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Climate refugees must be given international legal refugee status.

Climate refugees must be given international legal refugee status.

Millions of terrified, traumatized people have no place to go and no legal recourse. The United Nations must recognize climate refugees, most of whom are from the Global South, as legal refugees. The 28th Council of the Parties (COP28) with its agenda to put “…people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action…” is an opportunity to legitimize climate refugees. 

 According to the United States UN Refugee Agency definition, “Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their homes and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.”  The 1951 Refugee Convention states: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” But the overarching purpose of this international law is to protect those who are unsafe and face real and inescapable danger. It prohibits refoulement by protecting refugees from being returned to their country where they face serious threats to their life. It also outlines the right to housing, work, and education to live a “dignified and independent life”. Refugees are defined and protected by international law and the law needs to be updated to include the world’s most vulnerable populations in the face of climate change. 

Refugee numbers are rising exponentially and will continue as climate displacement outpaces all other migration. Millions attempt to migrate annually, risking their lives in hope of safety. Thousands don’t make it, some die, others are killed. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service: “Since 2008, over 376 million people have been displaced as a result of climate disasters.” The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates 1.2 billion people will be displaced in the next 30 years by climate change as the planet warms about 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. At greatest risk for climate disruption are countries who have contributed least to global warming- the Global South and islanders. “Sea level rise alone threatens over 267 million living in coastal lands below 2 meters or less above mean sea level and 35 million living at and below mean sea level.”  Dozens of island nations will be lost. Populations of the Global South already marginalized, with fewer resources to cope with and respond to these disasters, suffer the consequences. The current scale and devastation of climate impact- drought, famine, floods, and irreversible desertification are unprecedented. 

Refusing to legalize climate migration for the world’s at-risk populations not only reinforces neocolonialism, it fails to factor in the Global North’s 92% of all excess global emissions contributing to climate change and the resulting climate displacement. Yet the United Nations has not acknowledge climate refugees. The UN must not only afford climate refugees legal status, but it must also have meaningful oversight. Climate refugees arriving in new countries must be given assistance to facilitate their transition into a new culture and address mental health needs resulting from unimaginable trauma.

Limited resources and immigrant burden to local economies are the usual arguments against immigration, but there is little to no evidence that immigration displaces jobs or depresses wages, quite the opposite. As documented by and the American Immigration Council, in the US, immigrants launch new companies at twice the rate of native-born Americans and added 2 trillion to the GDP in 2016. In 2018, after spending billions on local, state, and federal taxes, they spent about 1.2 trillion on goods and services stimulating the economy. Migration isn’t only essential to those in imminent danger from climate and conflict, it’s essential for the economic and social survival of the Global North. Immigration promotes innovation and growth. An influx of labor, ideas, skills, and youth is essential to the demographic dilemma faced by the north. “Replacement”, the ability of a population to exactly replace itself from one generation to the next, fell as far back as the 1980s, and deaths are outnumbering births in the Global North. As detailed by the IMF, with a disproportionately growing aging population, without the influx of immigrants to offset these declines, elder care becomes nonexistent, labor markets are disrupted, pension systems cannot be sustained, and economic growth slows. 

Migration is not new; we and other species have been doing it for millennia, but we are facing a global crisis. The misconception that immigrants are a burden on economies has long been disproved-  “…migration generally improves economic growth and productivity in host countries.”  Given the aging population and declining fertility of the more affluent Global North, unhindered, safe, and legally supported migration of the world’s most vulnerable populations to safer areas is the key to our collective survival. COP28 must acknowledge climate refugees. We must petition the United Nations to grant climate refugees legal refugee status.

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