Climate refugees need a seat at the table

As the impacts of climate change ravage the Caribbean, how open are we to climate refugees?
Photo: Takver/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

Similar to a heroin addict looking for the next fix, many countries continue to feed their greed for fossil fuels, investing and expanding the search for oil and gas. The addiction to fossil fuels is leaving big, gaping abscesses far away from the sites of injection. Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria and Category 4 Hurricane José made dramatic entrances and stole the show this hurricane season. The devastation they caused in the northern Caribbean made September 2017 the most active month of any Atlantic hurricane season ever recorded.

Many of these Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are still reeling from the monstrous disasters and will continue to do so for years to come. Barbuda was left uninhabited for the first time in 300 years. As of October 6th, a little over two weeks after Maria, 89% of Puerto Rico still had no power and 44% had no access to potable water. A government official stated that St. Maarten was 95% destroyed. And in Dominica, at least 27 people died. This just scratches the surface.

Caribbean climate refugees

These hurricanes left in their wake a relatively new issue for the Caribbean – climate refugees. Climate refugees are those who have had to flee their homes due to environmental factors attributed to climate change such as sea level rise, loss of agricultural productivity, or storm-related destruction. They fall under the broader category of environmental refugees – individuals forced to flee their home countries due to tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and more.

According to a report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a non-governmental organisation that advocated for non-violent resolution of human rights abuses and related environmental issues, global warming may force up to 150 million climate refugees to move out of their countries by 2050. In 2008 alone, more than 20 million people around the world were displaced by climate-related natural disasters.

Where does this leave the Caribbean?

The aftermath of September 2017 saw over 1,800 people evacuated from Barbuda and thousands fleeing Dominica, with no place to go.

The unfortunate truth is that many individuals were left unsure which Caribbean countries – Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados – would, and could take them in. The individuals, thus, became climate refugees.

On 22 September 2017, Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago stated that the nation would be opening its doors to Dominicans and encouraged citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to assist Dominican families in need of help.

Barriers to immigration were temporarily waived for a period of 6 months. After this declaration, social media outcry essentially split into two camps: xenophobic individuals on one side (concerned that Dominicans would take their jobs and stay in Trinidad and Tobago), and individuals willing to open their doors to the displaced Dominicans on the other side.

The protectionist and nationalist trend of thinking toward refugees in general needs to be altered as climate change impacts worsen in the Caribbean. It is a direct illustration of the climate refugee status on an international scale. There is no legally-binding international agreement that identifies and protects climate refugees. The global environmental governance community fails to recognise them as it does for refugees seeking protection from persecution based on religion, race, politics, or nationality.

Even as over 190 countries will meet at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties 23 (COP 23) in November 2017 to deliberate the results of increased temperatures, and after the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement earlier this year, Caribbean climate refugees are struggling to answer questions such as: What are their rights? What  will they be called? Will a framework be built to protect them?

Caribbean neighbourhood

As oceans warm, sea levels continue to rise, and natural disasters increase in both frequency and intensity, the international community must have more serious discussions about climate change mitigation, adaptation, and the disastrous effects that failure to act on climate change issues has on populations around the globe, especially in the Caribbean. Currently, there is no Caribbean-wide, official legislation in place to legally assist climate refugees.

Certain Caribbean countries are signatories to the United Nations 1951 Convention, which affords protection to refugees; however, what is really needed is the implementation of a region-specific policy addressing the impacts of climate change.

How will the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) collectively address and assist climate refugees? They will be seeking assistance from their Caribbean neighbours. If placed in the situation to offer that help, would you allow them to sit at the table?

Caribbean Connections

Dizzanne Billy is a Content Creator, Social Media Manager, and Digital Marketing professional. She is an Outreach and Communications Officer at Climate Tracker and a youth leader in the field of environmental activism. Dizzanne graduated from the University of the West Indies with an MSc. in Global Studies, focusing her research on global environmental governance. She is passionate about writing, environmental advocacy, and travel.
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