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  • Anusha Ojha

The case of inequality and climate refugees

10 years ago, few people knew of the phrase “climate refugee”. Today, it’s a different story. Yet whilst the phrase is thrown around in climate discussions and media headlines, how much do we really know about the plight of those displaced by climate change, desperately seeking to restore their livelihoods? And who is held accountable for exacerbating this crisis?

What is meant by climate refugees?

Climate refugees are individuals who have been physically displaced due to extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes, landslides, etc. caused by climate change. The severity of their plight is highlighted by a UN news report which states that climate-induced events have created twice as many displaced people than war and conflict in the last 10 years. Since 2008, climate change has been displacing 20 million people each year. By 2050, up to 1.2 billion people are expected to be displaced due to climate-related crises, with sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa expected to be the hardest hit regions. Unsurprisingly, these regions are also some of the most under-resourced and under-prepared to face climate threats.

Where do climate refugees usually move to?

Most climate refugees are internally displaced, meaning they move within the borders of their own country (i.e., from low-lying coastal areas to high ground, or from rural areas to urban centres). While this means that less people are under the direct line of fire when another climate-induced disaster hits, this inevitably leads to the overcrowding of major cities and increases competition of resources (such as jobs and houses), further reducing the quality of life in that region.

To give an example, in Bangladesh, an estimated 500,000 people are forced to move due to climate-related threats every year, with many heading to the country’s capital Dhaka. With a population of 21 million, Dhaka is already one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It has 4 times as many people as Sydney, yet is 15 times smaller in size. According to Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Dhaka’s infrastructure is struggling to cope with the overflow of people into the capital. “For now, we can accommodate them in our slums, but for how long?” he says.

For those that cross international borders to seek refuge from the climate, they face a different battle. There is no international law acknowledging climate-displaced individuals as refugees, so countries are not obliged to take in a climate refugee like they would a refugee fleeing from a war-torn country. In legal terms, a refugee is someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This term was formally coined after the mass exodus from Eastern Europe following World War II, an era where concerns about climate change were far more removed from the matters of daily life.

As a result, climate-displaced people - who must often cross perilous seas or trek through dangerous lands to seek refuge in other countries - are likely to be turned back, since they do not qualify for refugee status. This was the fate of a man from the island state of Kiribati, who arrived in New Zealand to seek refuge from the rising sea levels eroding his home, but his claim was turned down by New Zealand authorities on the basis that there were other areas within Kiribati he could move to. “I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me,” he pleaded.

With intense climate activity predicted to rise in the future, is it time we broaden our definition of what constitutes a refugee?

Do developed countries have a moral obligation to help climate refugees?

The story of climate refugees is one entrenched in inequality. Out of the top 10 countries most endangered by climate change, 7 are developing/emerging countries. The disproportionate effect of climate change on poorer countries is interesting to note, considering that the perpetrators of climate change are, more often than not, developed countries. According to an Oxfam report, the richest 10% of the world contribute to 50% of total greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, the average emission of someone in the poorest 10% is 60 times less than that of the richest 10%, yet these poorer nations are the ones that feel the effects of rising sea levels and increasing temperatures more. They also have less resources to tackle climate crises. As pointed out by an OpenCanada article, “at the heart of this global issue lies a problematic paradox: the biggest polluters will not be the most affected by the consequences of their pollution.”

That poses a question - do developed countries have a moral obligation to help climate refugees, especially when they have economically benefitted from emitting greenhouse gases?

On one hand, there is the argument that countries who previously benefitted from burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases should open their borders to climate refugees. These countries – largely Western – also have a duty to lower their emissions and provide financial aid to those in the Global South disproportionately impacted by climate change.

On the other hand, some people believe that using the past to decide who should be held accountable is too complicated and ineffective. According to an article from The Prindle Post, it is also hard to identify exact sources of harm done and track them back to climate events. There is also the idea that emissions generated before the 1980s were not particularly destructive, and hence should not be used as a basis to assess a country’s moral obligation. With all these factors coming into play, it may be difficult to argue that a particular nation is obligated to take in climate refugees.

Still, this leaves us with the question: who pays for the destruction of the planet and the displacement of millions?

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