UN summit to address a new category of refugees: People fleeing the effects of climate change

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This Monday, as Typhoon Hagupit was tearing through the Philippines, Lillian Galedo was anxiously monitoring the situation from her Oakland home. As the executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice, a Filipino-American civil rights and immigration group, she has always been involved and interested in all things Filipino. But Galedo says since last year's Super Typhoon Haiyan, which displaced an estimated 4 million people, her anxieties and advocacy points have expanded.

"We have been forced to connect the dots between advocating for changes in immigration policy and doing work to fight climate change," she told Fusion. "In the Philippines, you have millions of people who are in a state of constant dislocation, and that's especially true in the low-lying areas that are going to be constantly impacted by the rising water."


The impact of climate change on internal migration and immigration is an issue few countries have began to joust with in a comprehensive way, though it is expected to be addressed by some smaller nations during this week's 20th annual United Nations Climate Summit in Lima, Peru. According to the Organization of International Migration, as many as 200 million people could be displaced by the effects of climate change by the year 2050, most of whom will come from the developing world, while wealthy countries tend to be the biggest carbon emitters.

The Philippines, and other countries that are comprised of low lying islands in the Pacific Ocean, are expected to be among the most affected.

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Some  island nations are taking a wholescale approach to impending climate-related crises: Preparing for a full-scale evacuation of their homelands.


The tiny nation of Kiribati has already begun training traditional subsistence farmers in fields like medicine and mechanics, so that they will be accepted by other countries as skilled workers. Separately, the government purchased 6,000 acres of land on the island of Fiji to relocate its people.

"The president of Fiji offered on behalf of his people that they would be willing to accommodate our people, if necessary," Kiribati President Anote Tong recently told the Washington Post. With all of its land resting at seven feet above sea level or below, some scientific models predict the nation could be all but submerged underwater by century's end.


But Fiji's kindness for Kiribati's refugees is not usual, nor is it protected by international standards.

While the term "climate refugee" has entered the lexicon, the United Nation's Convention for Refugees does not recognize those who are fleeing climate-related disasters— meaning that there is limited legal protection for them on the international level.


For their part, Filipino activists in the U.S. have begun to address the issue by asking the Department of Homeland Security to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to undocumented Filipinos currently living in the U.S. — estimated to number around 200,000 to 300,000 persons.

The call for TPS protection began just after last year's Super Typhoon Haiyan, and it even garnered a show of bipartisan support after both houses of Congress drafted letters asking for relief. A House bill was drafted that would have granted the status. The Philippines government also made the request to Washington, but the relief has not been enacted.


Recently, President Obama gave TPS protection to nationals of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Obama granted the status to Haitian nationals.

"Filipinos would be able to get work permits in order to help with rebuilding efforts," Galedo said of the effort. "Still, even while you are working to rebuild somewhere, another massive typhoon comes through. The temporary protection doesn't fix the long-term issue and it doesn't fix the underlying problems behind climate change, but it helps."

The Los Laureles dam, which supplies potable water to inhabitants of Honduras capital Tegucigalpa, is at a critically low level due to the Central American drought. Photo by Getty Images

Parallel to this year's increase of Central American minors entering the U.S. unaccompanied without their parents, several of the nations they were fleeing were suffering from a historic drought that causes the governments to declare a state of emergency, as Fusion reported in August.


"If the drought is not over in two months, there will be famine and people will leave for the U.S.," Guatemalan agricultural engineer Bayron Medina, of the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Cooperation, said at the time.

“There are 1 million Guatemalans already living in the United States, so everyone has a cousin or family member there,” Medina added. “Here in the countryside there’s no food, and in Guatemala City there’s the problem of gangs. So the only option left is to migrate to the U.S.”


In southern Mexico, years of drought is one of the main reasons that an estimated 120,000 people in the state of Oaxaca have had to leave their dry land for the U.S. in the last few years, says Leoncio Vasquez, executive director of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, based in Fresno, California.

"Really, it's 100 percent because of poverty, but a lot of that poverty is coming because of the drought. If you can't farm you can't eat, and people start doing other things like cutting down trees for wood to sell. And then that starts a downward spiral where things just keep getting worse," he told Fusion. "All these people — people like me — all we want to do is to make a living for ourselves, but it gets to the point that it's impossible and you have to pick up and leave."


Mari Rose Taruc, board chair for the Filipino-American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity, says that Americans and the international community have yet to have a meaningful conversation about how to handle refugees of climate change.

“We need to talk about who is responsible for these storms and these disasters to not only mitigate their behavior, but also to talk about how they can help us adapt when islands are disappearing and crops stop growing,” she told Fusion.


Taruc points to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ study on which countries are the top carbon emitters, noting the top slots are held by some of the world’s richest nations, while poorer countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh are among the first to feel the real effects of climate change.

“I fear the situation where rich countries are trying to keep the poor countries out, like the images we saw in the U.S. when the undocumented children were coming across the border earlier this year. You would see grown adults saying hateful things about these poor children who have nowhere to go,” she said. “So I’m glad that this disparity is being brought up in the UN summit."


The first such victory during the summit came on Wednesday, when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot announced that his country would give $165 million toward the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund, which largely helps countries in the Indo-Pacific region prepare for the realities of climate change. Previously, he had made comments suggesting Australia would not be donating to the fund.

"There needs to be some long-term protection for people like us," Vasquez of Oaxaca said. "Because if we get sent back, for a lot of us it is a death sentence."


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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