The next wave: climate refugees

G Magazine

As the nation panics over a small number of asylum seekers, we're left to ponder how Australia will respond to the millions of anticipated "climate refugees"?

The next wave

Heavy rain and flash flooding in Pakistan in July 2010 left millions homeless and landless.

Credit: Getty images

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Twelve days after usurping the Labor leadership, new PM Julia Gillard outlined her "boat people" policy to an anxious public. The plan? A "regional processing centre" on East Timor.

There was nothing new about the idea - regional processing has been part of Australia's response to asylum seekers since the first wave of Indo-Chinese refugees in the late '70s. The only novel aspect of the policy was the astonishing speed with which it was cobbled together. A hasty call to Timor-Leste's President Jose Ramos-Horta, a quick chat with the UN, and Gillard was ready to strike asylum seekers from her pre-election to-do list.

Yet the issue of "boat people" can't be swatted away so easily. Australia needs to develop a considered, long-term approach to asylum seekers and refugees because they could be heading our way for a long time to come.

At the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, predicted that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacements within the not too distant future. The numbers we're talking about are astronomical. His agency predicts
between 50 and 200 million people to have moved by 2050.

Even if Australia processes only a thimbleful of the planet's "boat people" - we're ranked 20th out of 44 countries based on asylum seeker intake as a proportion of population - then we're still looking at a significant increase. How might we respond to this next wave of asylum seekers, often called "climate refugees"?

Our legal obligation

Straight away our speculation about climate refugees hits a snag. "There's no such thing as a climate or an environmental refugee in international or domestic law," says David Corlett, author of Stormy Weather: the Challenge of Climate Change and Displacement and Swinburne University of Technology adjunct research fellow. "It's a non-existent category that conveys no rights."

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". Environmental factors are largely irrelevant.

But the Convention was established in the aftermath of World War II, nearly 60 years ago. Surely it's time for a re-draft?

That's unlikely to happen, says Corlett. If a debate were opened up about the meaning of "refugee", signatory states would probably try to restrict the definition rather than expand it.

That would leave asylum seekers - including those displaced by climate change - in an even more precarious position.

Refugee advocates are also opposed to tinkering with the current definition. "I don't think it's helpful to bring any more people into the Convention because it's struggling as it is," says Pamela Curr, campaigns co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.

Even some "climate refugees" don't want to be included in the Convention. In 2009, Australian academics Jane McAdam and Maryanne Loughry visited the photogenically fragile Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, predicted to be the first affected by sea level rise. As the scholars discovered, the term "refugee" irritates locals, who see themselves as resourceful providers, not passive victims. Their solution to rising sea levels is to "secure options for labour migration to Australia and New Zealand". "They want to be skilled migrants, rather than refugees," explains Curr.

That doesn't mean we can dismiss the damaging effects of climate change displacement. Pacific islands nations are a special case. They have small, relatively mobile populations and a history of successful migration. More worrying are the tens of millions of people living in low-lying delta regions, such as Bangladesh. If environmental factors forced these people to flee, Australia would probably have no legal obligation to protect them.

A moral obligation?

The law is one thing; justice is another. As an industrialised country with a hefty carbon debt circulating above our heads, do we have a special responsibility to assist and accomodate those left landless by human-induced climate change?

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