The Other Refugee Crisis

Haiti, Hurricane Tomas flooding |  UN Photo via Flikr

The European Union’s response to migration is being challenged yet again, as the integrity of its external borders and the freedom of internal movement have come into question. The EU struggles to deal with an influx of asylum seekers from North Africa, West Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, stifling a time of dire humanitarian need with national self-interest and often-xenophobic tendencies.

EU member states have turned to loopholes in international refugee law, exploiting them to fabricate discrepancies when granting refugee status. Hungary has been accused of intentionally failing to register political asylum seekers, a move mirrored by Austria 48 hours later, and Germany shortly after.

With no foreseeable end to conflict-induced displacement from war-torn states such as Syria and Iraq, the EU and its Eastern European neighbors are scrambling to coordinate their migration policies. Due to a shoddy record of bilateral and multilateral coordination, prospects for collectively addressing future migration crises have been called into question.

The biggest migration issue burdening the EU has yet to fully materialize. Environmental degradation is a reality. It will inevitably induce displacement, and there are currently insufficient international mechanisms to protect environmentally-displaced asylum seekers.

With rising global temperatures causing ecological havoc and threatening the security of vulnerable populations, the prospect of environmental displacement in the future is menacing. Statistical forecasts reinforce predictions that we will see 200 million environmental refugees by 2050, an exceptionally massive number, especially when compared to the 10 million political refugees currently registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The relative impact of climate change on migration is an incessantly growing plight — one that the global community, state actors, and non-state actors alike, can and must address through international refugee law.

Expanding international refugee law to incorporate environmental refugees will protect forced migrants affected by a wide variety of ecological catastrophes. For example, agricultural societies in the Sahel region of North Africa are struggling to resist desertification. Among them, Senegal’s persistent droughts resulting from climate change are displacing people who depend on the increasingly scarce rainfall to grow crops and graze livestock. Even Syria’s migration crisis has partially been fueled by environmental degradation. Before the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Syria suffered from several years of extreme drought, which climatologists attribute to climate change. The inability of farmers to cultivate their land forced many Syrians to migrate towards urban areas. "That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe," reports the Washington D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security. Across the globe, the UN estimates that 12 million hectares of land are hindered by desertification each year.

Coastal areas, such as Bangladesh, face rising sea levels and storm surges induced by climate change, threatening the homes and livelihoods of the low-lying delta populations. In the southern city of Dhaka, a one-meter rise in sea levels will leave 14% of a 14 million person city inundated. United Nations resident coordinator Robert Watkins stated in September that, "by 2050, it is estimated that one in every seven people in Bangladesh is likely to be displaced by climate change, and they are also likely to move to urban centres already burdened with meeting the needs of a dense population."

As climate change threatens states and communities, the expansion of international refugee law to include environmental refugees is imperative in order to guarantee humanitarian protections to persons fleeing ‘persecution’ from anthropogenic climate change. EU member states share the responsibility of aiding those whom are detrimentally affected by the significant amount of carbon emissions produced by the EU both currently and historically. But as the unprepared EU remains unable to collectively address the current migration crisis, any expansion of international refugee law to protect ecological migrants appears unlikely.

Adam Gold

Adam studies International Relations and Chinese Language & Culture at UBC. His writing and research focus on warfare & conflict management, geopolitics, and Turkish politics.

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