Nowhere to Turn – Few Legal Paths for Migrants Fleeing War, Hunger and Climate Change

Even as climate change fuels a surge in global migration those seeking refuge have few legal options as governments worldwide move to tighten their borders.

Above: Women and children among Syrian refugees in Budapest, Hungary. Via Wikimedia

From the shores of Greece to the US southern border, across Turkey, North Africa and along the length of the America’s, the flow of humanity fleeing war, violence, poverty, and hunger is rising year-by-year.

And, experts say, government policies are exacerbating this growing humanitarian catastrophe even as climate change threatens to swell migrant numbers to new heights.

“People are seeking refuge,” says Susan Fratzke, Senior Policy Analyst with the Migration Policy Institute’s International Program, who notes migrant flows over the last decade have not only grown but have become more global in scale.

“People are not just moving to a country right across the border… or even one or two countries further on,” she explains. “People are seeking refuge, really, across the world.”

Last year alone, Europe took in nearly 1 million applications for asylum – from countries as removed as Syria and Afghanistan to Colombia and Venezuela – on top of the 4 million Ukrainians who have resettled within the bloc since Russia’s invasion one year ago.

Turkey is home to between 4 and 6 million migrants and refugees, in addition to being a major transit corridor for those seeking passage to Europe, while across Latin America some 7 million Venezuelans have spread across the continent, many of them settling in Colombia and Peru.

Due to prohibitive and outdated immigration and asylum policies, millions of people are forced to travel via dangerous routes and through countries illegally as they seek a better life, says Susan Fratzke, Senior Policy Analyst with Migration Policy Institute’s International Program.

Fratzke, who spoke during a panel discussion last week on the nexus of climate change and global migration flows, says the growing numbers belie the reality that for many seeking to flee conditions at home, the options to do so legally are few and far between.

“There is a lack of legal pathways for people to move globally,” she noted, explaining that most developed countries impose work and family restrictions on would-be migrants that favor skilled laborers and nuclear families, leaving those most vulnerable to the whims of smugglers and organized crime.

And that policy framework, she notes, is contributing to the scenes of chaos witnessed, for example, along the US southern border or in Greece, where authorities were found last week to be abandoning migrants at sea, in violation of international human rights law.

Climate change fueling migrant crisis

All of this comes as the World Meteorological Organization says that the next five years are likely to be the hottest on record as an El Niño pattern sets in, threatening more torrential downpours, prolonged and deadlier heat waves and more intense periods of drought and wildfires.

“This will have far-reaching repercussions for health, food security, water management and the environment,” warned Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the meteorological organization. “We need to be prepared.”

Amali Tower is the founder and executive director of the non-profit Climate Refugees. “There is absolutely no doubt that climate change is driving global displacement,” she said, noting that every year some 23 million people are displaced by climate and weather-related events. And while many of these people remain internally displaced within their home countries, anywhere from 80%-90% of cross-border refugees worldwide come from countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change.

Despite that fact, climate refugee is still not a recognized legal category under international law. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, individuals can seek asylum only based on persecution because of race, religion, membership in a particular group (eg sexual orientation), or political opinion.

Tower notes many cross-border asylum seekers are therefore often reluctant to cite climate as a driving reason for their claims, a reality she says led her to start her organization. “It was refugees themselves who were disclosing to me how much climate change and environmental degradation were a factor,” she said.

Amali Tower, Founder & Executive Director, Climate Refugees, says currently those fleeing climate crises cannot claim asylum in the United States. She details proposed U.S. legislation and U.N. policy changes that may expand asylum rules to include climate refugees.

Building a ‘climate fortress’

Andrew Rosenberg, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Florida and author of “Undesirable Immigrants: Why Racism Persists in International Migration,” says the response in the West to date has been to create what he termed a “climate fortress.”

Citing historical racism and a legacy of colonialism, Rosenberg says rising anti-migrant antipathy across much of the West is likely to grow as the number of migrants increase, providing fodder to “enterprising politicians” eager to ride a wave of populist resentment into power by promising to further tighten borders.

“Given the conditions of prejudice, inequality, and resentment in the Global North,” he speculated, “I think it’s unlikely that the West will have the political will to help.”

Instead, says Tower, many are investing in tightening their borders, spending as much as two-to-one on border enhancements over and above investments in climate finance that could otherwise help developing nations more effectively weather the damage wrought by climate change.

“You could say that border security is their climate policy,” she said.

That leaves much of the burden on the shoulders of poorer countries, which today host approximately 80% of the more than 100 million displaced peoples worldwide even as they contend with the growing impacts of climate change, which some have estimated to have cost upwards of $6 trillion to the global economy. Most of this, again, has fallen on low-income countries that have contributed the least to global warming.

Investing in resilience

Hossein Ayazi, Policy Analyst with the Global Justice Program at the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, shares responses to a survey on how climate and community resilience can be created in Africa and other formerly colonized nations.

For Hossein Ayazi, policy analyst with the Global Justice program at the University of California, Berkeley, this confluence of intertwined forces – what many have taken to calling the “polycrisis” – leads to several important questions, chief among them: how are Global South countries building resilience to the climate crisis?

Earlier this year, Ayazi and his colleagues published the results of a survey looking at how environmental and agricultural organizations across Africa are tackling this question. Many pointed to the emergence of localized economies built around sustainable food systems and a shift away from reliance on resource extraction – including fossil fuels – which has typically enriched wealthier countries at the cost of local ecosystems and the global climate.

“This means actually transforming the very conditions that force displacement itself,” said Ayazi, noting that support for such efforts by wealthier countries is “key to addressing both the climate crisis and to mitigating climate-induced migration.”