▲ Flood rescue in the Afghan village of Jalalabad, in 2010 [NATO]
ESSAY / Alejandro J. Alfonso
In December of 2019, Madrid hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, in an effort to raise awareness and induce action to combat the effects of climate change and global warming. COP25 is another conference in a long line of efforts to combat climate change, including the Kyoto Protocol of 2005 and the Paris Agreement in 2016. However, what the International Community has failed to do in these conferences and agreements is address the issue of those displaced by the adverse effects of Climate Change, what some call “Climate Refugees”.
In 1951, six years after the conclusion of the Second World War and three years after the creation of the State of Israel, a young organization called the United Nations held an international convention on the status of refugees. According to Article 1 section A of this convention, the status of refugee would be given to those already recognized as refugees by earlier conventions, dating back to the League of Nations, and those who were affected “as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…”. However, as this is such a narrow definition of a refugee, the UN reconvened in 1967 to remove the geographical and time restrictions found in the 1951 convention, thus creating the 1967 Protocol.
Since then, the United Nations General Assembly and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have worked together to promote the rights of refugees and to continue the fight against the root causes of refugee movements. In 2016, the General Assembly made the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, followed by the Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, in which was established four objectives: “(i) ease pressures on host countries; (ii) enhance refugee self-reliance; (iii) expand access to third country solutions; and (iv) support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity”. Defined as ‘interlinked and interdependent objectives’, the Global Compact aims to unite the political will of the International Community and other major stakeholders in order to have ‘equitalized, sustained and predictable contributions’ towards refugee relief efforts. Taking a holistic approach, the Compact recognizes that various factors may affect refugee movements, and that several interlinked solutions are needed to combat these root causes.
While the UN and its supporting bodies have made an effort to expand international protection of refugees, the definition on the status of refugees remains largely untouched since its initial applications in 1951 and 1967. “While not in themselves causes of refugee movements, climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements”.3 The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that the increase of the average temperature of the planet, commonly known as Global Warming, can lead to an increase in the intensity and occurrence of natural disasters. Furthermore, this is reinforced by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which has found that the number of those displaced by natural disasters is higher than the number of those displaced by violence or conflict on a yearly basis, as shown in Table 1. In an era in which there is great preoccupation and worry concerning the adverse effects of climate change and global warming, the UN has not expanded its definition of refugee to encapsulate those who are displaced due to natural disasters caused by, allegedly, climate change.
Table 1 / Global Internal Displacement Database, from IDMC
This present paper will be focused on the study of Central America and Southeast Asia as my study subjects. The first reason for which these two regions have been selected is that both are the first and second most disaster prone areas in the world, respectively. Secondly, the countries found within these areas can be considered as developing states, with infrastructural, economic, and political issues that can be aggravating factors. Finally, both have been selected due to the hegemonic powers within those hemispheres: the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Both of these powers have an interest in how a ‘refugee’ is defined due to concerns over these two regions, and worries over becoming receiving countries to refugee flows.
As aforementioned, the intensity and frequency of natural disasters are expected to increase due to irregularities brought upon by an increase in the average temperature of the ocean. Figure 1 shows that climate driven disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean have slowly been increasing since the 1970s, along with the world average, and are expected to increase further in the years to come. In a study by Omar D. Bello, the rate of climate related disasters in Central America increased by 326% from the year 1970 to 1999, while from 2000 to 2009 the total number of climate disasters were 143 and 148 in Central America and the Caribbean respectively. On the other hand, while research conducted by Holland and Bruyère has not concluded an increase in the number of hurricanes in the North Atlantic, there has been an upward trend in the proportion of Category 4-5 hurricanes in the area .
This increase in natural disasters, and their intensity, can have a hard effect on those countries which have a reliance on agriculture. Agriculture as a percentage of GDP has been declining within the region in recent years due to policies of diversification of economies. However, in the countries of Honduras and Nicaragua the percentage share of agriculture is still slightly higher than 10%, while in Guatemala and Belize agriculture is slightly below 10% of GDP share. Therefore, we can expect high levels of emigration from the agricultural sectors of these countries, heading toward higher elevations, such as the Central Plateau of Mexico, and the highlands of Guatemala. Furthermore, we can expect mass migration movements from Belize, which is projected to be partially submerged by 2100 due to rising sea levels.
Figure 2 / Climate Risk Index 2020, from German Watch
The second region of concern is Southeast Asia, the region most affected by natural disasters, according to the research by Bello, mentioned previously. The countries of Southeast Asia are ranked in the top ten countries projected to be at most risk due to climate change, shown in Figure 2 above. Southeast Asia is home to over 650 million people, about 8% of total world population, with 50% living in urban areas. Recently, the OECD concluded that while the share in GDP of agriculture and fisheries has declined in recent years, there is still a heavy reliance on these sectors to push economy in the future. In 2014, the Asian Development Bank carried out a study analyzing the possible cost of climate change on several countries in the region. It concluded that a possible loss of 1.8% in the GDP of six countries could occur by 2050. These six countries had a high reliance on agriculture as part of the GDP, for example Bangladesh with around 20% of GDP and 48% of the workforce being dedicated to agricultural goods. Therefore, those countries with a high reliance on agricultural goods or fisheries as a proportion of GDP can be expected to be the sources of large climate migration in the future, more so than in the countries of Central America.
One possible factor is the vast river system within the area, which is susceptible to yearly flooding. With an increase in average water levels, we can expect this flooding to worsen gradually throughout the years. In the case of Bangladesh, 28% of the population lives on a coastline which sits below sea level. With trends of submerged areas, Bangladesh is expected to lose 11% of its territory due to rising sea levels by 2050, affecting approximately 15 million inhabitants. Scientists have reason to believe that warmer ocean temperatures will not only lead to rising sea levels, but also an intensification and increase of frequency in typhoons and monsoons, such as is the case with hurricanes in the North Atlantic.
Taking into account the analysis provided above, there are two possible migration movements: internal or external. In respect to internal migration, climate migrants will begin to move towards higher elevations and temperate climates to avoid the extreme weather that forced their exodus. The World Bank report, cited above, marked two locations within Central America that fulfil these criteria: the Central Plateau of Mexico, and the highlands of Guatemala. Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, climate migrants will move inwards in an attempt to flee the rising waters, floods, and storms.
However, it is within reason to believe that there will be significant climate migration flows towards the USA and the Popular Republic of China (PRC). Both the United States and China are global powers, and as such have a political stability and economic prowess that already attracts normal migration flows. For those fleeing the effects of climate change, this stability will become even more so attractive as a future home. For those in Southeast Asia, China becomes a very desired destination. With the second largest land area of any country, and with a large central zone far from coastal waters, China provides a territorial sound destination. As the hegemon in Asia, China could easily acclimate these climate migrants, sending them to regions that could use a larger agricultural workforce, if such a place exists within China.
In the case of Central America, the United States is already a sought-after destination for migrant movements, being the first migrant destination for all Central American countries save Nicaragua, whose citizens migrate in greater number to Costa Rica. With the world’s largest economy, and with the oldest democracy in the Western hemisphere, the United States is a stable destination for any refugee. In regard to relocation plans for areas affected by natural disasters, the United States also has shown it is capable of effectively moving at-risk populations, such as the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement program in the state of Louisiana.
While some would opine that ‘climate migrants’ and ‘climate refugees’ are interchangeable terms, they are unfortunately not. Under international law, there does not exist ‘climate refugees’. The problem with ‘climate refugees’ is that there is currently no political will to change the definition of refugee to include this new category among them. In the case of the United States, section 101(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the definition of a refugee follows that of the aforementioned 1951 Geneva convention, once again leaving out the supposed ‘climate refugees’. The Trump administration has an interest in maintaining this status quo, especially in regard to its hard stance in stopping the flow of illegal immigrants coming from Central America. If a resolution should pass the United Nations Security Council, the Trump administration would have no choice but to change section 101(42) of the INA, thus risking an increased number of asylum applicants to the US. Therefore, it can confidently be projected that the current administration, and possibly future administrations, would utilize the veto power, given to permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, on such a resolution.
China, the strongest regional actor in Asia, does not have to worry about displeasing the voter. Rather, they would not allow a redefinition of refugee to pass the UN Security Council for reasons concerning the stability and homogeneity of the country. While China does accept refugees, according to the UNHCR, the number of refugees is fairly low, especially those from the Middle East. This is mostly likely due to the animosity that the Chinese government has for the Muslim population. In fact, the Chinese government has a tense relationship with organized religion in and of itself, but mostly with Islam and Buddhism. Therefore, it is very easy to believe that China would veto a redefinition of refugee to include ‘climate refugees’, in that that would open its borders to a larger number of asylum seekers from its neighboring countries. This is especially unlikely when said neighbors have a high concentration of Muslims and Buddhists: Bangladesh is 90% Muslim, and Burma (Myanmar) is 87% Buddhist. Furthermore, both countries have known religious extremist groups that cause instability in civil society, a problem the Chinese government neither needs nor wants.
On the other hand, there is also the theory that the causes of climate migration simply cannot be measured. Natural disasters have always been a part of human history and have been a cause of migration since time immemorial. Therefore, how can we know if migrations are taking place due to climate factors, or due to other aggravating factors, such as political or economic instability? According to a report by the French think tank ‘Population and Societies’, when a natural disaster occurs, the consequences remain localized, and the people will migrate only temporarily, if they leave the affected zone at all. This is due to the fact that usually that society will bind together, working with familial relations to surpass the event. The report also brings to light an important issue touched upon in the studies mentioned above: there are other factors that play in a migration due to a natural disaster. Véron and Golaz in their report cite that the migration caused by the Ethiopian drought of 1984 was also due in part to bad policies by the Ethiopian government, such as tax measures or non-farming policies.
The lack of diversification of the economies of these countries, and the reliance on agriculture could be such an aggravating factor. Agriculture is very susceptible to changes in climate patterns and are affected when these climate patterns become irregular. This can relate to a change of expected rainfall, whether it be delayed, not the quantity needed, or no rainfall at all. Concerning the rising sea levels and an increase in floods, the soil of agricultural areas can be contaminated with excess salt levels, which would remain even after the flooding recedes. For example, the Sula Valley in Honduras generates 62% of GDP, and about 68% of the exports, but with its rivers and proximity to the ocean, also suffers from occasional flooding. Likewise, Bangladesh's heavy reliance on agriculture, being below sea level, could see salt contamination in its soil in the near future, damaging agricultural property.
Reliance on agriculture alone does not answer why natural disasters could cause large emigration in the region. Bello and Professor Patricia Weiss Fagen find that issues concerning the funding of local relief projects, corruption in local institutions, and general mismanagement of crisis response is another aggravating factor. Usually, forced migration flows finish with a return to the country or area of origin, once the crisis has been resolved. However, when the crisis has continuing effects, such as what happened in Chernobyl, for example, or when the crisis has not been correctly dealt with, this return flow does not occur. For example, in the countries composing the Northern Triangle, there are problems of organized crime which is already a factor for migration flows from the area. Likewise, the failure of Bangladesh and Myanmar to deal with extremist Buddhist movements, or the specific case of the Rohinga Muslims, could inhibit return flows and even encourage leaving the region entirely.
Recommendations and Conclusions
The definition of refugee will not be changed or modified in order to protect climate migrants. That is a political decision by countries who sit at a privileged position of not having to worry about such a crisis occurring in their own countries, nor want to be burdened by those countries who will be affected. Facing this simple reality should help to find a better alternative solution, which is the continuing efforts of the development of nations, in order that they may be self-sufficient, for their sake and the population’s sake. This fight does not have to be taken alone, but can be fought together through regional organizations who have a better understanding and grasp of the gravity of the situation, and can create holistic approaches to resolve and prevent these crises.
We should not expect the United Nations to resolve the problem of displacement due to natural disasters. The United Nations focuses on generalized and universal issues, such as that of global warming and climate change, but in my opinion is weak in resolving localized problems. Regional organizations are the correct forum to resolve this grave problem. For Central America, the Organization of American States (OAS) provides a stable forum where these countries may express their concerns with states of North and Latin America. With the re-election of Secretary General Luis Almagro, a strong and outspoken authority on issues concerning the protection of Human Rights, the OAS is the perfect forum to protect those displaced by natural disasters in the region. Furthermore, the OAS could work closely with the Inter-American Development Bank, which has the financial support of international actors who are not part of the OAS, such as Japan, Israel, Spain, and China, to establish the necessary political and structural reforms to better implement crisis management responses. This does not exclude the collusion with other international organizations, such as the UN. Interestingly, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has a project in the aforementioned Sula Valley to improve infrastructure to deal with the yearly floods.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is another example of an apt regional organization to deal with the localized issues. Mostly dealing with economic issues, this forum of ten countries could carry out mutual programs in order to protect agricultural territory, or further integrate to allow a diversification of their economies to ease this reliance on agricultural goods. ASEAN could also call forth the ASEAN +3 mechanism, which incorporates China, Japan, and South Korea, to help with the management of these projects, or for financial aid. China should be interested in the latter option, seeing as it can increase its good image in the region, as well as protecting its interest of preventing possible migration flows to its territory. The Asian Development Bank, on the other hand, offers a good alternative financial source if the ASEAN countries so choose, in order to not have heavy reliance on one country or the other.