Making the Links: Refugees, Climate Change, and Poverty

Making the Links: refugees, climate change, and poverty

By Asha Kerr-Wilson and Bolu Coker

When we think of the Syrian refugee crisis, political unrest and terrorism immediately come to mind. Very rarely do we ever think of climate change and poverty as casual factors in this crisis, or in our current global refugee situation. It’s not an obvious connection many of us have made.  A closer look at these links is necessary to ensure we can address the ever-evolving conflict situations of our times.

We know of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s jostle for political control and the devastating impact it has had on many Syrians. Just recently, the Assad regime allegedly launched a chemical attack on a Syrian town, killing 70 people and wounding hundreds of others. ISIS still wreaks terror in some Syrian towns. Rebel groups, which emerged around the Arab Spring, continue to cause much strife in the region.

The Syrian crisis is very complex, owing to much influence from both internal and external parties. Armed groups like the Ahrar al-Sham and the Sham Legion obtain ammunition from western nations like Russia and the United States. Other armed groups, alongside the Syrian government forces, receive support from Iran/Hezbollah. Russia’s support for the Syrian Armed Forces complicates the conflict situation even further, as it places Russia at a crossroads with other closely-allied western countries (e.g. the United States, France, and the United Kingdom). Some also claim that Russia supports Syrian Armed Forces to demonstrate the current level of Russian artillery and military might.

However, ecological stresses also contributed to Syria’s civil unrest in at least one major way—drought. Water shortages, stemming from increasingly extreme weather and changing rainfall patterns attributed to climate change, and years of poor governmental planning, forced many agitated Syrian farmers to abandon their farms and move to densely populated cities. Some farmers even claim that the government’s corrupt handling of the country’s water reserves over many years led to tensions among local farmers who lacked secure irrigation for their crops.

The start of the revolution was water and land” one Syrian farmer noted. Many had borne enough. With the 2011 revolution came farmers’ demands for water and a good life. The struggle to meet agricultural needs turned into a struggle to make an income to feed their families and live well. Threatened with the prospect of poverty, they joined the rest of the country to call for change. Then this movement was suppressed by the government, co-opted by rebel groups, and transformed into a nightmare for local Syrians.

The Syrian situation is one example of the interconnections between the current global refugee and ecological crises, and the link of poverty between the two. The influx of rural dwellers to urban peripheries led to much instability in the country. Crime and unemployment spiked in response to the lack of sufficient resources in the country. Civil unrest emerged from the growing poverty and insecurity drought had caused in the region.

We must pay attention to how these different social issues intersect in our time, so that we can meet our complex challenges with appropriate solutions.

World governments do not recognize people who flee ecological harm as refugees. The United Nations’  Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees determines refugees as those who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Ecological crises and the resulting socio-economic losses do not fall into this definition. The Canadian government does make some exceptions to these criteria in individual cases. Even when an asylum claim is rejected, claimants are usually not repatriated to their countries if such places are deemed too dangerous due to war, famine, or natural disaster. Therefore, there may be exceptional cases where some environmental issues are considered.

Nevertheless, the absence of named environmental threats in refugee determinations means that thousands of Bangladeshis who lose their homes to erosion and floods from rising sea levels cannot easily claim refugee status in another country. The same goes for many Ethiopians currently threatened by drought and the resulting food and water crisis.

Our government must therefore act twofold on climate change. The federal government must make sure Canada is addressing both the causes and the impacts of our contribution to climate change.

Estimates suggest that climate change threatens to produce about 200 million environmental refugees by 2050. Canada does not have any arrangement for climate refugees in its refugee policy. This must be addressed with urgency, so that we can proactively handle the challenges our changing climate poses to our ecology and economy.  

Likewise, Canada must take responsibility for its carbon emissions and work to mitigate future impacts and the consequences of climate change, including the displacement and impoverishment of people around the world. 

This is a collaborative post written by CPJ’s interns, Asha Kerr-Wilson and Bolu Coker. It is the first of a series of posts to be released periodically on CPJ’s website.

Photo credit: Flickr/Asian Development Bank

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