A mexican farmer whose business activity is damaged by changes in the rain patterns. A Nigerian father worried by the living style of his son when having to move due to the drought. Both have something in common: the eternal search for survival. They are not the characters of science fiction movies of a not very far future. They are stories of life of the present.
According to the World Bank, by 2050 there will be more than 143 million internal migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa, South of Asia and Latin American due to climate reasons. Today, there is neither a global definition that can include them nor a policy to protect them. They are the visible face of climate change. They represent one of the main challenges of our time. And they need a first action: that we talk about them.
The problem: brief description of an alarming reality
Human activities, based on fossil fuels exploitation, release greenhouse gases that cause an increase of the planet temperature. The effects of this climate change are numerous and imply a reality: there are people that cannot keep on living the same in their usual places.
The rise of the level of the sea jeopardizes the survival of coastal islands and cities. The hydrological stress -with drought periods and others of heavy rains that cause floods- generates a warning for the future of many South American communities. Citizens will have to start a hard march in order to be able to survive. People have already begun to talk about climate refugees.
The debate: when words and definitions matter
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is that one who runs away from armed conflicts or chase and that, since going back to his or her country is dangerous, needs shelter in another place. There, the states and organizations offer them aid and protection. Whereas a migrant is the one who chooses to move in order to improve his or her life in search of a job or an education, but still receives the protection of his or her native country to where he or she can return.
In the 1951 Refugee Convention -still in force- the environmental reasons are conspicuous by its absence in theory but not in practice. “This is a definition that sees into the race, the religion, the nationality, the belonging to a social group or the political opinion as causes of persecution but not the climate. The lack of a definition on the climate refugees impedes us to specify who are we talking about”, ponders Ignacio Odriozola, attorney-at-law of the University of Buenos Aires and researcher for the South American Network for Environmental Migrations (Resama in Spanish).
When the environmental issue is a reason for mobilization, the differences of concept are also worthwhile. “There may be an earthquake and that does not necessarily spawns migrants or refugees for environmental reasons. The impact has to be one that does not imply a temporary displacement and with survival means not guaranteed anymore after the natural disaster. The same earthquake can mean for some the obligation to move and arrive to another region, and to others a simple temporary evacuation”, distinguishes Odriozola. “We could be searching for a definition for years and years. The climate change will remodel migration without a doubt. To think that the climate changes will not affect the movements of people is ridiculous” says Alex Randall, director of the program Climate and Migration Coalition.
The key: the persons behind each climate event
Mortaza Behboudi is a young photojournalist. The reason that allows him to have the Afghan refugee Passport in France was a political one. But, apart from his personal situation, his view is wider: “In the Greek island of Lesbos I met many people who had to abandon Bangladesh due to natural disasters. They, same as many other people displaced by the climate, do not have any status. The definition of refugees is important so as to guarantee them an international protection. We, the refugees, are not just refugees. Due to the war, the persecution, the political situation or the climate, we had to leave our country. We need protection outside our home”. Today, Mortaza devotes his profession to draw attention to refugees’ stories.
“Even though the refugee’s definition does not include the climate change, if you ask any of the damaged people, they will tell you that they are refugees and that they feel like that”, says Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees.
The organization carries out field researches in order to draw attention to the stories of those that were compelled to leave their homes due to environmental reasons. “We are talking of human displacements. The stress has to be on the persons. This will allow us to pass from the discussion and debate on science to the fact of what they say is happening. And this is happening today, not tomorrow”, she underlines.
Among all those stories of life, Amali recalls that one of a Nigerian refugee in the neighbour country: Níger, that had to move many times in one same year due to the drought. “He was worried. The environmental reasons forced him to choose being close to lake water flow in order to survive and giving up his son’s education. He could not send him to school”.
Leo’s case: a story among a million ones
“The thypoon Haiyan had a significant impact on my life and family”, with these words Leo Christian V. Lauzon starts telling us his story through a Facebook chat. He was born and raised in Tacoblan, the Philippine city most affected by the natural phenomenon.
After the thypoon, his house and needs were destroyed. “The peace and the safety were a problem. When the inmates were able to escape from prisons and people were desperate for food, many crimes like thefts and lootings started to become usual” he recalls. In the meantime, clean water and food were scarce. People reused rainwater to do the dishes and take a bath and there were troubles to get medicines.
Two weeks like this were enough to take the decision of leaving Tacoblan. “While we here heading towards the coastal city of Ormoc, I cried and cried. I used to leave the city to attend conferences, meetings and training courses. But this time I was leaving like an internal displaced”. Some decided to return. Others migrated to other cities.
The thypoon Haiyan left more than 10,000 dead persons. Leo lost his aunt and a cousin. Five years later, he is still waiting for the government to perform all the DNA tests in the bodies found so that they can be buried properly. The stress after the thypoon affected his grandmother’s health and his own life was not the same since then.
His message today is clear: “It is time for the governments to start considering climate as a cause of migration and to face the reality that some persons will be climate refugees, whether they like it or not. It is important that underdeveloped countries, such as Philippines, recognize climate change as a cause of migrations and include it in their policies”.
The challenge: no one migrates for only one cause, but for many
Every time someone talks about the wall that Donald Trump wants to build in the border between United States and Mexico, Randall recalls the testimony of a Mexican farmer whose activity was damaged by the changes in the rain patterns. Year after year, he used to cross the border in order to do other works on American soil. He returned afterwards to Mexico to reunite with his family for the time of the crops. “For him, the ability to cross the border was a matter of survival caused by the climate change”, explains Randall.
During his most recent presentation in the COP24 in Poland, the former American vice president, Al Gore, showed a difference with his previous presentations: he referred to the incidence of drought in the migratory movements in Central America. Even more. He argued that the migratory crisis itself from Syria to Europe had also its own climatic cause. “The 2006-2010 drought turned the rich soil into a desert”.
Do they mobilize for the climate? For the political situation? For a social crisis? Randall is blunt: “The migratory movement does not appear for only one reason. We have been talking a lot about migrations, but not much about the climatic causes of the problem”. Odriozola agrees with him: “Not even one type of displacement has only one cause. Which gives you an idea that when we talk about climatic refugees the climatic factor affects all the rest”.
Current events: between the political decision and the cultural resistance
Apart from a definition that includes it, the problem requires actions. How does one answer from politics? During her conversation with the radio programme Sábado Verde, Teresa Ribera, minister for the Ecological Transition of Spain, argues: “This is an issue that deserves a much more serious attention and a clearer anticipation. When people leave the place where they live, they do it motivated by hopelessness and the will to look for an alternative there where no one offers them one”.
For the Spanish minister, there are two paths where one can work. First, prevent a person from leaving his place through prevention and the creation of resilience “so that one can stay where one is and wants to stay”. Secondly, when the context is such that the exit is unavoidable, the international community will have to answer in a sympathetic way.
In the face of the present crisis of multilateralism, Odriozola considers that the solutions will come at a regional level, not at a universal one. But he warns about the importance of considering the damaged people in this path. “There can be solidarity from certain countries to receive those persons, but there is also a resistance from them to leave. The citizens of the South Pacific Islands, for instance, do not want to leave. Instead of that, they demand climate justice: they demand the end of the environment deterioration so as to guarantee their survival”.
Why this resistance? The researcher is clear: “You are losing your territory and, in part, the same State definition, that includes territory, population, government and sovereignty. This is part of the identity”.
A first solution: the information as power for change
The experts agree: we have to start the conversation through their main actors so as to take the issue to the international political agenda and promote specific actions. What can we do? “Support our work and that of the organizations. In our case, money is allocated to field investigations that pay attention to stories”, answers Tower.
The conversation needs us to be conscious and aware of the difficulties. That is what forced the team of Climate and Migration Coalition to organize the online course “Climate change and migration: forecasts and politics”. Randall advances us: “The course includes basic knowledge about the subject, the environmental issues for which people migrate, the scientific investigations that explain climate change and, basically, testimonies of people, life stories”. The proposal is free, digital, global and in English language. It starts on next February 14.
The course is not addressed to anybody in particular. This is for all people interested in the subject, rather. The present time challenges us to show these stories, to demand an international political answer, to pay attention to that invisible face of the main problem of our century: climatic change. Tower leaves us a message to reflect on: “Use your voices to promote the change in your communities; talk at a local, state and international level; sign a petition; march in a demonstration; use your voice to express your concern. Climate change is a problem that can affect all of us equally”.
(Translation from Spanish into English: Silvia Simonetti)