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Almost there: Climate (errr.. Enviro- , Eco- ) Refugees (err... migrants?)

The Economist almost gets it: "Eco-migrants will be paperless paupers, whose multiple woes are hard to disentangle." An article in this week’s Economist discusses the black hole future climate refugees are likely to face in the next decades.

The article focuses on the legal implications and terminology that will or won’t (probably won’t) be applied to climate refugees. The Economist favours climate-change migrants, eco-migrants, and environmental refugees. Climate Refugees is my favorite term—though Eco-Refugees is equally as pleasing. However, to even use the designation “refugee” implies vast international legal consequences including (but not limited to) the right to shelter, education, and health provision. The designation that most states prefer is “displaced person” because it confers fewer legal rights upon the individual. The UNHCR has always been reluctant to grant the full refugee designation—just ask the Iraqis living in East Amman, Jordan.

Most states prefer to designate “migrants” as “displaced.” Developing countries will be the front line recipients of climate refugees and their already strained (or non-existent thanks to SAPs) social welfare systems will be overwhelmed. Oxfam has said that the number of people affected by increasingly severe natural disasters like hurricanes, monsoons, and the like will increase by 54% in the coming decades and have already doubled since 1980. The IOM estimates that the Sertao region of Brazil, for example, has already seen an outflow of 60 million people and Africa 10 million due to climate change. A CARE expert The Economist spoke with wondered “how anybody can now distinguish between forced and voluntary migration.” As climate refugees multiply we may no longer be able to.

Why? A fisherman in a coastal African town migrates because fish stocks have been depleted by Western demand and failing ecology such that he no longer has a livelihood with which to support his family. He chooses to migrate to France. Couldn't he have chosen to take up a new trade and stay in Africa? Is the lack of ability to provide for one’s family (in absence of armed militias) a force of migration? And if it is, how many states will be willing to pony up the cash or migrant worker visas to provide for these people? How are they different, therefore, from impoverished migrant workers seeking a better life in a developed country?

Wait, wait, wait… who’s mentioned developed countries taking in climate-change migrants? Nobody. The governments and the media have missed the bear.

While it is appropriate policy for developed countries to fund climate change mitigation between $40 billion (Ethiopia’s PM Zenawi’s suggestion) to $100 billion (a sum according to Gordon Brown), not a single* developed country has made a comprehensive attempt to accept climate-change migrants. Why not? That would involve developed countries taking comprehensive responsibility for climate-change. The developing world accounts for only 3.2% of global carbon emissions, according to the IPCC. It’s foolish for developed countries to think that they can avoid accepting some climate-change refugees (migrants, whatever…) especially since large ethnic migrant communities are already established developed countries and developing countries are heavily dependent upon remittances from those communities. The Bangladeshis in the UK, the Senegalese in France, and the Somalis all over the place are examples that come to mind.

Another way in which governments and the media have missed the bear is failing to equate the need for infrastructure and long term investment in the developing world with $40-100 billion to fund climate mitigation. But the UK government has also failed to understand that its own efforts to reduce carbon emissions will fail unless it invests heavily in infrastructure. As refugees are driven away from home, they will most likely flock to the nearest large city. Slums or squatter cities are likely to increase in size as well, but these are already legal black holes. It is critical that governments find a way to enfranchise this housing and provide sanitation and water. Infrastructure privatization has too many strict regulatory and monitoring requirements to be effective. Infrastructure needs to be made an explicit priority behind climate-change mitigation aid. And developed country governments need to seriously consider taking responsibility for their carbon emissions by changing their immigration policies to allow climate refugees visas (perhaps with consideration of large ethnic communities already present).

*New Zealand has an agreement with the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu—for the uninitiated this is where the .tv domain comes from. (see Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt)

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