By Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, LIRS President and CEO
Last week, at the National Immigrant Inclusion Conference (NIIC), I joined with other advocates, organizers, policy researchers, and executives who are all working toward a more inclusive, equitable democracy and creating a future that welcomes all immigrants and refugees. There was a resounding consensus: one of the direst threats to this shared future is climate disaster.
What is climate disaster displacement?
Climate disasters like flood, fire, and drought have exacerbated the displacement of so many, forcing over 20 million people each year to flee their homes. The urgency of this growing crisis is being recognized at the highest levels. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) last month, world leaders discussed climate migration. Global action, however, is too slow. Leaders at COP failed to update global policies to offer the critical protections and safety nets climate-displaced people require. On the heels of the collective call to action from fellow NIIC speakers and attendees, I’m further bolstered to urge governments and global bodies like the UN to swiftly protect those in danger of accelerating climate catastrophes.
If the planet continues to warm, more and more communities around the world will become increasingly fragile. Around 3 billion people live in areas prone to climate disaster, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) citing earlier this year that extreme climate events drive population displacement globally. This vulnerability has significant consequences, as human mortality from climate events in at-risk areas is 15 times higher than mortality in less vulnerable ones.
Are people displaced by climate disaster considered refugees?
And yet climate-displaced people are invisible in international law. These laws use a limited definition, established in the years following World War II, that does not classify someone who crosses an international border because of climate change’s effects as a “refugee.” Thus, they are unable to receive the legal protection this classification affords, such as equitable treatment to country nationals in employment, housing and education. Human rights officials and international bodies have begun to recognize how climate disaster drives migration and displacement. They have proposed new protections accordingly, but no durable legal standards exist.
In 2018, for example, the UN General Assembly passed the Global Compact on Refugees, which explicitly recognizes that “climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters” interact with refugee movements, but the resolution is non-binding. In 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee recognized that climate emergencies constitute a threat to life, ruling, “environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life.” And this past July, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants published a report that called on states to provide migrants, who cannot return to their countries because of climate change and are in need of human rights protection, with legal status.
These are important steps, but the international community has not solved the issues at hand. Over the last decade, just over 1 million refugees have been resettled. This year, the U.S. accepted only 25,000 refugees, a mere 20% of its refugee admissions goal. This is woefully insufficient given the tens of millions of people that climate change forces from their homes each year. New pathways for safety that recognize climate as a driver of displacement must be created; the international community cannot look away from reality.
How is LIRS supporting climate-displaced people?
Organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service that resettle refugees in the U.S. are actively working to help people displaced internationally by climate disasters to have lasting protection in the U.S. We are pushing the U.S. government to develop strong policies to protect this vulnerable group. But this fight is a global one.
The billions of people living on the frontlines of climate change and disaster and the 20 million displaced each year are desperate for international leadership. They deserve genuine attention and concrete action from the international community. Events like NIIC that unite those committed to protect and uplift all immigrants and refugees offer us the ability to shine a spotlight on the glaring lack of legal protections for millions of climate-displaced people, and pressure our leaders to stand up on their behalf.
I look forward to continuing to work across organizations and borders to extend a helping hand and lend my voice so that safety is not a privilege, but a global right.