Refugees and climate change politics
A short post to note the latest UN refugee data (pdf), which shows a worldwide increase in 2007 of 3m – almost 10% -in the number of refugees forced from their home by conflict. It is a second successive increase after a period of decline. The UN describes the data as ‘unprecedented’, and says it will get worse. And according to the Commissioner climate change is now one of the significant sources of conflict: while this seems plausible, the report doesn’t address this issue, for reasons which are discussed below the fold. The report does, however, underline the extent to which refugees end up as a regional problem – in their own region.
The data just looks at refugees displaced by conflict, either internally within their own countries, or to other countries. Despite the Commissioner’s positioning of the story. the actual report doesn’t mention climate change once. There are reasons for this, but it does suggest a note of caution is in order.
One of the problems seems to be that definitions of refugees are governed by international convention, and the convention – which currently defines refugees as victims of political persecution – would need to be rewritten to allow people who have left their home as a result of climate change to be classified as refugees. Hence the link from climate change to conflict. And hence, one imagines, the reason for the positioning of the UN report.
But this immediately becomes murky. Canada’s National Post reports the view of Oxford University’s Stephen Castles: “There is a real issue there, but we don’t have evidence that this is happening on a large scale yet. All these numbers bandied about are causing fear.”
Darfur is a good example of the problems. Much of the conventional wisdom attributes the conflict to long-standing tribal antipathy (a long-standing discourse on African conflicts.) But others, including the UN, say it is caused by environmental factors. “The root of the conflict is greatly due to the competition for water and grazing land between tribes,” UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler told The Times. Of course, on the first reading, the rich West can avoid some or most of the blame, depending on where you stand on 19th century European colonialism, but on the second it has to take responsibility. Hence the politics around the definitions. Once you have climate change refugees, the biggest contributors to climate change are exposed to claims for redress.
There a separate point worth picking up from the UNHCR’s 2007 report (opens in PDF). This is that, contrary to much of the coverage in the UK, most refugees don’t go far. Most are actually ‘internally displaced persons’ who have to move elsewhere in their own country. About a quarter of the world’s refugees are Afghans, and almost all of them have remained in Asia. Again, Colombia is the largest source of refugees in the Americas, and most of these are in Ecuador and Venezuala. This proximity principle explains why Pakistan, Syria, and Iran have more refugees than anywhere else (see map below, for which thanks to the Guardian).
And there’s a relationship between refugees and failed states. It’s probably a correlation rather than a cause, but obviously refugees are themselves usually a product of the conflicts in failing states (although climate change conflicts are perhaps more symptomatic of fragile states than failing states). But their presence in border regions, often in desperate conditions, can start to put pressure on their hosts. They become part of a cycle of instability if they are helped to resettle, either through a resolution of the original conflict, or by getting new opportunities in countries which are richer and better able to absorb them.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is not optimistic about the long-term prognosis. As he told The Times:
We are now faced with a complex mix of global challenges that could threaten even more forced displacement in the future. They range from multiple new conflict-related emergencies in world hotspots to bad governance, climate-induced environmental degradation that increases competition for scarce resources, and extreme price hikes that have hit the poor the hardest and are generating instability in many places.