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Sinking Politics and Climate Migrants: Legal Opportunities for the United States (Part 1)

Monday, December 16, 2019
jessica oo

Jessica Oo

Research & Publications Intern

Countries around the world are slowly sinking and the list of vulnerable communities is only getting longer. According to the International Displacement Monitoring Center, 28 million people in 2018 were displaced from their homes due to regional conflict, violence, and environmental disasters. These disasters, which include hurricanes, floods, rising seas, and drought, exacerbate the need for outmigration by creating agricultural failures, destroying homes, and increasing the risk of violence due to competition over resources. Migration continues to be a challenge because of strict international and domestic laws that limit the number of people coming in and out of countries. Overall, climate change and its associated impacts are exacerbating the drivers of migration in the areas that are already impacted by natural disasters.

People displaced by climate change are often referred to as climate migrants, who are defined as people who are forced to leave their home region due to sudden or longer-term changes to their local environment. No legally binding frameworks currently exist to protect these people, and they often do not qualify for the protections afforded to other refugees. Such protections include the right to a safe asylum as well as other economic and social rights.

In addition to facing risks to their rights and livelihoods, the growing phenomenon of climate migration may pose challenges to the societies it affects, both in areas that are being left behind and in the destinations. There are major environmental impacts on marine ecosystems after communities have migrated out of their home countries because of the remaining human infrastructure they leave behind. People are often forced to abandon their homes and most of their belongings when they migrate to other countries. As a result, much of the abandoned belongings and infrastructure become hazards to marine life as seawater rises. After leaving behind their homes, climate migrants also face many societal challenges because countries often lack adequate resources for migrants, such as educational adaptation programs for children and stable job opportunities for adults. These environmental and social issues will only worsen as the planet continues to warm.Without any international protections, climate migrants are left on their own to grapple with the challenges of moving to a new region, country, or continent. An immigration case in New Zealand provides a cautionary tale of what may happen without protections for climate migrants. In this case, the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal turned down an asylum applicant from the Island of Kiribati who claimed to be displaced from his home due to rising sea levels. Even though the tribunal understood the dangers that he and people like him were facing, they continued to deny the people of Kiribati the right to migrate to New Zealand because they were not a protected group recognized in domestic or international law. Faced with restrictions like these, the government of Kiribati has turned to the measure of purchasing 6,000 acres of land in Fiji as a refuge for future climate migrants from the island. A former ELI blog covered this story in greater detail here.

It is likely that, in the coming years, the United States can expect to have many more climate migrants arriving on its doorstep. In order to address this effectively, it is important to ensure that the United States put in place domestic legislation to prevent illegal immigration and unnecessary conflict over resources in different regions. A case that occurred earlier this year in the United States illustrates a situation that will likely become much more familiar in the years to come. After Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas in September of 2019, survivors from the island nation fled to Fort Lauderdale on cruise ships to find temporary relief from the disaster. However, once they arrived, these travelers were not allowed to immigrate to the United States despite being survivors of a natural disaster, and some ships were ordered to turn back immediately because the travelers aboard did not have proper U.S. travel visas. Not allowing people into the country leads to economic instability for the people from these communities and could motivate them to immigrate illegally because they have no other option.

Reports put out by international organizations such as the World Bank, Refugees International, and Climate Central have been warning governments for decades about the effects of sea-level rise and how its impacts are only set to worsen over the next 100 years. While governments are busy arguing over who bears the responsibility for climate change issues and who should be allowed in as a refugee, the seas continue to rise, and the effects multiply. There is a certain amount of sea-level rise for which we are already locked in and which we will not be able to mitigate even with the most extreme measures, and every nation needs to be prepared for these oncoming issues.

Part 2 of this blog, published on Wednesday, December 18, is available here. 

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.