Global warming will worsen refugee problem
Reprinted from One World South Asia, June 26, 2007
Governments and aid agencies worldwide are already straining to cope with 10 million refugees whose plight is in danger of being obscured by debates over a far greater wave of economic migrants and people escaping climatic chaos, say experts on World Refugee Day.
The number of people displaced by global warming could dwarf the nearly 10 million refugees and almost 25 million internally-displaced people already fleeing wars, oppressive regimes, civilian conflict and lawlessness, said experts on the occasion of World Refugee Day, June 20.
Coping with the masses of people seeking new places to live as their areas are devastated by climate change-related disasters, or are facing water and food shortages as a result of global warming, poses a new challenge to those working with refugees, in a world already weary of them.
“All around the world, predictable patterns are going to result in very long-term and very immediate changes in the ability of people to earn their livelihoods,” said Michele Klein Solomon of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). “It’s pretty overwhelming to see what we might be facing in the next 50 years,” she added. “And it’s starting now.”
In fact, the daunting prospect of how to deal with such mass population movements — a new report by the aid agency Christian Aid predicts there will be 1 billion environmental refugees by 2050 -– is something no one has yet figured out, say experts.
For instance, if rising sea levels force the people of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean to seek new homes, who will welcome them in a world that is increasingly less hospitable and more hostile towards refugees?
People forced to move due to climate change, salination, rising sea levels, deforestation, or desertification do not fit the classic definition of refugees — those who leave their homelands to escape persecution or conflict and who need protection. Countries across the globe are slamming their doors shut even on these people, just as United Nations figures show that an exodus from Iraq has reversed a five-year decline in overall global refugee numbers.
While these potential refugees apprehend the worst effects of global climate change on their lives, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the global political climate for refugees has already become harsher. “They used to be welcomed as people fleeing persecution, but this has been changing, certainly since 9/11 but even before then,” said William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva. “Growing xenophobia, intolerance, political manipulation by populist politicians who mix up the issues — the whole debate on asylum and migration has been confused.”
People fleeing for their lives and those seeking a better life could both be passengers on the same boat that lands on more prosperous shores, but Spindler said it is vital to keep the distinction between them to provide effective protection to those who need it most.
Whatever their motives, migrants deserve to be treated with dignity, Spindler added. “We have seen people in the Mediterranean in boats or hanging onto fishing nets for days while states discuss who should rescue them.”
Refugees may also feel the world has less room for them as they try to cross borders into countries where hostility towards migrants of all sorts has grown, compared with the Cold War era when fugitives from communism won sympathy and asylum. “The reaction now is scepticism,” said Joel Charny, vice-president of the Washington-based Refugees International. “It’s ‘Who is this scam artist trying to get a job in our country?’”
North Koreans fleeing to China, or Zimbabweans crossing illegally into South Africa are widely treated as economic migrants though many may also be escaping persecution, Charny said. “We have to maintain a refugee protection regime that doesn’t just assume everyone is an illegal economic migrant,” he added. “That tendency exists in the industrialised countries and in the wealthier countries of the global South.”
Before the sectarian violence in Iraq, in 2006, global refugee numbers had been on the downswing. The overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, along with the brokering of peace in trouble spots like the Congo, Liberia, Angola and southern Sudan had allowed millions to return home — although 2.1 million Afghans have yet to do so. “I’m not suggesting that life is all beautiful in those countries, but there have been advances,” said Charny. “The big exception is Iraq, the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.”
According to the UNHCR, 2.2 million Iraqis have fled abroad and over 2 million have left their homes inside the country.
Source: Infochange India