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Climate Migration - the Oldest 'New' Way to Survive

There is a human rights crisis going on all around us, which, on the heels of the COP 24 Conference on climate change/global warming in Katowice, Poland last year, is even more important to acknowledge and to discuss. It affects millions of people around the globe, and yet, most of us are blissfully unaware that anything out of the ordinary is happening. However, we, and perhaps most especially policy makers - like those involved in the 2018 conference - cannot afford to live in ignorance about this issue anymore.

We all know that across the world, refugees are migrating to other countries. Everyday we see shocking images of war refugees corralled in shanty town camps, living in deplorable conditions, and we read about the incredible lengths to which people are willing to go to escape their situations.

As recently as last December, reports of the mistreatment of the ‘migrant caravan’ outside the United States’ border have been circulating, eliciting outrage from the international community. Though new stories of immigrants and refugees pour in, and sometimes the particular set of circumstances is incredible or horrific, human migration is, in and of itself, hardly surprising.

Some of humanity’s most basic survival mechanisms are adaptation and migration. When the environment changes in such a way that we can no longer support ourselves, we move and adapt to the situation. This has been the way of our species since its inception. Perhaps one area had too many carnivorous predators, or too few trees for shelter. Whatever the reason, if one place was unsuitable, people would simply move to a new location that provided better resources. Today, people are employing the same strategies of migration and adaptation for a different reason - climate change.

Many will argue that climate change cannot be the reason that people are leaving their homes to go to another place. There are, after all, countless reasons for migration; war, drought, flooding, food insecurity and so on. However, what isn’t always clear is that, often, the instigator of these problems is in fact climate change.

Giovanni, a Guatemalan man, left his home behind because of a drought so severe that his area of the region is becoming known as the “dry corridor” of Central America. Sahia, a newly married Bangladeshi woman, was forced to gather all her and her husband’s worldly possessions and flee when the ground their house was built on began to collapse into the river due to constant erosion. 3,000 inhabitants of the Kiribati nation have been forced to move to different islands because rising sea levels have consumed their homes and poisoned their groundwater.

The amassed evidence showing the effect of global warming and subsequent climate change is overwhelming. As temperatures across the globe approach 2°C above 1990 levels, rains will become heavier and more prolonged in some regions while intense drought strikes others, hurricanes will strengthen and sea levels will rise 1-4 feet by the end of the century, submerging huge amounts of the planet’s landmass. When one thinks in terms of the bigger picture of climate change, it is a small wonder that people leave drought stricken regions in droves, or that fights break out in regions suffering extreme food insecurity. Though the number of people escaping climate change is still small enough that the term ‘climate change migration’ is unfamiliar, it will soon increase by leaps and bounds. We desperately need to make preparations for that reality ahead of the need for it.

Before we can even consider accommodating the movement and assimilation of millions of refugees into more fortunate regions however, there is another problem that must be solved; the term ‘refugee’ itself. In the parlance of international law and policy,

“a ‘refugee’ is defined as someone “owing to 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.””

When this definition was composed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, there was no such thing as a person displaced by climate change, and therefore there was no allowance made for such a person in the definition. Nevertheless, it is evident that these climate displaced individuals have claims to asylum just as valid as refugees fleeing genocide or religious persecution. These people suffer from human rights violations as outlined by Jane McAdam, one of first researchers in this area, in her Legal and Protection Policy Research Series. Climate Change Displacement and International Law: Complementary Protection Standards, and these violations will only worsen over time. As such, it is imperative that we, the global community, push for the adoption of appropriate language and policy for situations like those experienced by Giovanni and Sahia, so that when catastrophe is upon us, we can react in a way that will save millions of lives.

Of course, it is far more likely that when climate migration becomes a frequently used term, people will react much as they do to the idea of immigrants and refugees today. As a society, we have a strange tendency to blame others, outsiders, for their own misfortune, to abuse them and to paint them as alien and dangerous. We dehumanize them and ignore their suffering. Just a few months ago, we witnessed the Trump administration authorize the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on families, women and children approaching the U.S. Mexico Border in a last ditch bid for survival. Even here in our beloved twin island republic, we reject the Venezuelan immigrants who come to our shores to escape the hell their country has become. We can only hope that in 2019, in light of global warming and climate change looming over us, threatening to destroy the world and everyone in it, that we can come together to prevent the unimaginable losses that climate displacement can bring. After all, if we, citizens of the Caribbean, some of those who are most vulnerable to the terrifying effects of climate change, cannot find it in our hearts to help, who can be expected to help us?


Ayeb-Karlsson, Sonja. “Climate change and migration in Bangladesh – one woman’s perspective.”, The Conversation. Last modified November 29, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2018.

Hidalgo, Milena. “Cold Welcome for Venezuelans in Trinidad.”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Last modified August 12, 2017.

McAdam, Jane. “Legal and Protection Policy Research Series. Climate Change Displacement and International Law: Complementary Protection Standards.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, May 2011: 12.

Miller, Todd. “Why the Migrant Caravan Story Is a Climate Change Story.”, YES! Magazine. Last modified November 27, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2018.

National Aeronautic and Space Administration, “How climate is changing.”, Accessed November 26, 2018.

Oosterveen, Hanna , “Kiribati: Potentially The First Uninhabitable Island Nation.”, The McGill International Review. Last modified November 6, 2018. Accessed November 26, 2018.

Rohde, David. “The Migrant Caravan Reaches the U.S.-Mexico Border.”, The New Yorker. Last modified November 30, 2018. Accessed November 30, 2018.

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