After reigning in the new year it was made official: 2016 was the hottest year on record and was a new high for a third year in a row. This record-breaking heat was accompanied by shrinking arctic ice, and extreme weather and climate related events that have affected the food security of more than 60 million people. Contrary to what the new U.S. administration and many Republican representatives think, climate change is a scientific fact. Moreover, as our world changes, marginalized communities, particularly those in the Global South, will bear the brunt of its effects. This will play out in a number of ways, one of which will be climate-related migration and displacement, both internal and international.
Migration, displacement, and climate change
Individuals and families migrate for a complex array of social, political, and economic reasons all of which are complicated and exacerbated by environmental degradation. Although migration has been a coping mechanism for changes in the environment for centuries, in recent years the frequency and severity of such developments have brought these issues to the forefront. Climate change impacts migration and displacement patterns in numerous ways through the destruction of natural resources and infrastructure in natural disasters as was the case of the 2010 floods in China and Pakistan which displaced almost 10 million people. Similarly, climate-related migration can also be slower as a result of long-term changes in agricultural productivity as in the case of droughts in parts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Somalia, and Egypt. In recent years, we have also seen an emphasis on migration and displacement from low-lying regions such as Bangladesh and the island of Kiribati, due to rising sea-levels.
The problem and its challenges
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s latest Atlas of Environmental Migration, 19 million people were displaced in 2015 due to climate disasters across the globe . Many believe that this estimate may be on the conservative side–among other things, it does not include the displacement caused by chronic issues like drought, or slow onset environmental degradation. This exclusion is particularly striking, given that there is still a debate about whether or not climate refugees should qualify for protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is primarily because the definition of a refugee, which focuses on issues related to political persecution and conflict, has not been updated to account for the changing nature of displacement.
As it stands now, environmental refugees (or, “environmental migrants”, a not-always accurate term) are recognized by the IOM; however this acknowledgement does not afford them any legal protection or rights. If afforded refugee status, climate refugees would be protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention and would be covered by its legal protections. These mandated protections include the principle of non-refoulement whereby refugees cannot be returned to a country where they face threats to their life or freedom as well as the right to housing, education, public relief and assistance, among others.
Even if climate refugees are included within the definition of a refugee it will not account for the fact that many individuals displaced due to changes in the environment remain within the borders of their own country, and are not covered by specific legal, international protections.
An intersectional approach: climate change and gender
Given the scale and lack of clarity surrounding the issue of climate migration, it is important to note that climate change and its impacts don’t affect communities equally. Climate change and racism intersect, exacerbating and reinforcing existing inequalities and disparities. Moreover, environmental degradation and climate change-linked migration is not gender neutral. Given the gendered division of labor within households, women are often primary caretakers and providers for their families. These roles enhance their dependency on natural resources to meet their basic needs, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change and its impacts. Even within this categorization, it is also important to note that women are not a homogenous category. Ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions depends largely on individual’s control over, and access to, land, money, credit, and other safeguards. Thus, women who are particularly marginalized within their communities (for reasons relating to socioeconomic access, race, religion, etc) are less likely to be able to adapt to climate change. In turn, they are more likely to become climate refugees.
Climate change’s gendered impact extends far beyond initial displacement. Once displaced, women are susceptible to gendered circumstances: displaced women and girls are at a greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Given their role as caretakers within households, they are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Save the Children’s India office has found that in Dholkhali, a village on the eastern coast of India, climate change-linked migration has caused human trafficking rates to rise dramatically.
Migration also reinforces existing hierarchies. Women from poor families in rural Bangladesh, who migrate to big cities like Dhaka, are often forced into low-paying jobs in sweatshops with poor working conditions due to their lack of education and skills. Similarly, the intersection of race and gender further marginalizes individuals as studies have found that African American women displaced by Hurricane Katrina did not always receive emergency aid and assistance in a timely manner. Still, for many women, fleeing can often prove preferable to staying. Migrating elsewhere can provide women and their families with opportunities to develop stable livelihoods and create safer and healthier lives.
What can we do?
As climate change and its impacts worsen, it is clear that global leaders and organizations need to account for the differential impact of climate change on various communities. As engaged global citizens we should advocate to ensure that women and marginalized communities are represented at all levels of decision-making so the most effective policies are developed. We must push climate scientists and policy-makers to prioritize and fund inclusive and intersectional research on the repercussions of climate change on marginalized communities. It is imperative that the United Nations update its legal frameworks on displacement and migration to acknowledge and reflect our changing world. If the global community does not rally around these issues, the days will keep getting hotter while the cries for help become louder.