Increasing Climate Change Refugees Will Only Diminish Action Against Global Warming

Just this year, we have seen the effects of the climate change crisis take shape in an unprecedented way. Bushfires have ravaged the Australian continent. Greenland’s melting ice caps have raised global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. Coral bleaching continues to threaten the health of sea life across the world. From this onslaught of destruction comes a new and increasing issue: climate change refugees.

What Do The Numbers Say?

In 2020, the World Migration Report revealed 28 million new internal displacements across 148 countries and territories, of which 61% were caused by natural disasters. According to the report, there will be more than 143 million internal climate migrants in just three regions of the world by 2050 if left unchecked. Though one assumes the displacement of such a huge population would fuel climate change action, I believe this will instead cause the racialization of climate change by turning it into a migrant issue.

Examining the way governments handle displaced populations, we see how quickly refugees are undermined and disregarded. This is best exemplified in the Trump administration’s management of the 2018 migrant caravan from South and Latin America. The issue was hyper-racialized, with Trump spewed vitriolic and racist comments on campaign ads and throughout his Twitter feed. He referred to the caravan as “an invasion”, inferring that the refugees were terrorists, murderers and unwanted criminals. The migrants, most of whom sought asylum due to violent and dangerous conditions in their home countries, were dehumanised, their experiences diminished, and their reputation smeared by top policy makers.

As climate change becomes a more human issue, it is likely that the same disregard will be applied to environmental refugees. Rather than serving as a world-uniting issue, it would morph into another divisive and racialized debate.

Barriers To Changing Perspectives

Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change state that the Indian subcontinent will be among the most vulnerable countries as global heating increases the intensity and frequency of natural disasters. At the end of last year, India suffered devastating floods that killed hundreds and destroyed thousands of homes, resulting in the internal displacement of 2.7 million people. However, these refugees have no representation, residency rights, or social entitlements. This is because asylum seeking on the grounds of natural disasters and global warming is not recognized under the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocol. As such, they are ineligible for protection under national or international legal frameworks and often lumped under the same category as illegal immigrants.

In order to escape with their lives and find new homes, these migrants undermine the law, making it easier for governments to label them as ‘criminals’ and ignore their plight. They are often viewed as a result of administration mismanagement. This not only pits governments against each other and prevent the possibility of any unified world action against climate change, it also dehumanizes those in need.

Ignoring their humanity allows other nations to view climate change as an issue specific to developing countries or on the back burner. To them, the lives of those without homes, jobs or families will not matter because they are the ‘other’. ‘They don’t matter because they’re trying to ‘invade’ my country. It’s their fault this has happened to them. They’re criminals. None of it will matter, until sea levels rise right to my own front door.’