Rivers, Rights and Refugees
How the climate crisis displaces an increasing number of refugees, and the international implications their migration creates.
In the lush mangrove forests of Bangladesh, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, a community struggles to survive amid the deterioration of their landscape. Fishing and farming in the Sundarbans have become virtually impossible as the forest’s water quality has declined; a result of the intrusion of salinity in its rivers, caused by drastically increased flooding from monsoons, rendered more frequent and destructive due to climate change. In an interview with the Environmental Justice Foundation, Abdul Zuffer, a resident of the region, who became homeless after a cyclone in 2009, stressed his concern over the effects of the changing climate. “The rice season is not at the right time, none of the rains are. And when it does rain, it is far heavier. … The future will bring more devastating storms. … We want to stay here, but it will be difficult.”
The uptick in the frequency and magnitude of disasters in the region hasn’t been brought by sheer bad luck. Climate change has been linked to dramatic changes in weather patterns and the intensity of several natural phenomena and disasters. The El Niño/La Niña Cycle, for example, is when temperatures in the Pacific naturally vary from the norm every two to seven years, leading to unusually heavy rains and droughts in some parts of the world. The world’s rising temperatures over the past several decades have intensified this phenomenon. Issues such as fossil fuel extraction and unsustainable ranching impact far more than just climate change and have also brought about significant changes to our planet’s geography, including deforestation and increased mudslides and wildfires. The impacts of these practices, in conjunction with more traditional effects of climate change, lead to the dire and rapidly worsening crisis of climate refugees (an umbrella term without a universally recognized definition that refers to migrants who have fled their homes due to environmental disasters or the negative consequences of climate change).
The rising number of climate refugees has led to increased outrage globally, as the direct and current human effects of climate change act as arguments for increased sustainability worldwide. This raises the question of how human rights discourse will be impacted by climate change: Do future generations have rights to a clean, safe Earth? Is it even possible to give rights to people who don’t exist yet? And what rights do climate refugees possess currently to asylum or in regards to the protection of their home communities? How do these questions affect the international response to environmentalism?
A recent landmark decision by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees has the potential to significantly change the landscape for climate refugees. It states that refugees displaced by climate-related issues have the right to asylum in the countries they petition without the stipulation that they have to return home afterwards. It is important to recognize, however, that because of the United Nations’ lack of enforcement powers, it cannot command countries to adhere to these guidelines, rendering the High Commissioner on Refugees’ decision mostly symbolic. As such, the question of how countries will individually interpret or implement their declaration is still up in the air.
Nevertheless, the ruling is still extremely important because it establishes principle and precedent. As Marianne Engelman-Lado, a Yale professor with an accomplished history in civil rights law and climate justice, explained, “When we think about bending the arc of the law towards justice, we also think about a step-by-step process to have some basic principles recognized that can then be operationalized and/or implemented. … It creates the opportunity, or the space, for greater argument.”
Countries that do choose to adopt stricter protections of climate refugees may face certain challenges. As seen by the migrant crisis of the previous decade, Europe has had trouble accommodating such a large influx in the population and assimilating them into local communities. More migrants may exacerbate this issue and cause strain on governments that are already struggling. At certain points in 2015 and 2016, Greece was receiving over 5,000 migrants daily. Their economy was severely impacted, with tourism dropping over 50 percent in 2016. Additionally, waste produced by the refugees, including thousands of plastic containers and rubber boats used in their camps and on their journeys, has hurt the country’s and the ocean’s ecosystems. This can add to the anti-migrant/refugee rhetoric present in growing alt-right movements around the globe, which are grounded in the harmful and xenophobic idea that their countries are worsened and damaged by the presence of migrants.
Although most media representation of refugees focuses on migrants leaving poorer, war-torn countries, the idea that climate refugees are only the products of developing countries is both incorrect and harmful. While least developed nations, and especially island nations, are bearing the brunt of climate change, it isn’t only the underprivileged that are adversely affected.
Climate-related disasters have also ravaged the Australian Southeast, where one of the worst wildfires in the country’s history burned down over 2,500 homes and displaced thousands. Even in the United States, an island in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, housing about 460 inhabitants, has faced rapid emigration due to rising sea levels.
Take, as another example, the city of Miami, Florida. Although Miami was ranked by the UBS in 2018 as the eighth wealthiest city in the world and the third wealthiest city in the U.S., it suffers from increasing climate gentrification and the displacement of people in the area. Because rising sea levels will likely submerge the city by 2100, the wealthier residents of coastal areas are moving inland to neighborhoods that have been traditionally occupied by lower income communities, leading to the areas’ gentrification, affecting living costs, cultural ties and more. “As people go from places that were very desirable,” Engelman-Lado said, “and they have funds, they can use their funds to buy into and disrupt long-standing communities that have been undervalued because of systemic racism or other factors.” Not only are the wealthy not immune to being displaced by climate change, but their displacement can directly impact and displace poorer communities as well.
Although it may seem like we are powerless to stop the Earth’s increasing volatility and the climate refugee crisis, Yale students are actually uniquely positioned to affect the issue. As of 2017, Yale University has invested over $1 billion in Puerto Rican debt. Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, has been struggling economically and has entered into a hefty amount of debt (totaling 74 billion dollars) trying to recover. Additionally, Yale also holds millions of dollars of investments in fossil fuels, the use of which has been linked to the worsening of natural disasters like Hurricane Maria, which led to thousands of displaced people and climate refugees. Is it ethical for an institution of higher education to actively maintain this debt, adding to the damage and oppression of a community already hurt by climate change? And is it morally justifiable for Yale to hold investments in fossil fuels and thus contribute to the destruction of countless other communities in the future?
Summarizing the discontent the student body is experiencing with the way Yale’s endowment is being run, Adriana Colón ’20, a member of the Puerto Rican student organization Despierta Boricua, commented to the Yale Daily News that “Yale tries to act like their investments are apolitical. … Yale shouldn’t be part of this investment because it is contributing to a humanity crisis.”
Engelman-Lado also disagrees with Yale’s attitude towards their investments: “I think universities and colleges cannot take the position that their investments are neutral. … I fundamentally believe that there is no such thing as neutrality, and there is also no such thing as perfection. We have to strive to be the best we can be, taking morality into account, so where our investment is causing harm, we have to take a pause.”
The Yale student body has mobilized on the issue of the University’s investments in many ways, most notably in its 2019 Yale-Harvard football game protest, which made national headlines but was unsuccessful in leading to administrative changes regarding the school’s endowment. However, in promising news, and most likely as a product of tremendous student activism, the administration recently announced the establishment of a faculty committee that would discuss realigning Yale’s investments with “a new set of ethical principles more suited to the climate crisis.”
Work like this, on the local level, in conjunction with larger-scale actions like the recent ruling by the UNHCR, are capable of minimizing the way people everywhere are harmed by climate change. And in the pursuit of global climate justice, one thing is clear: In order to evade what is sure to be one of the most pressing humanitarian crises of the 21st century, we must work to ensure the safety and preservation of our most vulnerable communities, ranging from the concrete cultural hotspots of inland Miami, to the scorched bushlands and homes of Eastern Australia, to the few remaining fishermen that paddle slowly down the long, murky rivers carving, carefully, across the Sundarbans.
Luka Gawlinski Silva | firstname.lastname@example.org