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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Climate Change and the End of Refugee Resettlement

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Some observers believe that one of the root causes for the war in Syria is climate change. Starting in the first decade of the current century, drought and warmer temperatures in Syria pushed about 1.5 million people to move from their farms into cities. This more volatile atmosphere helped lead to war.
Aquapalypse Now: Rising sea levels may create millions of new refugees

So one effect of climate change may be to increase competition for scarce resources. Increased competition = more wars = more refugees.

Another source of climate refugees is rising sea levels. As the water rises, certain areas and certain countries might become uninhabitable. People will have to be relocated. Many will be able to move within their own countries, but others will be forced to leave their homelands.


The potential for mass movements of people across national borders is very real, and some experts predict that the new flow of climate refugees will dwarf anything we’ve seen thus far. That’s a scary thought, and for those of us involved in refugee resettlement, it represents an existential challenge: If tens or hundreds of millions of people are on the move, how do we accommodate them?


And what about the current international legal regime? By definition, a refugee is a person who cannot return to his country owing to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. Many people fleeing Syria can meet this definition (some of our cases, for example, are shoe-horned in by presenting the claim as one based on imputed political opinion—even if they are not politically active, the Syrian government believes they are political opponents and that is enough for a grant). However, people who flee because their homes are flooded or because their crops have failed are not “refugees” as that term has been defined in international and U.S. domestic law. They are not being “persecuted” by anyone, except perhaps Mother Nature, but I don’t think that counts. So what do we do with them?


As we’ve seen with the exodus from the Middle East to Europe and, on a smaller scale, from Central America to the U.S., the mass movement of people creates many challenges—social, economic, political, and moral. There is also great resistance by many segments of the community to accepting large numbers of foreigners. If that is the case, what will become of the new climate refugees? Will they be confined to UN-supported camps in the countries of first arrival? Will they remain in such places indefinitely? What is the end game for people who can never return home? How will the world order be affected by millions of stateless refugees, who live without hope and who may become a destabilizing influence on the host countries?


Of course, I have no answers to any of these questions. Given the state of the problem today (over 59 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including about 19 million refugees) and the number of people who are annually resettled (about 626,000 were recognized as refugees or received some form of protection), I am not optimistic that we will accommodate millions more refugees in some dystopian (but probably not distant) future. One thing is true, if we see much larger numbers refugees in the world, we will have to deal with them in some way.


One solution is to close our doors and try to keep the problem as far away from home as possible. This is essentially the path favored by several main-steam restrictionists groups. Indeed, the Center for Immigration Studies (“CIS”) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (“FAIR”) both originated from concerns about immigration and the environment. The leading founder of these groups, John Tanton, viewed the mass movement of people as a threat to the environment, and favored restricting immigration as a way to protect the environment. It also happens that he was a bit of a white supremacist, but I suppose that is not particularly relevant to the environmental argument.


As you might guess, I am not a fan of the environmental argument (or the white supremacist argument, for that matter). People who move from poor countries to rich ones probably use more resources in their new homes than if they'd stayed put, but they also have a better quality of life and they generally enrich the societies they move into (in 2014, for example, immigrants made up 12.9% of the U.S. population, but started 28.5% of new businesses). I am not sure how to balance this with the environmental impact, but when you add in the fact that many people are fleeing persecution or environmental disaster, the balance for me tips in favor of protecting people by allowing more migration.


That said, I’m also not convinced that the U.S. and Western Europe can or should absorb millions of new refugees. There is a limit to how many people we can resettle and still maintain our social cohesion. I am not sure what that limit is, though it seems clear that we can do more than we are doing now. But the West cannot do it alone--if we see mass migrations due to climate change, the task of assisting and resettling people will need to be distributed across the globe.


As a father and an uncle (and a person who is generally rooting for the human race), I hope that the world's leaders will make genuine efforts to curb global warming. As someone concerned about refugees and migration, I hope that we will respond to climate refugees with compassion. Climate change is a great challenge to mankind. I hope that we can meet that challenge and retain our humanity.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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