Should en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees be granted asy­lum sta­tus?

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT - By Thalif Deen

UNITED NA­TIONS - The 1951 UN con­ven­tion on po­lit­i­cal refugees – which never fore­saw the phe­nom­e­non of cli­mate change – per­mits refugee sta­tus only if one “has a well-founded fear of per­se­cu­tion be­cause of his/her race, re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ity, mem­ber­ship in a par­tic­u­lar so­cial group or po­lit­i­cal opin­ion.”

But a pro­posal for an amend­ment to that Con­ven­tion – or an op­tional pro­to­col – to in­clude a new cat­e­gory of “en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees” has failed to get off the ground.

The threat of sea-level rise – and the pos­si­bil­ity of tiny is­lands, mostly in the Pa­cific, in­clud­ing Tu­valu, Kiri­bati, Samoa, Solomon Is­lands, Nauru, Mar­shall Is­lands, Palau, Mi­crone­sia and Van­u­atu, van­ish­ing from the face of the earth or fac­ing eco­nomic calami­ties be­cause of a pro­jected sea- level rise trig­gered by cli­mate change – has raised new fears and new chal­lenges.

Should the threat of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes be le­git­i­mate grounds for asy­lum and refugee sta­tus?

Am­bas­sador An­warul K. Chowd­hury, a former UN High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive and Un­der­Sec­re­tary- Gen­eral for Least De­vel­oped Coun­tries, Land­locked De­vel­op­ing Coun­tries and Small Is­land De­vel­op­ing States ( SIDS), told IPS the ra­tio­nale for the recog­ni­tion of the cat­e­gory of “en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees” has been es­tab­lished for quite some time.

“As Un­der-Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral and High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the United Na­tions, I had high­lighted the case of the most vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries af­fected by the degra­da­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment and had ad­vo­cated for recog­ni­tion of the re­sult­ing refugee sit­u­a­tions,” he said.

“These en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees need to be recog­nised for­mally as refugees and en­ti­tled to be cov­ered by the 1951 U. N. Con­ven­tion on the Sta­tus of Refugees. It is high time for us to do that,” Chowd­hury de­clared.

As has been the case with a number of other in­ter­na­tional treaties and con­ven­tions, an op­tional pro­to­col to the 1951 refugees con­ven­tion could be adopted to recog­nise the en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees, he pointed out.

“The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity owes it to these ill-fated hap­less vic­tims of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes whether man­i­fest­ing as loud emer­gen­cies or the silent ones,” Chowd­hury said.

“The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should also be for­ward-look­ing and flex­i­ble to ac­com­mo­date the new re­al­i­ties our world faces,” he noted.

Chowd­hury also said it is not pru­dent to re­main stuck with the sole cat­e­gory of “po­lit­i­cal refugees” while the world is watch­ing a mass move­ment of peo­ple across in­ter­na­tional bound­aries for eco­nomic rea­sons, now com­pounded by en­vi­ron­men­tal causes.

“We ex­pect the UN Sec­re­tary­Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res, ( a former UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees), to speak up for the cause of the en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees, as he has the right back­ground of man­ag­ing the global refugees sit­u­a­tion for a long time.”

In an ad­dress to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in 2011, re­fer­ring to the cli­mate change, he said “It is a chal­lenge which is adding to the scale and com­plex­ity of hu­man dis­place­ment; and a chal­lenge that has im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions for the main­te­nance of in­ter­na­tional peace and se­cu­rity.”

Even from this per­spec­tive, the en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees turn out to have se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions for in­ter­na­tional peace and se­cu­rity, Chowd­hury said.

The pro­posal to recog­nise “en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees” has sur­faced once again, this time against the back­drop of a ma­jor con­fer­ence of non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions (NGOs) – the In­ter­na­tional Civil So­ci­ety Week ( ICSW) – sched­uled to take place in Fiji, De­cem­ber 4-8.

An an­nual fo­rum co- or­gan­ised by CIVICUS and re­gional or na­tional plat­forms, ICSW brings to­gether NGOs from all over the world for a key global gath­er­ing for civil so­ci­ety and other stake­hold­ers to en­gage con­struc­tively in find­ing com­mon so­lu­tions to global chal­lenges.

And for the first time in more than 20 years of in­ter­na­tional con­ven­ing, CIVICUS will hold its flag­ship event in the Pa­cific re­gion.” The theme of the fo­rum is: “Our Planet. Our Strug­gles. Our Fu­ture.”

“These en­vi­ron­men­tal refugees need to be recog­nised for­mally as refugees and en­ti­tled to be cov­ered by the 1951 U.N. Con­ven­tion on the Sta­tus of Refugees. It is high time for us to do that,” Chowd­hury de­clared.

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, about a third of the world’s 47 least de­vel­oped coun­tries (LDCs), in­clud­ing SIDS, de­scribed as the poor­est of the world’s poor, are threat­ened by global warm­ing and sea-level rise.

Se­lena Vic­tor, Di­rec­tor of Pol­icy and Ad­vo­cacy, Mercy Corps Europe, told IPS global in­sti­tu­tions and con­ven­tions must evolve to meet new and de­vel­op­ing chal­lenges, and cli­mate change is one of the most press­ing fac­ing our world to­day.

“At Mercy Corps we recog­nise that peo­ple are forced to flee due to many fac­tors; po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion, war, vi­o­lence, ab­ject poverty, and cli­mate change are just some of them”.

”It is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal that we main­tain – and strengthen – the frag­ile pro­tec­tion avail­able to those flee­ing per­se­cu­tion – that does not lessen our obli­ga­tion to help all those forced to flee for their own and their chil­dren’s sur­vival,” Vic­tor said.

“When faced with a grow­ing number of dis­placed peo­ple around the world, the ques­tion we must ask our­selves is if peo­ple are run­ning for their sur­vival, should we make the dis­tinc­tion as to their rea­sons, or fo­cus our ef­forts on sup­port and pro­vid­ing refuge?”, she asked.

Si­mon Brad­shaw, Cli­mate Change Spe­cial­ist at Ox­fam Aus­tralia (who co-au­thored Ox­fam’s re­cent pol­icy pa­per on cli­mate refugees) told IPS that cli­mate change is al­ready forc­ing peo­ple from their land and homes, and putting many more at risk of dis­place­ment in fu­ture.

He said su­per­charged storms, more in­tense and pro­longed droughts, ris­ing seas and other im­pacts of cli­mate change all ex­ac­er­bate peo­ple’s ex­ist­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and the like­li­hood of dis­place­ment.

“While cli­mate change af­fects us all, the risks of dis­place­ment are sig­nif­i­cantly higher in lower-in­come coun­tries and among peo­ple liv­ing in poverty. Women, chil­dren, indige­nous peo­ples and other vul­ner­a­ble groups are also dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected.”

Brad­shaw also said the world’s atoll coun­tries face a par­tic­u­larly se­vere chal­lenge from cli­mate change. Ris­ing seas, in­creased wave heights and higher storm surges are in­un­dat­ing land on which com­mu­ni­ties grow food, con­tam­i­nat­ing the thin ground­wa­ter lens of which they de­pend for fresh­wa­ter, and swal­low­ing homes.

While re­lo­ca­tion will al­ways be an op­tion of last re­sort, even con­ser­va­tive pro­jec­tions for sea level rise over the course of this cen­tury pose a grave threat to atoll com­mu­ni­ties and other low-lying pop­u­la­tions around the world.

He pointed out that the loss of homes, liveli­hoods and an­ces­tral lands through dis­place- ment epit­o­mises the hu­man cost and grave in­jus­tice of cli­mate change.

“Those least re­spon­si­ble for cli­mate change are bear­ing the brunt of its im­pacts, and have fewer re­sources to cope with these new re­al­i­ties. How­ever, much can and must be done to min­imise the risk of dis­place­ment linked to cli­mate change, and to guar­an­tee rights, pro­tec­tion and dig­nity for those who are forced to move”.

A first pri­or­ity, he ar­gued, must be far more rapid re­duc­tions in global cli­mate pol­lu­tion, in line with lim­it­ing warm­ing to 1.5C and thereby sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing the risks and im­pacts of cli­mate change.

Min­imis­ing dis­place­ment also de­pends on sup­port­ing com­mu­ni­ties with build­ing re­silience to the im­pacts of cli­mate change, which means in­creas­ing the scale and ac­ces­si­bil­ity of in­ter­na­tional fi­nance for cli­mate change adap­ta­tion. “And while recog­nis­ing that all pos­si­ble mea­sures must be taken to avoid dis­place­ment, it is also nec­es­sary to sup­port strate­gies to en­sure that peo­ple who are forced to can do so safely, with dig­nity, and on their own terms.” The writer can be con­tacted at thal­[email protected] (Cour­tesy: In­ter Press Ser­vice News Agency)

Aerial view of Marovo la­goon, Solomon Is­lands. Pic UN /Eskinder De­bebe

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