by Kellon Bubb
Staggering data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre indicated that a record seven million people were displaced from their homes and home countries during the first six months of 2019.
One can extrapolate that this number will rise, given the intensity of climate-induced natural disasters that have affected and will continue to affect vulnerable climate hotspots around the world. Seventeen years ago, government leaders from 16 Pacific island nations were some of the first developing countries in the world to sound the alarm about the growing prospect of climate refugees. The Island of Tuvalu has become emblematic of the problem of climate refugees, as contingency plans have been put in place to relocate its population to Australia and New Zealand if sea-level rise was to become an existential threat to the island archipelago.
The dangers of climate change faced by the citizens of Tuvalu as a result of sea-level rise is no longer a distant reality in the South Pacific. The Caribbean region confronts the prospect of displacement and mass migration as a result of a planet that has warmed with hurricanes and storms becoming more frequent and more intense. For the first time since the island of Barbuda was inhabited by the Ciboney and Arawak natives in the year 35 AD, its entire population was forced to evacuate in September 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Irma. The evacuation of Barbuda was a first for the modern English-speaking Caribbean, but not an anomaly for small island states. Temporary displacement of islanders following the passage of major hurricanes has become a common feature of migration in this era. Scores of Grenadians temporarily relocated to other Caribbean islands following the passage of Hurricane Ivan. Some also chose to emigrate permanently. Thousands of Puerto Ricans also fled to Miami and New York following Hurricane Irma. Permanent mass displacement has become the norm for Haitians, whose country has been ranked by the World Risk Index as the most vulnerable country in Latin America and the Caribbean to climate change.
While “global North” media narrative frames Haitian mass migration as one which is the result of political and economic instability, data suggests that a significant reason for unchecked and informal immigration from Haiti is climate change. The earthquake of 2004 also helped to drive this number up in the last decade. In 2019, Haitians are therefore one of the most displaced people in the Western Hemisphere, with communities of Haitians temporarily living in diverse places such as in Tijuana at the US Mexican border, and Chile in South America.
The consequences of this contemporary mass migration across Caribbean and Latin American borders were also laid bare after the recent passage of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. This catastrophic category five hurricane ravaged the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco for a painstaking six to 22 hours, and the official government death toll following the hurricane lists 50 people as being deceased, with 1,300 listed as missing. Of the 1,300 that are listed as missing, many activist groups such as the Family Action Network in Miami are suggesting that they are mostly Haitian migrants who lived in the impoverished communities of “Mudd” and “Pigeon”. Before Hurricane Dorian struck the island, the government issued ominous warnings for people to evacuate these high- risk areas, but many refused to do so. It is therefore not far-fetched to conclude that some of those who chose death over life was, in fact, Haitian migrants in these communities who are now feared dead.
The prospect of climate refugees in the Caribbean also exposes long-standing tensions and prejudices that some Bahamians have harboured against Haitians for decades since the first wave of Haitian immigration to these islands in the 1970s. One can argue that the anti-immigrant sentiment in the Bahamas against other Caribbean immigrants rivals the rhetoric used by Donald Trump in the United States, and those who favour Brexit in the United Kingdom. More economically affluent Caribbean islands including the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados would be natural targets for climate-induced migration from poorer countries such as Haiti with dense populations living on the margins.
Mass immigration as a result of climate change has become an inevitable reality and one which Caribbean governments must address as an urgent matter. The policy framework on climate-induced migration should take into consideration a Caricom-wide approach for addressing the immigration status of climate displaced migrants in The Bahamas and other Caribbean islands. An even more critical issue that small island states need to address as a broader geopolitical matter is that of actively lobbying the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to amend the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees to include international immigrant protections for this class of migrants.
Currently, the convention defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.
International Law, therefore, does not legally recognise refugees who have been displaced as a result of climate change.
While many proposals have been advanced to ameliorate the conditions of climate-displaced migrants, a lot of these proposals such as the Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement and the Nansen Initiative only addressed internally displaced people, and does not speak to the dire conditions of forced cross border migration as a result of climate change.
Caribbean policymakers must acknowledge that this is a blind spot in their climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. We cannot pretend that our sun-kissed, pristine islands will be livable human habitats for successive generations, given the intensity of warming that our planet is currently experiencing. We are also not in a position to depend on the fossilised global North to come to our rescue, as their irresponsible exploitation of fossil fuels coupled with their blatant disregard for fragile ecosystems create an environment for an unsustainable future to begin with. We live in an era of intense ethnonationalism and right-wing insurgency in which the immigrant from the developing world is viewed as a threat to the national security of the global North. Brexit, MAGA, and other racially motivated political movements pits the “haves” against the “have-nots”. As a result, the Caribbean and other economic “have nots” in the developing world will be forced to stand on its own, defying the “no man is an island” mantra conceptualized by John Donne in 1624.
Climate-induced migration and the legal status of climate migrants is no longer an abstraction. It is happening and the time has come for this to be given serious and urgent consideration as an international security issue. A band-aid cannot heal this one as it will fester out of control sooner rather than later with dire geopolitical consequences for everyone involved.
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