The refugees are coming

by Stan Hirst

It is surely one of the worst things that can happen to us – to be uprooted from the place we live in, and forced by violence or disaster to flee for our survival: in other words to become refugees.

As we head into spring the news about Syrian refugees in Canada is rosy. As of April 10 a total of 26,262 had arrived, 15,000 of them assisted by the Government, the remainder arriving via private sponsorship. Canada’s efforts in assisting refugees fleeing the strife in their war-torn country has received praise from European countries and from international agencies.

There were some underlying reasons for the success. Essentially the federal government already had a framework in place to work with community groups. Government of Canada agencies redeployed some 500 people staff from seven ministries as well as the army to fast-track screening. Canada has a strong NGO sector that serves refugees and immigrants.

But Canada’s experience with refugees has been strikingly different from that of European countries. Only 6 months after Europeans responded positively to the disturbing imagery of Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach the general mood has turned sour and even downright hostile with far-reaching political ramifications.

Nearly half of all Germans now feel that the chancellor should resign over her initial decision to open the country’s doors to refugees. Sweden has moved to reject possibly half the 160,000 asylum applications it received in 2015 and plans to deport tens of thousands already in the country. Denmark, Switzerland, Bavaria and other German states have introduced legislation to legitimize the seizure of refugees’ valuables as a way to help subsidize asylum-seekers’ costs to the state. European members of the Schengen Area of 26 countries that have abolished border control at their common borders are moving to kick Greece out of the group because of the huge number of refugees currently entering Europe from that country. The European Union has signed a $4.5-billion deal with Turkey to help that country step up efforts to stop the flow of illegal migrants attempting to enter Europe.

What does this have to do with the environment? A great deal as it turns out. The Syrian refugees coming to Canada are the undisguised consequence of a brutal war targeted on civilians, but there is now clear evidence that a severe drought, created in part by human-induced climate change, contributed to the conflict.

Researchers from Columbia University and the University of California have examined the climatic instrumental record and concluded that the drought from 2007 to 2010 in Syria caused widespread crop failure which resulted in mass migration of farming families to urban centres. Examination of century-long trends in precipitation, temperature and sea-level pressure strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing made the occurrence of the 3-year drought three times more likely than by natural variability alone. Water shortages in the Fertile Crescent in Syria, Iraq and Turkey killed livestock, drove up food prices, sickened children, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s jam-packed cities. This occurred just as the country was already exploding with immigrants from the Iraq war.

In 2010 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as the UN Refugee Agency, estimated that 42 million people worldwide had at that stage been uprooted from their homes. Most could be considered “environmental refugees”, i.e. people no longer able to eke out an existence in their homelands because of environmental degradation and forced to move in order to survive. Some 26 million of these were deemed to be “internal refugees” by natural disasters or conflict, i.e. forced from their homes but not yet crossing international borders.

Climate change will likely prove to be the ultimate humanitarian disaster. Its immediate effects – droughts, floods, rising seas, worsening storms – directly threaten many countries around the globe, but they impact most severely on people who live on the margins. These include Sudanese, Somalis and Senegalese beset by long cycles of drought, and Bangladeshis imperilled by rising seas engulfing their paddy fields which lie only centimetres above normal high tide levels. People living on a floodplain may be able to rebuild when floods come once a decade, but when they come twice a year that option is no longer tenable.

Even a small shift in the local climate can initiate a period of disastrous circumstances for people that have to survive through subsistence farming. This happened on a massive scale in the 1930s, not in Africa or Asia but right here in North America where Dust Bowl conditions across the Great Plains sent farmers streaming toward the cities,

Red Cross statistics indicate that numbers of environmental refugees are growing orders of magnitude faster than war refugees. If the estimates derived from climate models hold true, upwards of 200 million people are expected by 2080 to be made refugees by climate instability and rising seas.

The world currently has 40 cities with populations exceeding 10 million. Many of these in Africa and Asia are growing at unprecedented rates because they’re already receiving an influx of climate refugees. The vulnerability of many megacities to climatic disasters overlaps with the inability of local and regional governments to accommodate rapid growth via proper infrastructure. The best current example of this, ironically, comes not from Asia or Africa but again from North America. Hurricane Katrina came close to obliterating New Orleans in 2005 and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing. A discomforting thought is that hurricanes and storms of equal or greater magnitude than Katrina will inevitably strike highly vulnerable cities such as Lagos or Dhaka.

Is there any way forward? That is the somewhat complex subject for a future blog post. Stay tuned. In the meantime we can ponder the words of Mary Robinson who was President of Ireland and later the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and is now a member of The Elders:

The human rights framework reminds us that climate change is about suffering – about human misery that result directly from the damage that we are doing to nature.”

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.

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