In May of 2014, Ioane Teitiota, a 38 year old man from the small island nation of Kiribati, made the world’s first climate changerelated refugee appeal. Overnight, Kiribati became the face o of climate change migration. Surrounded on all sides by the Pacific Ocean, it has been hard hit by the effects of climate change. Internalizing that rising sea levels will flood Kiribati, Teitiota, who had overstayed his visa in New Zealand, appealed to the government to allow him and his family to remain in the nation as the world’s first climate change refugees. Teitiota’s appeal was denied by the New Zealand Court of Appeals on the grounds that he could not be classified as a refugee under current laws because those fleeing climate change do not fall under the United Nation’s definition of a refugee. He was deported.
Although Teitiota’s case is startling and has received massive amounts of media attention, his story is not an isolated incident. In recent years, climate change has been a factor in forcing refugees to leave their homes, sometimes permanently. As Kirsten McConnachie, the Joyce Pearce Junior Research Fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, told The Politic, “There are multiple ways in which climate change may contribute to forced migration: changing weather patterns that make land less productive and reduce people’s ability to live in their current areas; extreme weather that makes areas uninhabitable or causes natural disasters; rising sea levels forcing people to leave lowlying coastal areas.”
In addition to Kiribati, North and Central Africa have also felt migrationinducing impacts, areas where families have decided to leave home because of water and food shortages and destroyed farmland. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 332,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Africa and reached Europe this year, while another 2,636 died trying. This is in addition to the approximately 1.3 million people who immigrate to the EU every year. Although refugees and migrants have been a reality for Europe for many years, this trend has now reached new heights.
However, climate change is only a cause, not the cause of these trends. As Khalid Koser, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund which works with governments and organizations to combat violent extremism throughout the world, said to The Politic, “It is extremely hard to distinguish the reasons behind migration. People may be moving as a result of poverty or conflict and that may be exacerbated by climate change, but if you were to ask if there are people moving, en mass, primarily due to climate change, I would say that it is not happening yet.” McConnachie agrees, stating that “drought is pinpointed as one catalyst for movement of Syrians to Europe, but it’s safe to say that without the political conflict there would be fewer droughtrelated migrants.”
This is to say that the number of refugee cases attributed to the drought would have decreased considerably if political reasons had not accelerated refugees’ decisions to leave home. Regardless of the underlying causes of the rush of refugees to Europe, migration is happening, and European nations have been left to deal with the social and economic impacts that this phenomenon brings with it. Along with this rush, Europe has experienced hundreds of reported protests by nativist European groups who are staunchly against incoming migrants, displaying persistent xenophobic feeling. One such protest occurred in Dresden, Germany where over 1000 protesters came together, yelling “foreigners out!” and throwing bottles and stones at riot police. But Koser warns that these headlines do not tell the whole story. He claims, “There is a silent majority that is now speaking out against a vocal minority, and I think that most Europeans are now saying that these people are desperate and we need to do something to about it.” This response is surely a reassuring sentiment for incoming refugees and migrant populations looking to make Europe their new home. Furthermore, with a majority of the population supporting the allowance of refugees into their nations, the possibility of European countries closing their borders to refugees or electing extreme rightwing nativist candidates is reduced, if not eliminated, which is significant because it means that there is still a chance for Europe to reconsider its stance on recognizing climate change migrants.
However, the picture looks much scarier in the medium to longterm. Angela Pilath, researcher at the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford, highlights that climate change “will make travel for migrants increasingly difficult and if the current droughts persist then (…) cyclical migration will go up.” She furthered, “If environmental conditions are deteriorating as predicted by the IPCC report, then we are looking at an increased number of people migrating.” McConnachie added, “There have been estimates of vast numbers of climate change induced migrants in the future.” These predictions spell disaster if nothing is done to stop climate change, so it is necessary to look at possible solutions to climate change and its impacts on society.
The most obvious way to combat climate changeinduced migration is to mitigate climate change as a whole. Suggesting an initial solution to the world’s climate change problem, Pilath noted, “Obviously we are looking at a climate change agreement being brokered this December, so one crucial factor is to have a credible and responsible climate regime.” If the Paris Climate Summit, a conference at which leaders from every nation in the world are slated to meet to create a legally binding agreement on reducing climate change, goes through in December a very big if ,then it would provide a foundation for a comprehensive global effort to end climate change. Although such an agreement has not been achieved at previous summits, many are optimistic because some key world leaders are pushing for change, including President Obama, who is pleading for a deal to be reached.
In contrast, David Keith, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and one of Time’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009, argues for a different approach, stating, “If we wish to help migrants, a focus on reducing carbon emissions would be little more than an insult. We will do better solving these challenges if with the direct clear eyed focus on immediate human needs and on addressing our role in the economic and social forces most responsible for driving migration.”
This idea, that the individuals are often forgotten in the process of dealing with natural disasters and climate related issues, is interesting because as shown by Teitiota, at times media does fixate on individuals using them as figureheads for larger ideas. But Keith’ argument is important because even though these individuals may receive attention, their lives and the lives of those in similar situations are not improved by the coverage, again proved by Teitiota’s story.
Providing a potential solution that combines many fields and tactics, McConnachie stated, “From refugee studies, solutions have tended to look at expanding the existing refugee protection regime beyond Convention refugees. From environmental science, solutions would focus on addressing climate change as a driver of migration. The issue of ‘resilience’ has become very topical – understanding more about the responses of migrants individually and collectively which might allow for adaptation to changing environmental conditions.” She concluded by saying, “It seems that a combination of all of these is required ensuring legal status and protection for climate change induced forced migrants; seeking to reduce the environmental damage driving migration; understanding the needs and responses of those affected (and working with civil society to understand what works and strengthen local responses).”
By addressing multiple problems facing climate change refugees, this solution seems promising. As climate change induced migration begins to become a reality for European nations, this proposed plan of action would begin to slow the stream of migrants into the continent while working to prevent the trend from existing in the future. In the context of this issue as a whole, McConnachie’s ideas seem reasonable but there are still many barriers that exist between her plan and its implementation. Namely these barriers are stubborn governments and the prioritization of economy over environment. Many countries reason that changing legal structures to accommodate climatechange refugees would cause an overwhelming influx of refugees, becoming a burden on nations’ economies. Getting past this way of thinking will be a primary challenge for activists and analysts, one that must be resolved before even considering McConnachie, Keith, Pilath, or any climate and migration researcher.