Let’s talk about climate displacement and refugee protection

In this episode of ‘Climate Course Correction’, Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugee, talks to Smitha Verma about how climate displacement is a human rights issue that can’t be overlooked anymore. With extensive global experience in refugee protection and resettlement, her research on climate, conflict and displacement in the Lake Chad Basin in Africa’s Sahel was presented as evidence of loss and damage at COP 26 in Glasgow.  Edited excerpts from the interview… 

Are we prepared for handling climate refugees?

The alarming lack of protections aren’t just in the legal gaps, which is to say that the Geneva Convention, 1951 Refugee Convention does not protect somebody for leaving their country for reasons that are clearly climate driven. Even in conflict scenarios it’s not uncommon for people to be displaced and to forcibly migrate for various reasons. There are intersecting vulnerabilities that force people to leave their home. So migration can be a form of adaptation. The problem is, we have on the other side countries that are very intolerant of migrants or providing climate solutions that allow people the right to stay in their countries.

What about women’s rights, especially girls, who are pulled out of schools. Will they ever get back? Those women, are they able to get back into workforce? 

It’s really important for developed countries that are complicit, that are responsible for the fossil fuels, for the proliferation of them, for the climate injustice of all of this, to understand that this is a development setback. The billions of dollars that have been spent helping the global South, shore up its resilience and economic development in poverty eradication, we are losing some of those, we are losing the fight.

Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change in multiple ways. Scenarios exist like the further a family had to move to get to the sources of water, the further they got from the school. Now there was nobody to actually make sure that the child goes to school, because the mother was going to go get water, firewood resources to sustain the family, father had to fish or do farming and the children had to sustain livelihoods.

Then I’ve met migrants who are not in conflict scenarios, but are definitely displaced by climate change, tell me about having to forego their education because of things like desertification, because of extreme heat, because the teacher stopped coming to school, and that they weren’t actually able to even leave their homes, because the weather literally was an obstacle to even leaving your home.

When they move in search of work, the women are left behind, women don’t have opportunities. So these are the ways in which women and girls are deeply impacted by climate change. In disaster context, we have actual data that tells us women and girls are 80 percent more at risk to climate displacement and climate disasters than any other population in the world.

So how can the developed world ensure that a safe space is provided to these refugees? What are the action points that you would suggest?

I think developed countries think that the only context in which they need to provide protection for people is for those fleeing a conflict and even in that a conflict that’s fully recognised. You need to understand that people aren’t coming to your country because they’re in search of a job, and that they’re trying to take resources away from you. They’re actually coming to your country because of a situation that they would rather not come to your country for. They’re actually coming in search of protection.

There’s certainly an appetite for border security all around the world, no country is not guilty of this to be to be honest, and to be fair, and there’s a lot of xenophobia behind those policies. There’s a lot of racism and lot of anti-immigrant hostility that’s become a political wedge issue, all around the world. But unfortunately, the countries that are most complicit in creating the climate crisis are the ones that are at the forefront of those policies. Leadership is what’s lacking here. The countries need to take some responsibility for creating the vulnerabilities that are forcing people to have to move.

Did Glasgow climate conference (CoP26) meet your expectations?

I wasn’t at CoP 26 because of how challenging it is for civil society to get to COP26. But my work was presented there.  I’d like to see frontline community speak for themselves. I am pleasantly both shocked and surprised at how much this topic has gained momentum. And I think that is indicative of the climate tipping points. I am encouraged by the fact that the people who are on the frontlines of this are speaking up with authority, with force, with credibility and with support from unanimous community.

What are your expectations from CoP27? 

I will be honest. I don’t anticipate a lot of movement on climate migration, on displacement, on refugees. And in some fairness, this isn’t exactly the forum for it. 

The loss and damages is by far the most important contribution that I can make, that my work can make. Because forced displacement, forced migration is a consequence of loss and damage. Loss and damage is just a sanitised way of saying human rights losses. 

My job is to document what are those human rights losses that people in the frontline communities are experiencing. The conversations have been going on for some time now. I just hope that when the next international conference on this happens, we are a step ahead of what we discussed last year on climate refugees.

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