Climate change creates migrants. Biden considers protections


SAN DIEGO – Ioane Teitiota and his wife have fought for years to stay in New Zealand as refugees, arguing that rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten the very existence of the small island nation from the Pacific that they fled, one of the lowest countries on the planet. .

Although New Zealand courts have not disputed that high tides pose a risk to Kiribati, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, refugee laws did not address the danger, so the government expelled.

No nation offers asylum or other legal protections to people displaced specifically by climate change. President Joe Biden’s administration is studying the idea and climate migration is expected to be discussed at its first climate summit, which will be held virtually Thursday and Friday.

On the day the summit begins, Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts plans to reintroduce legislation to address the lack of protection for those who do not meet the narrow definition of “refugees” under international law. This failed in 2019.

“We’re more likely than ever to get there,” Markey said in a statement to The Associated Press, citing Biden’s climate diplomacy and greater awareness of the problem.

The idea still faces monumental challenges, including how to define a climate refugee when natural disasters, drought and violence are often linked in areas people flee, such as Central America.

If the United States defined a climate refugee, it could mark a major shift in global refugee policy.

Biden ordered National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to see how to identify and resettle those displaced directly or indirectly by climate change. A report is expected in August.

It makes sense that the United States is leading the way, being a major producer of greenhouse gases, supporters say.

“No nation in the world has taken the leadership to face this reality we face today,” said Krish Vignarajah, head of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “It’s not a problem that we can tackle in 20 or 30 years. We hope that the United States can take strong action that will have a domino effect on other nations. “

According to the United Nations, there could be as many as 200 million climate-displaced people in the world by 2050.

A report from the World Meteorological Organization released on Monday showed this is already happening, with an average of 23 million climate refugees per year since 2010 and nearly 10 million registered in the first six months of last year, in especially in Asia and East Africa. Most have moved to their own country.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines the term “refugee” as a person who has crossed an international border “for well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group. or political opinion ”.

Some argue it’s outdated, but few expect changes to the international agreement to account for those fleeing sea level rise, drought or other effects of climate change.

The United States may define displaced people as climate migrants instead of refugees and offer them humanitarian visas or other protections.

Biden ordered the idea to be investigated after a landmark ruling last year by the UN Human Rights Committee on a lawsuit filed by Teitiota against New Zealand.

Teitiota argued that his deportation in 2015 violated his right to life. He said the salty water from the rising seas had destroyed land and contaminated the water supply on Tarawa Island in Kiribati. Scientists say the impoverished chain of 33 atolls with around 103,000 inhabitants is among the nations most vulnerable to climate change.

The committee said Teitiota was not in imminent danger at the time of her asylum claim, dismissing her case. But he said it could be illegal for governments to send people back to countries where the effects of climate change put them at deadly risk – from hurricanes to land degradation.

“This decision sets new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims,” ​​said committee expert Yuval Shany.

Even so, identifying climate refugees is not easy, especially in areas plagued by violence. In Central America, for example, thousands of people initially leave their villages due to poor harvests due to drought or flooding, often end up in towns where they become victims of gangs and eventually flee their countries.

“It’s a threat multiplier, and therefore the creation of a statute or a category should address that complexity rather than ignore it or seek out ‘pure’ climate refugees,” said Caroline Zickgraf, who studies how climate change affects migration at the University of Liège in Belgium. . “Does anyone have to prove that they have been displaced by climate change? It is an extraordinary, if not impossible, thing to ask someone.

Carlos Enrique Linga traveled to the US border with his 5-year-old daughter after consecutive hurricane rains caused landslides and flooding that destroyed more than 60,000 homes in Guatemala alone, including Linga’s farm and house.

He said he made the dangerous journey north because he needed to feed and clothe his children, including 2-year-old twins who remained with his wife.

“To come here we had to sell the crop we had” to pay a smuggler, said Linga, who stayed in a Texas shelter last month after U.S. immigration officials released him and him. her daughter.

He hoped to find work in Tennessee, where a friend lives, and send money to Guatemala.

Global warming is shifting the migrant population from men in search of economic opportunities to families uprooted by hunger, according to researchers at Duke University and the University of Virginia who study migration out of Central America.

Researchers examining data from about 320,000 Hondurans apprehended at the US-Mexico border from 2012 to 2019 found that they came largely from violent agricultural regions also experiencing their lowest rainfall in 20 years.

According to the study published in March, even as homicide rates in the regions fell, if the drought worsened that year, apprehensions of families there surged at the US border.

Climate change is a driving force, but there is little political will to help climate migrants, said David Leblang, professor of politics and politics at the University of Virginia who co-authored the study.

“As a political scientist, I would say the chances of this happening right now are close to zero,” he said.

Some fear political pressure may lead Biden to back down after the number of people arrested by the border patrol last month hit a 20-year high.

On Friday, he faced similar criticism for expanding refugee eligibility, but for failing to lift his predecessor’s record admission ceiling of 15,000. Hours later, the White House said that Biden the would fall by May 15, without saying how much.

Climate migrants should be treated separately from those resettled under the 41-year-old U.S. refugee program, experts say, so as not to take the place of traditional refugees.

In New Zealand, a new government attempted in 2017 to offer humanitarian visas to Pacific islanders affected by climate change, with the goal of hosting around 100 people a year.

Six months later, the plan was quietly abandoned.

New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the government was focusing on reducing emissions so people were not displaced.

“Right now, the countries of the Pacific want us to help them protect their future by focusing on mitigating climate change and helping them adapt,” he said. “And that’s what we do.”

Associated Press editors Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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