial entity; climate refugees. The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees identifies a refugee as being someone who is seeking the protection of a foreign country “…owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…” and who is unable or unwilling to seek the protection of their native country. But what about where chronic climate-induced conflict or food or water shortages take place? What about the populations of those small island states that are projected to be lost to rising sea levels?
The youth get affected directly since they form part of these communities. 51% of the population of the Maldives (one of the countries predicted to be subsumed by the sea) is under 25, and young people aged 18-24 are the largest age group. In Somalia, where 73% of the population is under 30, food shortages caused by drought have affected 750,000 people according to UNICEF’s Rudina Vojvda. Millions of Somalis are now streaming into Kenya, particularly to the Dadaab refugee camp in the North.
The voice of potential future climate change refugees in the COP process has certainly not been as strong and without legal status, they continue to be ignored on the international stage. Take Tuvalu for instance; it has been predicted that by the year 2054, the islands will be swallowed up by the sea and with about 11,000 people. The Tuvalu government appealed to the New Zealand and Australian government concerning the immigration policies of the two Asia-Pacific giants. The efforts did not bear much fruit. The story is similar in many areas as well, whole populations facing imminent danger and little being done to tackle the root cause; climate change.
As competition for resources, water, pasture causes ever more conflict, the numbers of people on the move across national boundaries continues to rise. Are these people not climate refugees? I say they are. The effects of climate change are so diverse that we cannot ignore the issue of climate refugees nor can we put it on the back burner. We cannot continue to limit the scope for which we define and provide for refugees. But even if displacement on the basis of environmental degradation and conflict become recognised, inaction on climate change now will condemn our generation to being one of refugees.
Cover photo: http://spacecityseattle.org/?p=525