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Recognising Climate Refugees Is a Glimmer of Hope for an Uncertain Future
00:29 am GMT+12, 29/01/2020, United Kingdom

By Magid Magid

With some of their highest points just metres above sea level, the 33 small islands which make up the country of Kiribati are under particularly intense threat from the unfolding climate emergency. There is an immediate problem of lack of access to freshwater, while sea level rise threatens to submerge the nation completely within a matter of decades. Some of the islands are already effectively uninhabitable, with the entire country likely to be uninhabitable within just 10 to fifteen years.

It was for these reasons that a man named Ioane Teitiota appealed to New Zealand for protection in 2013, on the basis that these conditions represented a threat to the lives of him and his family. And now, nearly seven years on, we have a landmark ruling. Sadly, Ioane has been unsuccessful in mounting his case, but the judgement opens the door to the possibility of a new category of refugee, a category badly needed if we are to retain compassion across the international community in the century ahead: the climate refugee.

The UN has agreed with the New Zealand courts in saying that Ioane is not deserving of protection, but crucially they also said the following: “The effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights...thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.” In essence, this acknowledges the category of the climate refugee, at least in principle.

And that is massive. We are one step closer to justice.

We cannot wait until the horror of losing homes and loved ones in the fires and floods of climate catastrophe is written on white faces in relatable places – the time to act is now.

This glimmer of light comes not a moment too soon. In the next decade alone, it is projected that up to ten million people will be displaced by the climate emergency. Of course, in many nations, this will be people displaced within states, rather than across borders. But when we look at the fate of a nation like Kiribati – likely to be literally wiped off the map in the coming years – it’s inevitable that many of those millions will be forced to seek refuge beyond a border. And that’s just in the next 10 years. Imagine what happens when it really starts getting hotter.

While the ruling offers a tiny bit of hope, we must be realistic about the fight ahead of us to both minimise the number of people displaced by the climate emergency, while offering real protection for those who are forced to move. On both fronts, things are particularly gloomy here in Britain. 

First of all, we aren’t doing nearly enough on tackling the climate emergency itself. Conservative politicians have the audacity to pretend we are world leaders because of our commitment to going net-zero by 2050, conveniently ignoring a whole host of stronger targets across the continent like 2035 in Finland and 2030 in Norway. More crucially, Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands – another low lying Pacific nation – infamously called anything above two degrees of warming a “death warrant” for his people. 

Already, the chances of holding to 1.5 degrees looks vanishingly small. If we are serious about protecting lives around the world, we need to go further and faster in bringing down emissions.

Secondly, our recent past has highlighted our shameful record on opening our arms to the most vulnerable in the world. It is those beyond the easy embrace of development who are first to suffer the consequences of a world spinning its way into oblivion. We cannot wait until the horror of losing homes and loved ones in the fires and floods of climate catastrophe is written on white faces in relatable places – the time to act is now. Yet, just weeks after forming a landslide majority, one of the first acts of the Conservatives was to strip the Brexit deal of a provision allowing unaccompanied refugee children to be reunited with their families. It takes a few moments for callousness of this magnitude to really sink in. 

Meanwhile, on a continental scale, the EU has blood on its hands, upholding the most deadly border in the world. We all remember the image of young Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach in the summer of 2015. Just one year later, we allowed over 5,000 people to drown while trying to cross the Mediterranean. With the climate emergency accelerating faster than we feared, it will only be a matter of years before the so called Syrian refugee “crisis” is dwarfed into obscurity.

Still, as an MEP, I retain a faith in international institutions to rise to meet moments like these. Working across borders for stronger protections for the most vulnerable, along with stronger climate action, we can be so much more together than the sum of our individual nations. This UN ruling has helped me see a flicker of hope for a fairer world to come. Yes, the status quo of building barriers and barbed wire instead of bridges is already barbaric. But under the conditions of climate emergency, it will simply become untenable. 

It is a tragedy that Ioane and his family have not been granted protection, but he has forced us to face up to the facts. However, the law chooses to categorise us, there are millions more Ioanes who will need asylum in the years ahead. Whatever action we take now, sea levels will rise, disasters will intensify, droughts, floods and famines are coming. One day soon, the international community will have to recognise people displaced by this climate chaos as refugees. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Magid Magid is Green MEP for Yorkshire and Humber.

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