‘The refugee crisis’ is a term often used to refer to the millions of people who have fled violence or persecution and are arriving on European soil. It is telling that we should refer to this arrival as ‘the crisis’, as though somehow the act of seeking refuge, of seeking safety, is an all-encompassing problem which overshadows (at least in the UK’s mainstream media) all of the reasons why people are forced to flee their homes in the first place. Despite the homogeneity implied by the term itself, the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe is an intersectional issue, and one which is likely to change and develop in the years to come. This is especially true as climate change continues to impact the world we live in, disproportionately affecting those living in less economically developed countries.
What exactly does it mean to be a refugee?
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who “is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The key phrase within this definition is fear of persecution, and you’ll notice that climate change and environmental disasters are not included here - can someone be persecuted by drought, or by flooding? Perhaps not directly; persecution implies being personally targeted, and natural disasters do not choose their victims. As such, in legal terms, there is as yet no such thing as a climate refugee. But that absolutely does not mean that people aren’t forcibly displaced, i.e. are made to leave their homes against their wishes, as a direct or indirect result of climate change. And whilst refugees and asylum seekers are granted certain protections under international law, these protections aren’t extended to those who have left their homes for climate-related reasons.
So how might climate change tie into the refugee crisis in the future?
Many parts of the world may experience a depletion of natural resources such as water, or land suitable for grazing animals, with whole regions becoming entirely inhospitable due to drought, or severe flooding. These are factors which predispose countries to conflict and challenges of internal governance - and as we all know, war and conflict frequently result in thousands upon thousands of people being forced to leave their homes.
Additionally, there is a possibility that at some point in future, those driven from their homes by climate change may be recognised as refugees in their own right. There is a risk that this could absolve countries of their responsibilities in terms of adapting to new climates, and indeed, in pre-empting such challenges, but of course, no one wants to be a refugee. As the poet Warsan Shire put very aptly , “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”.
So what can be done?
To start, let’s move away from anti-refugee narratives, and, whilst we’re at it, away from victim narratives and value-based narratives. Refugees are not ‘here to steal our jobs’, nor does anyone benefit from (often predominantly white) saviourist attitudes, and you don’t need to have a medical degree or have won a prestigious scholarship to be deserving of protection under international law. All of these attitudes are harmful in their own way.
Secondly, for those who are currently being forced to flee their homes, let’s work to decongest the intensely crowded refugee camps and uphold justice for all refugees through the provision of legal aid, as is every person’s right. The asylum process is hugely complex, and almost impossible to navigate without expert support. Yet often little to no preparation is offered before a refugee’s asylum interview, the event which will likely determine whether that person will be allowed to remain in the host country or will face deportation. With proper legal support, unjust deportations can and will be prevented and unnecessary appeals by those with a legitimate claim to asylum will be reduced, lessening the pressure on services in camps and enabling those granted refugee status to lead productive, fulfilling lives in their host countries.
And finally, let us do everything we can as a collective to prevent people being forcibly displaced due to climate change now or in future. Whether you alter your buying habits to put pressure on consumer industries, or cycle instead of driving to work, know that your efforts will be making a difference to the lives of many across the globe.
By Louder Than The Storm contributor Alexa Netty
When I was asked to write this article for Louder than the Storm, exploring the intersection between climate change and the refugee crisis, I had no idea that just around the corner we would be met with an entirely different storm - a media storm, fuelled by myths, misconceptions about refugees and a profound lack of in-depth understanding. At SolidariTee, we raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and fundraise so that we can offer grants to NGOs working to provide legal aid and other forms of vital support to refugees, as we believe this to be the most sustainable form of support we can offer. To learn more about SolidariTee’s work and to view our full mythbuster series, please visit our website: https://www.solidaritee.org.uk/mythbusters