The responsibility of Western countries to climate refugees

By Nick Gutkin
Sustainability Analyst

The international community broadly recognises the rights of people to flee war and persecution as refugees and protects them through international law. They are a particularly polarising topic in Europe, where an influx of refugees following the Arab Spring and wars in the Middle East led to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015. The European refugee crisis was tied directly to conflict – especially that in Syria, as the state disintegrated into patches of land held alternately by government, rebel, and jihadi forces. But this was also one of the first major examples of a modern conflict with a strong environmental driver – a long period of severe drought conditions (from 2007 to 2010) which were the worst the country had seen in a century[1]. Studies showed that climate change had worsened pre-existing drought conditions, which when coupled with an already politically unstable country with unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, tipped the instability into a situation of conflict[2]. Since 2015, conflicts over dwindling resources as a result of climate change have increased and have led to mass migrations of people seeking safe haven[3].

Climate change is increasingly playing a key role in the degradation of land and resources that is driving people to pursue a better future elsewhere. A World Bank report in 2018 concluded that by 2050, over 55% of the developing world’s population will be directly threatened by climate change hotspots, and 143 million people will be at risk of displacement[4]. This is because climate change is set to disproportionately affect people in developing countries. The latest edition of the UNDP Human Development report predicts that 13.7 million people will be displaced per year on a global scale due to disasters, many of them driven by climate change[5]. Yet even in the face of increasing scientific evidence, the UNHCR refuses to grant ‘environmental migrants’ the refugee status they need in order to seek protection and resettlement per international law[6]. These migrants are going to disproportionately come from developing countries, where vulnerable populations face conflict, food and water insecurity, public health crises and poverty as a direct result of climate change[7].

What is perhaps the most deplorable aspect of this situation however, is the fact that the same countries which face the greatest climate change-driven threats to their populations are those that have also contributed the least to climate change. Research shows that the world’s poorest 50% of people only contribute 10% of global emissions[8]. The average citizen of the European Union is responsible for over 20 times more emissions (on average) than a citizen of a Least Developed Country (such as Afghanistan, Laos, or Uganda, among others)[9]. The data are clear: the people who will suffer the most severe impacts of climate change are also those that are least responsible for the climate change crisis.

Considering the responsibility of Western countries for the vast majority of emissions leading to climate change, we now have an ethical, moral, and simply human responsibility to do everything we can to help those most affected by our actions. Climate justice activists very rightly advocate for increased global cooperation, funding and assistance for developing countries to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. However, we need to also be realistic in our depictions of the future. With worsening climate change impacts will come increasing fluxes of refugees moving along a gradient of environmental instability and seeking a better future for themselves and their children, just as conflict refugees do. For Western countries to refuse asylum to climate refugees, is not just immoral considering the burden of our responsibility for the climate crisis, but it also borders on villainous.

Countries such as Canada, responsible for 15.3 tons of CO2 per capita (more than three times the world average) will need to reconsider their refugee and asylum programs. While Canada topped the global charts for refugee resettlement in 2018, the actual figure is a paltry 28,100 people[10]. In the face of millions of climate refugees in coming years, Canada (and other highly developed countries) have the distinct responsibility of accepting many more people. The economic and social development of Western countries has largely been driven by the mass consumption of fossil fuels, and it is well outside the bounds of morality for those countries to deny the safe resettlement of people fleeing a climate crisis largely caused by said consumption.

Besides the argument of morality and ethical responsibility, there are also the economic and cultural benefits of accepting more refugees through legal migration systems. Long-term, the benefits vastly outweigh the costs, as refugees participate in the economic system alongside natives and contribute directly to entrepreneurship and productivity[11]. Despite xenophobia and discrimination, refugees can and do prosper in their home countries. Countries that accept refugees do better economically[12] and socially[13], so an open attitude to refugees is not only beneficial to those seeking asylum, but also to the host countries and communities themselves. Integrating climate refugees into an already-existing system of conflict asylum would also create a much-needed personal link to the realities of the climate crisis within sheltered communities of the Global North, and could sway public opinion against its perpetrators, such as fossil fuel companies and their purchased politicians.

As countries of the Global North are the main culprits of the climate crisis, leaders of those countries must face the reality of the situation. Migration will increase, and the only ethical approach is to acknowledge this and develop legal, accessible systems of migration for refugees fleeing the impacts of the climate crisis. Climate refugees should be welcomed and integrated into communities as a moral responsibility, but also to benefit those same communities. Most importantly, we as citizens of Western countries need to acknowledge our role in causing the climate crisis and understand our obligation to those most affected yet least responsible in the developing world.















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