COVID-19: ‘Refugees paid a heavier price during a crisis that many believed impacted on us all equally’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of climate refugees and increasing challenges under the COVID-19 pandemic with Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees. Founded in 2015, Climate Refugees defends the rights of people displaced and forced to migrate, including across borders, as a result of climate change. It documents their cases to shed light on protection gaps and legal voids and advocates for human rights-based solutions and the creation of legal norms and policies that protect people affected by climate-driven migration and displacement.

Amali Tower

Your organisation is called ‘Climate Refugees’, although the term is currently not supported by international law. Why is that? Do you think this is something that should be officially recognised?

You’re right, the concept does not exist in international law, but drivers of migration are increasingly intertwined, as has been the case in the context of refugee flows and internal displacement resulting from conflict and persecution. It’s no different in the context of climate migration, except that for so many millions, this isn’t purely an environmental issue – it’s a justice issue. For many populations dependent on the land, climate changes have impacts on survival and livelihood, with impacts beyond the individual, to the family, community, local livelihoods, business and so on. If climate is a factor that contributes to migration, it is likely after years of causing deep losses and suffering, intertwined with economic losses and impacts as well as political ramifications. For instance, we can see this playing out among subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and many other regions. In this context, someone displaced by the impacts of climate change is also displaced by economic and political factors because the political situation and economic systems in many of these countries are deeply embedded in the environment.

Further, it’s important to remember that climate change impacts and climate migration and displacement aren’t future risks. They are a reality for many right now, and that reality is playing out in some of the most fragile places in the world for the most impoverished and vulnerable populations who had very little to role in contributing to climate change in the first place.

This is why we approach this as an issue of equality and justice. Coming from a refugee protection background where I interviewed and provided services to countless refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, based on the legal definition, I’m wholly aware of the controversy and backlash this may cause. I agonised about this decision, but ultimately, I couldn’t reconcile the definition with years of testimonies from people fleeing multiple drivers, who referred to years of environmental devastation at home more than to the war we all knew was ongoing.

So ultimately, I settled on the term ‘climate refugees’ to provoke conversation. To emphasise the political responsibility of climate change. To raise awareness of its ability to impact on, one might even say persecute, some people more than others. To contribute, provoke and challenge policy. To highlight the needs by giving voice to those affected and to help seek their legal protection. Ultimately, to present this as an issue of equality.

There’s a lot of discussion, and some might even say confusion, in the migration field about terminology. There is no consensus on appropriate terms so there are many terms being used, like climate-induced migration, environmental migrants and others.

I think we have to be cautious to not simplify the message. Nor be too clinical in our terminology about the underlying issues and very real suffering millions are bearing. We need to help policy-makers and the public understand there are mixed drivers in complex situations. Refugees have often moved as a result of conflict and drought – just look at Somalia. Others may move to seek safety and better livelihood opportunities, as we are seeing in Central America.

We need to make clear that the line between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration is often misunderstood, if not false.

In sum, we use the term ‘climate refugees’ to draw attention to the political responsibility of rich countries, certain industries and others to ensure fairness, compensation, protection and equality on many levels, because the solutions must also be multi-faceted.

What kind of work does Climate Refugees do? 

Climate Refugees is a research and advocacy organisation that generates field reports and engages in policy-making to view climate change through a human lens and help include and amplify the voices of communities whose livelihoods and security have been impacted on and who have been displaced or forced to migrate. The climate change conversation can otherwise remain largely abstract and clinical, rather than focused on its impacts on real human beings and entire communities.

Alongside producing field reports from climate displacement hotspots, we provide education and raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on human mobility right now and in ways not necessarily always explored, through two publications: SPOTLIGHT: Climate Displacement in the News, which, as the name implies, is a roundup of global news and expert analysis of climate change impacts on migration, human rights, law and policy, conflict, security and so on, and PERSPECTIVES: Climate Displacement in the Field, which includes features on a variety of topics related to climate-induced migration and displacement, featuring expert commentary and stories from people on the move.

Our aim with these publications is to be informative and provide stories from people on the move and expert analysis through a climate justice lens that highlights the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalised and disenfranchised populations who are the least responsible for climate change. I think a large part of why I formed this organisation is to have the conversation I think many of us want to have – that this is primarily an issue of justice and equality and our solutions need to keep that focus front and centre.

Have climate refugees been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions? What is being done about it? 

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a good example of rights violations increasing during a crisis – and an emphatic disproof of the assertion that ‘we are all in this together’. Refugees and migrants certainly paid a heavier price during a global pandemic that many believed impacted on all human beings equally. Social distancing is hard to achieve for displaced persons who live in crowded settlements, whether formal or informal, urban or rural, refugee camps or crowded migrant housing. Refugees and migrants were denied the freedom of movement, the right to health and the right to information to a higher degree than other populations and experienced more impediments to access their rights.

It’s not about pointing out any one country, because the point is that vulnerable populations that we should have been further protecting in a pandemic actually became more vulnerable just about everywhere. In Lebanon, refugees were held to tighter curfew restrictions that even impeded access to health treatment. Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement in Bangladesh were forced into an encampment and denied their rights to communication and right to health. Many countries where migrants are grouped in crowded housing, like Malaysia, detained migrants. The USA denied asylum-seekers the right to seek asylum and violated the principle of non-refoulement, returning them at the border with no hearings, deported COVID-positive asylum-seekers, and in the process, also exported the virus to Haiti and Central American countries. The USA also continues to detain thousands more people, mostly from Central America, who are fleeing climate change impacts in addition to violence and persecution, denying their freedom of movement, and arguably in some cases, denying rights to seek asylum, due process and the right to health.

As cyclone Amphan was about to hit the Bay of Bengal in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we saw populations in affected areas being relocated ahead of the disaster, which saved lives, but also meant that social distancing could not be enforced during displacement, and vulnerability to the virus became a major concern.

I am afraid the situation will be no different as the climate crisis worsens. It will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in the world, and once again, a situation where it should be pertinent to think that ‘we are all in this together’ will make us realise that some of us l have the means to escape the worst of the impacts of climate change while some will limited social protections and many others, already in extreme poverty and on the margins of society, will fall in deeper and will have no escape from multiple levels of impacts.

Is the issue of climate displacement receiving enough attention? Has any progress been made in shaping an international legal framework to protect people who are displaced by climate change?

We’re certainly seeing more media attention paid to climate change impacts, including migration. But as the issue becomes part of everyday conversation, there’s also a chance that important nuances are lost. I would say some advances have been made in the area of climate displacement – that is, displacements as a result of disasters like floods and storms. We have data that tells us how many people are displaced each year by disasters – an average of around 25 million – and the nature and type of these displacements are less murky in terms of causal factors.

But climate migration is far trickier, since drivers of migration, whether internal or across borders, are increasingly intertwined. And when there are multiple drivers it’s hard to disentangle what role a single driver plays, or how much of the resulting phenomenon – in this case migration – can be attributed to one cause, namely climate change. Science and technology in the area of climate attribution are improving, increasingly enabling experts to determine just how much climate change is a factor in every situation. But generally speaking, in many parts of the world the environment is also an economic and political issue, so at this point it’s fair to say that climate change is certainly contributing to migration.

That said, much of the discussion of a legal framework is stalled in conversations that revolve around migration being largely internal, as well as doomsday displacement projections. The international system is hesitant to push conversations that will securitise migration even further and states are reticent to take on commitments that increase migrant or refugee protections even further.

So for now, advancements are limited to non-binding commitments by states in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which includes some measures dealing with environmental migration across borders. The Platform on Disaster Displacement is a state-led initiative doing good work on the protection of people displaced across borders by disasters and climate change.

Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee also looked at the case of an individual from Kiribati who claimed to be a ‘climate refugee’. He took his case to the human rights body on the basis that the denial of his asylum claim by the government of New Zealand violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN found that countries may not deport individuals who face climate change-induced conditions that violate the right to life.

What else should be done so that the problem is not only recognised but also mitigated? 

Some fear that talking about a looming migration crisis due to climate change runs the risk of fuelling current hostility and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees. I definitely see the point and acknowledge that risk, but I also think it’s equally true that to those who are xenophobic towards migrants and refugees, what drives their migration is not the issue. So we have to be careful to find that delicate balance when we talk about these things, because we truly don’t know how it will play out, but what we do know is that the trajectories and outlooks are generally not so great, there’s a lack of political will, and the conversation isn’t too focused on a human rights framework that protects affected communities, including migrants. So on this latter point, it’s not about being an alarmist about the numbers – it’s about sounding the alarm about our need to do better to fill some vital gaps in rights and protections.

There’s a lot of focus on what we shouldn’t call people, how we shouldn’t frame the issue, but not enough focus on how we should protect vulnerable populations.

Countries that are already struggling with extreme poverty are now struggling with extreme weather, and there is an inherent unfairness at play here in not recognising that climate change was not created by all equally, and nor will the impacts of it be felt by all equally.

A lot more could be done in the way of adaptation. Adaptation is very costly, and the countries bearing the burden of climate change impacts now don’t have the capacity to also bear those financial costs. Many regional experts tell us that much of the international finance and response directed at them is focused on climate mitigation, rather than climate adaptation.

We need to build community resilience to withstand the effects of climate change, and in some contexts, this might also mean building up stronger public and governance institutions and strengthening capacities to withstand the complex stresses that climate change impacts are placing on societies.

Adaptation can entail innovation, infrastructural development and social changes, all of which can be very costly, and adaptation planning needs to respect human rights and enable choices, including the choice to migrate, which may not necessarily present as a totally voluntary choice. The point is that safe pathways for migration, when conditions don’t allow people to stay, are part of how we safeguard the human rights of climate change-impacted populations.

Are there enough connections being made between advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees and climate activism?

From my vantage point, it feels like there are few connections between these two movements and I feel like there is great potential for stronger advocacy together. For example, just broadening the climate migration conversation to discussions of a movement, rather than being largely a research and policy conversation, would be a welcome step to engage the public in something that I fear many feel is too large to understand, let alone address. 

At the same time, there are many who are concerned and interested and desire to be a part of the solution. So we keep in mind that, yes, we are trying to inform policy, but we also want to make information more easily accessible to engage and bridge that movement with the public to approach this as an issue of climate justice because that’s how we see it.

Get in touch with Climate Refugees through their website, Instagram and Facebook page, and follow @Climate_Refugee and @TowerAmali on Twitter.

 

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