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What can we do about climate refugees?

This article is over 4 years, 9 months old
Gabby Thorpe looks at the plight of people displaced by climate chaos and argues that we should welcome refugees
Issue 2668
Climate chaos creates more refugees
Climate chaos creates more refugees (Pic: Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

Natural disasters and a shifting climate will drive around 143 million people from their homes in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America by 2050.

The people from these displaced communities aren’t jetting around the world or opening massive factories.

But they are the first to suffer the effects of the planet-destroying capitalist system.

Despite these unsettling figures—from the World Bank no less—the United Nations (UN) insists that these displaced populations are not refugees.

A refugee is defined by international law as someone who is fleeing war or persecution based on race, religion or ethnicity.

This definition is meant to give certain legal rights.

By refusing to change the classification, the UN is effectively stripping climate refugees of their right to a safe home.

One of the UN’s arguments is that a lot of those who have been displaced are travelling across their own countries and not passing through borders.

This is an arbitrary distinction. If people are forced to leave their homes due to climate change, they’re refugees regardless of whether they’ve had to cross a national border.

But in any case the number of people fleeing is only set to rise.

We’re faced with a very near future of masses of people being forced to travel great distances—only to be thrown back by increasingly militarised borders.


Perhaps when people from wealthier countries start fleeing natural disasters in larger numbers, the UN’s position will change. By then it will be too little, too late. In 2018, wildfires in the US caused a spate of internal refugees.

Already, climate change is displacing those in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The Guardian newspaper has even gone as far as publishing an article titled, “Where should you move to save yourself from climate change?”

Yet the ruling classes don’t want to talk about climate refugees in any meaningful way. Accepting the fact that whole communities may have to move also means moving large chunks of capital—and that’s inconvenient for governments and bosses.

Ignoring the issue might suit the governments of the world. But they don’t even ensure that new homes being built are safe, or that people forced to move can do so in a managed way.

In another article, the Guardian reported that rising sea levels could displace 30 million people by the end of the century.

Meanwhile Donald Trump continues to claim that dealing with climate change would be bad for the US economy.

And Boris Johnson has rejected climate science more than once despite promising to lobby Trump to do more about climate change. It has become increasingly clear that action regarding climate change comes from below.

Capitalism doesn’t care about the planet. Re-defining the term refugee could give those forced by climate change to move better legal protection and assistance.

In order to give refugees the best chance, we need to say that refugees are welcome.

We have to fight against the border controls that lock them out, and demand support for communities forced to move if they want it.

These issues require urgent action. Climate refugees are being created right now.

And a refusal to recognise this problem is a death sentence for us all.

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