Stripped away from the country they call home due to war, religious discrimination, or political persecution, refugees in the past have been the primary victims of an inevitable bane of mankind: conflicting interests. During World War II, for example, millions of German Jews had to seek refuge in nations such as the US because of the pervasive notions of Aryan supremacy. Even today, thousands of Syrians are being displaced because of divisions between secular and Islamist combatants. However, there is a new type of refugee that defies this characterization: environmental refugees.
Since the 21st century, global sea levels have been rising at an accelerated rate due to the warming of the Earth and the melting of the polar glaciers, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In fact, the NOAA reports that the world has seen a 1.2-inch rise in sea levels per decade since 1992, twice as much as that of 1900. The consequent increase in rates of flooding, shoreline erosion, and storms has posed a noticeable threat to islands and cities located near shores, according to the UN Atlas of the Oceans.
Bangladesh, for instance, expects hotter temperatures as well as an increased intensity of cyclones and floods in the next few decades, which will have direct impacts on the nation’s food production, infrastructure, and livelihoods, according to the World Bank Group. The source further reveals that 20 to 30 years from now, shifting rain patterns could leave some areas submerged and others without enough water for power generation, irrigation, or drinking. Anticipating these consequences, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have already fled the nation in search of safer and more stable futures.
Unfortunately, this new concept of environmental refugees is not only scarcely known to the public, but its legitimacy is also denied by the global community, as categorizing the people displaced by climate change as refugees would require a revision of official definitions and parameters set forth by the United Nations. Thus, recognizing the legal status of environmental refugees is the first crucial step in helping the victims, as it can encourage other countries to welcome these refugees more willingly.
Just as important as recognizing the legal status of these fleeting individuals is assisting them in adjusting and sustaining themselves in their new environments. Kiribati, an island in the central Pacific Ocean predicted to sink within 60 years, has led by example in preparing its citizens for the future. According to the Washington Post, its “Migration with Dignity” program trains Kiribati’s residents as highly-skilled workers who would be better welcomed in other countries. Furthermore, the government purchased land in Fiji in 2014 in preparation for a mass migration into the area. While these actions do not address the root of the problem in rising sea levels, they are certainly measures that can reduce the burden of citizens at risk.
Perhaps the most important step in the long term is to stop thinking of this as merely an environmental problem. While the issue is intricately connected to environmental problems, the displacement of peoples is now clearly a human issue. We have caused the sea levels to rise. People are suffering from the ramifications of our actions.
History has proven that the human race is reactive and rarely proactive. Until an issue actually affects our daily lives, we tend to glean over the problem in hopes that it will never impact us. The wishing days are over with rising sea levels, with millions of people around the world already being displaced due to environmental disasters. Your city may be next: when will you start taking action?