On January 4th, 2018, The Guardian published a photo essay entitled “‘Boats Pass Over Where Our Land Was’: Climate Refugees in Bangladesh,” which showcases the destruction inflicted on Bangladeshi farmers and their families after weeks of monsoon floods. Although the monsoon season comes every year, no one had ever seen such dramatic damage. Rice fields flooded and wells became contaminated, forcing rice farmer Saber Saladas and his family, along with countless others, to move away from everything they had and knew. In response to the tragedy, Saber, “sitting in a makeshift shelter on the side of a road,” bluntly stated, “‘God knows what will happen. We know the end is coming’” (Vidal).
This story itself is upsetting, but perhaps more distressing is the fact that in conducting my research, this photo story was the sole account I found. It is surprising no other publications document those affected as refugees without the express purpose of analyzing the legal jargon surrounding the term in relation to climate change. Every other source merely classifies them as displaced people or voluntary migrants. For clarification, the difference between a displaced person and a refugee relies solely upon whether or not their immigration was voluntary, with the former having made the decision to leave and the latter being forced. In our lifetime, we recognize forced migration due to extreme violence and bloody war as the most widely known component of immigration; however, today, the immigrant population, which has been growing exponentially, is primarily made up of people forced to migrate due to the rapidly changing global climate (International Displacement Monitoring Centre).
In this essay, I would like to focus on this lesser-known, but greater in number, group of people: the environmental refugees. The largest growing subset of the refugee population, environmental refugees are also the most commonly forgotten and, therefore, least cared for community of asylum-seekers (Hollenbach). The most significant inhibitor of their integration into societies of shelter or permanent refuge is the language—voluntary migrant, displaced person—by which the global population refers to them. In order to see significant policy change, lawmakers and politicians, academic journals and wide-reaching news outlets, along with the general public, must learn to edit their language surrounding this issue. Instead of “environmentally displaced person” and “voluntary environmental migrant,” use “environmental refugee” and acknowledge the full-scale suffering of these people. Only then will bodies of power afford those suffering the same rights and protections as refugees escaping violence.
On an ethical scale, governments have a moral obligation to help environmentally displaced peoples. Not only are many of them suffering from serious physical health conditions, but the mental and emotional toll of losing their homeland can be catastrophic. Take for example, “the findings across [multiple] studies” of child refugee mental health, which were found to “indicate a high prevalence of emotional and behavioural distress with the most frequent diagnostic categories being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety with sleep disorders, and depression” (Hamburger, et al.). These children living in camps and other unstable situations are suffering physically and mentally, and the citizens of hosting countries are rarely as welcoming as one would hope, often constructing social narratives that cast refugees in the role of the villain. As addressed in Forced Migration and Social Trauma : Interdisciplinary Perspectives From Psychoanalysis, Psychology, Sociology and Politics, much of the refusal to help environmental refugees—especially within Europe—can be traced to xenophobia, which can also severely damage the mental health of refugees. Such prejudices are often due to a “lack of contextualisation,” which “plays on people’s emotions, promoting fear” (qtd. in Hamburger, et al.) and causing disconnects between governments, care facilities, and other institutions that play key roles in the reintegration of refugees into society. While these facts are disconcerting and need to be addressed within the countries in which they occur, such situations have provided an easy way to deny refugees the help they deserve: turn the unfamiliar into the unwanted, and they are no longer your problem. However, in the case of environmental refugees, governments choosing this course of action are unintentionally harming their countries as well.
In addition to remedying the trauma inflicted upon environmental refugees, the issue of their relocation holds immense implications. Currently, international law does not have to recognize those who leave home due to long-term environmental changes on the principle that they each individually made a choice to leave and could have continued to live there regardless of a changing climate; therefore, they are known as environmentally displaced people or voluntary migrants. Expected to rise to nearly 250 million people by the year 2050, this population is the largest growing community in the world and has been relatively ignored since they began to multiply in 1970 (United Nations Environmental Programme 1). Today, there are a host of organizations seeking to inform the public about environmental refugees, but all have encountered significant difficulties because these so-called voluntary migrants “do not have a defined status as a group” (Norris). By refusing to provide these people with the refugee status that would dictate clear actions on behalf of both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government organizations, governments have left themselves no viable course of action with which to address the relocation of environmentally displaced people. Essentially, they have set themselves up for failure. This legal struggle is frustrating from the point of view of non-profits and smaller units of the United Nations who cannot provide enough aid without the support of national governments. Still, this “legal limbo” is most detrimental—potentially life-threatening—to those who have become nomads in the wake of environmental change (Norris).
In many ways, refusing to acknowledge environmentally displaced people as a refugee population is an easier solution than refusing to acknowledging them at all. In line with this school of thought, many people argue that because these people are not directly forced out of homes and off of lands, they are actually voluntary migrants and do not require the care given to Syrian refugees and other refugees fleeing violence. Currently, this is the most popular stance that policymakers take, as it is not contradicted by international laws and gives the appearance of active involvement as opposed to ignorance. In fact, the definition of refugee used within the United Nations is “someone either inside or outside their national borders fleeing persecution due to their affiliation with their social group — ethic, religious, political, etc.” (qtd. in Norris). As Norris continues in an article in InsideClimate News, “a person whose island is swallowed up by a rising sea has no rights under refugee law, in fact, they are considered “migrants,” meaning they are “voluntarily” leaving their country” (Norris). In a study published in the academic journal Geoforum, authors address the issue of said incorrect definition, writing:
the concept of “environmentally displaced persons (EDPs)” arose as an attempt to avoid the term refugee, which has emotional appeal, characterizing them as the people who are endangered by environmental and ecological disruptions. The upshot is that they end up being forcedly displaced from their territory (Berchin et al.).
Of course, the reality of the situation is that climate change affects everyone. Without addressing environmental refugees, politicians and lawmakers simply exacerbate the problem. Those who would rather push this issue down the line are refusing to think about the long-term health of the entire world population, not just that of refugees/migrants. In giving environmental refugees the rights they deserve, we will also be counteracting forces that threaten to continue to worsen climate change and negatively alter the world economy. Continuing to ignore this issue will cause international consequences, such as worldwide food and economic crises, which will grow with the environmental refugee population (Berchin et al.).
Though mislabeled, environmentally displaced people have not been altogether ignored; many solutions have been proposed over the last several years. A plentiful number of NGOs like The Zero Platform, “a movement that advocates for the need for climate justice and for nations to welcome more environmentally displaced people,” are seeking to make lasting change (African Media Agency). Similarly, InsideClimate News has laid out a list of actions that people can take in their daily lives to promote the integration of environmentally displaced people in the refugee community. Still, regardless of how many individuals want to see favorable change for those who have been/are being environmentally displaced, international law thwarts all large-scale solutions. On the surface, this may not seem to present a total halt in progress, but, as supported in the article “Climate change and forced migrations: An effort towards recognizing climate refugees,” the only viable solution will come in the form of “the recognition of the climate change refugee concept,” which “could lead to the construction of a proper protection regime, regulating them with clear and specific measures. In this regard, the legal acceptance of climate refugees is undeniably vital” (Berchins et al.). Also noted in this article, “the word refugee provides an emotional sensitivity and openness to the public, whereas the word ‘migrant’ has an adverse implication” (Berchins et al.). The most powerful and attainable change we can make comes in the form of our language. ‘Rebranding’ these people as true refugees in the public sphere would give them back some of the humanity and rights that have been stripped from them (Hollenbach). Even international law is law dictated by social thought and trauma (Hamburger, et al.). All ordinary citizens really have to do is to start speaking in more emotional terms; eventually, so will the media and the politicians and lawmakers; that is when policies will change.
Undoubtedly, language is a remarkably powerful tool, which rivals the physical actions of humankind on both individual and governmental scales. By wielding our words in an effective manner, we mold the world around us in a much more permanent way than tanks and guns ever can. Our language can create or raze nationalities and, in this case, condemn or save millions. By calling environmental refugees displaced people, we are failing to acknowledge the significance, and sometimes permanence, of their plight. By correctly deeming them a refugee population, we have the power to better understand the severity of their situation and the vast need in which they find themselves. Once we have corrected our use of relevant and irrelevant terms, it will be easier to communicate nationally, internationally, between NGOs, and on an individual level. The next step will involve developing an action plan to integrate the forced environmental migrants into programs already set up to help refugees. Ironically, the primary problem does not exist within our systems of asylum, only within our language. Morally and ethically, international law has a responsibility to every person on this planet, the rich and the poor, the homed and the homeless. The people that I have spent the last six pages discussing are just as deserving of justice and security as you and I. At the very least, they deserve an identity worthy of their situation.
“A Fight for Our Future – Youth, Climate Justice and Environmentally Displaced People.” UN Environment, 2019. www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/fight-our-future-youth-climate-justice-and-environmentally-displaced-people.
Berchin, Issa Ibrahim, et al. “Critical Review: Climate Change and Forced
Migrations: An Effort towards Recognizing Climate Refugees.” Geoforum, vol. 84, Aug. 2017, pp. 147–150. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.06.022.
“Global Report on Internal Displacement.” 2017 Global Report on Internal Displacement, International Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2017, www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017.
Hamburger, Andreas, et al. Forced Migration and Social Trauma : Interdisciplinary Perspectives From Psychoanalysis, Psychology, Sociology and Politics. London: Routledge, 2019.
Hollenbach, David, and Boston College. Driven From Home : Protecting the Rights of Forced Migrants. Georgetown University Press, 2010.
Norris, Wade. “Environmental Refugees and the Definitions of Justice.” InsideClimate News, 9 Oct. 2010, insideclimatenews.org/news/20091009/environmental-refugees-and-definitions-justice.
Vidal, John. “’Boats Pass over Where Our Land Was’: Climate Refugees in Bangladesh.” The Guardian, 4 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jan/04/bangladesh-climate-refugees-john-vidal-photo-essay.