It comes as no great shock that climate change deniers are often the same crowds who oppose migration. But what happens when the climate changes populists refuse to acknowledge actually fuel the fire they fear so much? The World Solidarity Forum (WSF) hosted a panel discussion at the Brussels Press Club last week where climate and migration experts discussed how the world’s rapidly escalating climate crisis is affecting human security across the continents, establishing a whole new reason to request asylum.

The first speaker, Saskia Bricmont, MEP for the Belgian Greens, and President of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Child Rights opened the discussion to comment that climate-related disasters often provoke a spike in intercontinental migration, and women and children are the most at risk. The escalating number of climate-related disasters is also triggering a devastating disregard of the right to seek asylum, due to the reactionary rise of anti-migration rhetoric. This, Bricmont stressed, only reiterates our crucial need to uphold global solidarity: ‘This means promoting climate change and its consequences to the top of the political agenda.’ 

Rise of the “climate refugee”

A few days before the discussion, on the 3rd October, climate refugees were granted official legal status by the European Parliamentary Assembly. However, as Bricmont pointed out, it remains a controversial topic to talk about, met with the argument to not ‘open a Pandora’s box’ of asylum requests. Indeed, the fear that any nudge to migration and asylum policy will provoke an unmanageable influx of bogus refugees into the EU causes a hesitancy to allow the ambiguity of climate-related issues to be considered as a valid reason to seek asylum.

Unlike conflict or persecution, climate factors are not necessarily legally recognised and can be difficult to prove. From a localised drought to food shortages caused by disruptive local weather patterns: how will we be able to differentiate a climate change-related problem to a natural environmental challenge, and thus rank one plea for a better quality of life over another? Would it even be ethical to do so?

Bricmont concluded that the EU must adapt its policies to support governments of affected countries, prioritising their resilience and ability to cope with the changes they are facing, which would in turn reduce stress on certain key donor states. 

The impact in numbers

The next speaker, Caroline Zickgraf, Deputy Director of the Hugo Observatory and Migration Specialist went on to comment that climate change and migration are always presented to us in numbers. Whether it’s the number of years we have left to reverse our damage on the planet, the temperature increase of the arctic circle, the number of migrants displaced last year, or the percentage of them who have crossed international borders to find safety: the entire scope of both issues in question are more often than not translated into conveniently communicable packages of data.

And as shocking as these figures may be, numbers are also convenient in their potential to be kept at a distance. Numbers are just numbers after all, and it is all too easy for us to see them as that, and not think too much about the environmental damage and human suffering behind them. 

For instance, 17.2 million people were displaced within their countries by natural disasters last year. This figure is undeniably huge, but does not even present the entire issue. Firstly, this number doesn’t even include cross-border migration, which is more difficult to monitor. Furthermore, the figure would be bigger still if the migration resulting from the long-term effects of climate disasters were also included, such as depleted food sources. The EU must look beyond the initial data and also bear these long-term effects of climate change on human quality of life to adapt their policies accordingly.

More than just Migration

Zickgraf continued that we must bear in mind that migration never has only one cause, but is rather a combined product of social, economical, political, and indeed, environmental factors:

‘When we consider the scale of climate and migration impact, we ignore the fact that not everyone badly affected migrates. Some become immobile, some don’t have the money or opportunity to move.’ 

Indeed, the most vulnerable people affected by climate change –  the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and children – often don’t have the option to migrate to safety. To address and minimise displacement, we need both reactive and proactive policies; we can’t let this especially high-risk section of society remain invisible when we treat these issues. 

Furthermore, we must bear in mind that migration can also be very positive for migrants and both their communities of origin and destination, and not fall into the trap of only viewing it as a problem. Zickgraf concluded that it’s about people having the choice: the choice to leave for a place with good conditions and adequate protections as well as the choice to stay with good conditions and adequate protections.

Leave No One Behind

The next speaker, Roberto Cortinovis, currently working within EU justice, home affairs and external action at the Centre of European Policy Studies (CEPS), raised the point that the refugee compact contains little reference to climate change due to this hesitance of governments to tie asylum rights to something as intangible and unpredictable as the climate.

Cortinovis also proposed that the issue of climate refugees should be addressed as a development issue in reference to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. He explained that humanitarian and temporary work visas are already in place for sudden onset disasters, but to follow on from Zickgraf’s point on long-term repercussions, the next step forward would be to provide visas for those affected by the slow onset repercussions of natural disasters.

Fanni Bihari, policy and advocacy officer on migration displacement, EU asylum and migration policy also stressed the need to criticise the EU for not aligning policies with the “Leave No One Behind” mantra of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

She explained that the EU has a huge responsibility for climate issues as well as for inequalities provoking intercontinental migration. This responsibility, on top of the EU’s self-identification as an entity to promote human rights and freedoms without exception, only reiterates its need to hold onto the values that founded it and face the difficult facts we are now presented with to make progress via proactive policy amendments.

‘Let’s not forget the rules we already put on the table; We need to look back at evidence, shift policy and not contradict our own values.’

The Environment & Human Wellbeing

Marianne Kettunen, Head of Global Challenges and the Sustainable Development Goals Programme, specialised in environmental, EU internal and external policy, questioned how we can prevent forced migration. She explained that environmental factors underpin human welfare: ‘when environmental quality goes down, so does human well-being and security.’ 

Kettunen presented the long-overlooked correlation between peace and the natural environment, stressing the ‘clear overlap between climate hazards and low levels of peacefulness,’ using Sub-Saharan Africa as a key example. Water scarcity is also linked to conflict due to the desperation often leading to violence, most notably in the MENA area where risk of water scarcity and such water-related disputes is dangerously high. She concluded:

‘The best way to improve water supply is to restore and sustainably manage ecosystems. Working with nature can actually also help to restore peace. Security is underpinned by environmental quality.’ 

Unfortunately, this is not what the EU is currently doing in practice. 

‘These two policy areas should be brought together in terms of implementation. In reality, how much money is going towards environmental quality? Very little. It all starts from human security, and this starts with environmental security. We should make environmental security a foreign policy issue.’

The climate refugee: An inconvenient truth for populists

This is not only a question of adapting migration policy, but about rethinking global co-operation policy to prepare for our collective fight against climate change, and the responsibility of all governments to do what they can to protect citizens across the globe.

On top of that, if the EU proactively addresses the overlap between the climate and refugee crises, it could help to fight populism by showcasing both the importance of migration policy, as well as the real issues faced by many migrants today.

Could this correlation then be used as a crafty way to encourage populists to support climate policy? Tempting as this may seem, this would mean presenting an increase in migration as a threat, only contributing to the mentality that migration is always a negative outcome. This is also a flawed argument, because most migration – including displacement caused by climate change – is internal, and not all coming to Europe – as certain far-right figures may want us to believe!

The bottom line is that many migrants still face discrimination, violence, and other abuses in their host countries and climate change is putting an increasing number of people in this situation. We must discuss the obligations of the international community. What protections should the EU provide to facilitate the migration process and take responsibility for climate change-related damages?

Both of these major world issues are undeniably linked, and this newly recognised category of environmental migrants is only set to increase along with the frequency of climate fluctuations provoking uninhabitable conditions. As such, EU policymakers must continue their efforts to connect the dots and ensure that both preventative and reactionary measures are taken, before even more lives are affected by the irrefutable reality of climate change.

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By Roxanna Azimy

Roxanna is a British and Iranian advocacy writer specialised in human rights, health, and welfare. With a languages degree from King's College London, a Masters in European Studies from LSE, and an EU communications background, she strives to increase the visibility of ethical and sociocultural issues in Europe and beyond. Twitter: @RoxannaYasmin Medium: @RoxannaAzimy

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