Climate Change and Migration

In 2014, Ioane Teitiota made headlines after he became the world’s first climate change refugee when he applied for a visa in New Zealand on the basis of rising sea levels associated with climate change in his native Kiribati. While the case was dismissed and Teitiota was deported, his case raised awareness of displacements and possible conflicts caused by environmental changes.

Following Teitiota’s case, in 2017 New Zealand’s government announced that they were considering creating a visa category to help relocate Pacific Island citizens displaced by climate change. Since then, environmental migrants have been facing an uncertain future, but this new category of visa would allow the gap in the 1951 Refugee Convention to be filled. The problem would be devising a protocol to legally determine whether climate change had made it impossible for an environmental migrant to live in their home country.

Although the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there are more than 68.5 million people displaced from their homes (the largest number since the Second World War), this does not include people displaced by climate change. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, climate change refugees do not qualify for refugee status, as they are not being persecuted by race, religion, nationality or by the membership of a political or religious group. It was on the basis of this definition that the New Zealand Tribunal ruled against Teitiota’s visa application.

In order to fill the void of the 1951 Refugee Convention, 181 of the United Nations member states signed the UN Global Compact on Refugees in December 2018, which aims to address climate-driven migration for the first time in the world history. Policymakers and politicians need to understand that migration is intertwined with climate change. One cannot solve one problem without concentrating the same effort on the other. The only way to address migration issues is by spending money and time on climate change solutions.

In recent years, environmental disasters have produced more refugees than armed conflicts. Climate change has been responsible for redrawing the world we live in. Unfortunately, the least developed and developing countries are the most exposed to the consequences of climate change due to the population’s dependence on agriculture and because of main effects such as deforestation, pollution, and degradation of natural systems and ecosystems, which often undermine their traditional and sustainable way of life. Climate change is a cause of displacement and results in large and complex population movements, generating a migratory movement unprecedented in history.

Millions of African citizens from the Sahel region sought refuge in Europe in the 2015/2016 mass migration flow. The Sahara and Sub-Saharan regions have constantly suffered from droughts and desertification due to climate change, causing widespread flight in a search for survival. On March 14 this year, the tropical cyclone, Idai, devastated and tore Southeast African nations. Such a cyclone sheds light on how fragile developing countries are when it comes to climate change issues.

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