When we imagine refugees and asylum seekers dropping everything they know at home and risking their lives for a chance to live somewhere safe, there’s often an assumption that they’re escaping war or persecution. And historically, this has been the case. In recent years, for example, refugees have fled appalling conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and beyond.
But today, far more people are displaced by the climate crisis instead of conflict and violence. In 2020, a record 55 million people were forced to move due to droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires. Horrifyingly, this number underestimates the reality of the situation, because it only accounts for the internal displacement of people, as climate migration across countries is more difficult to quantify. The actual number of climate refugees is thought to be much higher.
Let’s be honest: if any of us lost our homes or jobs in the UK due to a natural disaster, we would immediately seek physical and financial security, whether that be from the government or people we know. Hell, just think of how many people wanted to “expatriate” post-Brexit.
As the climate crisis ramps up (especially across the Global South), and people’s homes and livelihoods get destroyed, climate migration will only increase. Yet as refugees are met with more and more hostility at borders across the world, these two injustices become uniquely intertwined. It’s time to wake up to the truth: climate justice is migrant justice – and migrant justice is climate justice.
How is climate justice connected to migrants?
Climate justice is migrant justice because if we solve the climate crisis, millions of people won’t be forced out or be displaced from their homes, existing without access to fundamental human rights.
The climate crisis is also an issue of capitalism and colonialism. In the past several hundred years, people from the Global North have extracted natural resources from lands in the Global South. Consequently, developing countries in the Global South have been left unequipped to deal with the reality of the climate crisis today, leaving them to push for “climate reparations”. As Yvonne Blake, co-founder of the Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment charity, writes in Huck magazine, “The climate crisis is predicated on inequality and unequal access of resources for Indigenous Black and brown communities – coupled with the extraction, depletion and monetisation of our people, culture, lands and future.”
Conflicts over natural resources also cause wars – just look at how many have supposedly erupted over things like oil and water. As freshwater resources across the planet dry up, soil becomes infertile, trees get chopped down and natural fuel sources run out, and as a result, tension will only build. In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme suggests that 40 per cent of all intrastate conflicts in the last 60 years have been linked to a fight over natural resources. This specific link doubles the risk of “conflict relapse” in the first five years. Wars, of course, don’t only displace people. They kill.
Why will fighting for migrant justice help the climate crisis?
Migrant justice, which seeks to remove barriers that stop people from moving safely and living in dignity, is crucial in lifting the burden of the climate crisis. If we let the climate crisis escalate further, some countries will simply become uninhabitable, which means mass climate migration is not out of the picture.
Rather than imposing draconian laws that punish those seeking the chance for a better life, there must be an acceptance that habitable land will have to be shared as the environment degrades further. During a climate crisis, harsh border policies only serve to kill – as they already do.
So how do we solve both problems?
The thing with linked injustices is that when you tackle one, you’re simultaneously tackling the other.
So if we fight the climate crisis, fewer people will be forced to flee their homes and fewer wars will be triggered by competition for resources.
And in the fight for migrant justice, we’re also fighting for the idea that people, no matter where they are on the globe, deserve human rights and to live in dignity.
But most importantly, erasing harsh borders (and even borders altogether) will make the planet our shared home – one that we all have a responsibility to look after, instead of destroying.