Who will host people that will lose their homes and existences due to climate change? Nations like Australia whose citizens represent some of the biggest polluters on this planet?
It might sound ironic that it’s exactly countries like Australia who due to lack of responsibility and accordant policies count for the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and thus are a major driver of climate change which in turn will force millions of additional people to seek for a new place to live within the near future are those enforcing ever more hostile and restrictive asylum policies. However, for the victims of climate change the issue is not about irony, it’s a deadly serious one.
In New Zealand, a man from Kiribati is currently trying to convince a court of his status as a climate change refugee. His claim, that it was too dangerous for him and his family to return to his home country as a consequence of climate change and that they should therefore be granted asylum in New Zealand, was denied in a first trial. On 16 October he will appeal against the verdict.
Human-made climate change is now considered a fact and supported by the vast majority of scientists . This was confirmed once more by the first part of the 5th report on climate change produced by the IPCC and published on 27 September 2013. While the findings are a confirmation of earlier assumptions, they also show that global sea levels are likely to rise for about 50 to 100cm by the end of this century.
Earlier studies have shown that the consequences of a sea level rise of 100cm will see millions of people abandon their homes and being displaced. In Bangladesh alone, 20% of the country’s surface would disappear, forcing a displacement of 15 million people. Vietnam would face similar challenges with 7 millions of people having to be displaced and the country losing vast areas of the Mekong Delta, home to more than 60% of the country’s seafood and 50% of its rice production. The consequences of such resettlements will be dramatic from a social perspective and have immense financial impacts for already economic disadvantaged countries.
The case of a court in New Zealand debating over a man trying to convince the “judges that he’s a refugee – suffering not from persecution, but from climate change” might thus be more delicate than it appears at first sight. According to Huff Post the tribunal found that “the legal concept of a refugee [was] someone who is being persecuted“ and which therefore “requires human interaction”. Since the judges found that nobody was persecuting the man or his family, they refused to accept their status as refugees.
Yet, article 3 of the Human Rights Convention stipulates that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and article 25, 1 that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.
So even if Article 14, 2 specifies that the right of asylum “may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations” we must recognize that according to the UN Human Rights Convention, which has been ratified by most nations, refugees from the consequences of climate change do have a right of integrity of their life and living.
Consequently, if the international community, after scientists having warned about the issue for over 40 years, finally acknowledges that climate change is happening, we should think about how we can accommodate future claims of victims of climate change. Considering that it took such a long time for the international community only to accept the long available evidence and keeping in mind that so far the only international tool to mitigate causes of climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, hasn’t been very effective in its measures because of the negotiation power of industrialized nations and the ignorance of some of them, amongst others namely the biggest per capita polluters USA and Australia, who have systematically been delaying the process, it seems understandable that people whose life and existence are directly and immediately affected undertake steps to save themselves from the consequences of climate change on their own account and without waiting for the United Nations to provide a framework that might only arrive decades after their existences will have been taken. What’s more, considering the potential loss of their lives, the belief that a person should only be granted the status of a refugee if already persecuted by another person seems cruel and forbidding.
One of the achievements of the Earth summit 1992 in Rio was the universally acceptance of the necessity for a sustainable development. An underlying concept of sustainability is the criteria of foresight, laid out in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. Known as the “precautionary principle” the principle could also serve to assess cases as the one discussed here. Developing countries being the ones most affected by climate change, will unlikely be able to cope with its social and economic consequences. Considering that climate change is already leading to increased violence and that future nutrition, water and sanitation shortages, forced migration or complete existence loss will sooner or later cause political conflicts that might eventually lead to people being persecuted as a consequence of climate change, we shouldn’t postpone measures to assess honest possibilities to compensate for the climate change mitigation measures we have never undertaken.
In light of all the above it seems reasonable and unavoidable that people fleeing from the consequences of climate change should be recognized as refugees and granted with accordant legal rights that allow them to build a new existence, if necessary also outside of the borders of their home countries. It’s tragic enough that millions of people will lose their homes as a consequence of our inability to agree on measures to protect our environment. Asking those people to wait until being persecuted before applying for asylum will cause an immense human tragedy and should thus be denounced if not itself lead to legal actions against those expressing such claims.