The invisible refugee

The term ‘refugee” isn’t one governments want to talk about in the context of climate change: they may be asked to open their borders to people forced to flee because of rising sea levels or extreme weather.

Ed Miliband, the British secretary of state for energy and climate change, sidestepped the issue during a climate change briefing with South African editors in Johannesburg, saying: ‘The best thing we can do is prevent climate refugees happening. ‘I really think the prospect of a world with hundreds of millions of climate refugees is pretty bad,” he said. ‘It’s important that we take the action that is necessary to prevent that happening, for the sake of the refugees more than anything.”

But Miliband didn’t say the United Kingdom would accept climate refugees: ‘I think that the issue points to the urgency of acting on the overall situation.” Well, yes.

The International Organisation for Migration predicts that about 200-million people may be looking for somewhere new to live as climate change amplifies existing causes of migration, such as environmental stress and conflict over resources, by 2050.

Greenpeace puts forward a much bigger number: by the middle of this century, one in nine people will be forced to migrate because of climate change.

A small state such as the Maldives, with its 300 000 people living across a series of islands barely above sea level, is already expecting inundation by a 1m rise in sea level projected by the end of this century.

Rising sea levels would also flood vulnerable deltas, including the Nile (home to 10-million people), the Mekong (with more than 14-million people) and the Ganges (where nine million people will likely be affected).

Environmental change is expected to trigger large-scale migration in the Sahel, which faces a future of water shortages and drought.

Downstream of the Himalayan glaciers, about 1.4-billion people in Asia face hunger as runoff disappears along with the glaciers.

As much of the pollution driving climate change has come from the developed world, such countries may well be asked to take responsibility for these climate refugees.

But will they?

Later this month signatories of the Kyoto Protocol meet in Thailand in the penultimate effort to streamline the lengthy text that states may sign into life in Denmark in December.

The Copenhagen talks should replace the Kyoto agreement. But there’s debate about whether the term ‘refugee” will be in the next-generation agreement at all.

Some prefer the phrase ‘environmental migrant” — migrants don’t require as much legal protection as refugees, it seems.

Leonie Joubert’s new book, Invaded: The Biological Invasion of South Africa, was launched last month.

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