By Kate Goldstone
There’s a lot of cruel nonsense talked about refugees. Some people think refugees only leave their home countries because of greed, because they’re simply economic migrants, because they want to tap into another country’s social security system or take other people’s jobs. But when you put yourself in their shoes, life as a refugee looks very different.
Maybe you escaped from war or rape, murder, starvation, dictatorship, terrorism, or violence. Maybe you’re making a life-or-death journey to give your children a better life. And just maybe you’ve had to flee your home country because of climate change. It’s happening.
OK, so climate change refugees are, so far, quite rare. But as the climate steadily warms and already-hot regions around the equator become too hot to support human life, we’re likely to see climate change refugees from all over the planet relocating to survive. How much sympathy will you feel for them? How welcome will you make them? It all depends how deeply you can imagine yourself in their shoes, how much you can empathise.
How it feels to leave your home country
You might not realise it until you leave, but everything about the place you were born and brought up is dear and familiar. Away from home you slowly realise that everything – absolutely every aspect – of the place you’ve moved to is baffling and strange. Not just the language, not just the way things are done. The food in the shops is puzzling and unfamiliar. The currency, the laws, the rules and regulations, the people, the clothing, the road signs, the cars, the sense of humour, nothing really makes sense any more. Even the air, the smells, the light, the way the evenings fall and the days begin, are different. You don’t even feel like you belong in your own skin any more.
You say the wrong things, in the wrong way, to the wrong people. You keep getting cultural stuff wrong, missing the mark, never feeling quite at home, or quite comfortable, or like you belong. You have no friends, no family, no support network. And, often, there’s nobody to help from a human perspective, from an emotional view point. Just cold-faced officials herding you through the system like cattle.
How would you feel if climate change forced you to leave your home, the things you love, everything you recognise and feel safe with? Can you imagine how distressing, terrifying and unsettling it’d feel? Would you be able to sleep at night? Would you wake every morning with feelings of sadness, of despair, of desperate loss?
Do you think it’s fair to lump your fellow humans into one big, unhappy, suffering category, simply anonymous members of a ‘refugee crisis’? This is how refugees are often treated whatever their origin, age, race or gender. Even though many governments and politicians are hell-bent on dehumanising them, refugees are exactly like you and me.
How many climate change refugees can we expect to see?
What’s the climate change-led refugee crisis looking like so far? Take Bangladesh. Most of Bangladesh lies just above sea level. The rainy season sees as much as a fifth of the entire nation flooded, and it’s only going to get worse as sea levels rise. According to National Geographic, “Interviews with dozens of migrant families, scientists, urban planners, human rights advocates, and government officials across Bangladesh reveal that while the country is keenly aware of its vulnerability to climate change, not enough has been done to match the pace and scale of the resultant displacement and urbanization, toppling any prospect of a humane life for one of the world’s largest populations of climate migrants.”
As Refugees International says, “In 2018, a UN scientific panel released a major report warning that – absent immediate and ambitious action – climate change will have severe and irreversible impacts. This is especially true for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Among the report’s key findings are that higher temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and other effects of climate change will contribute to human displacement, migration, and conflict worldwide.”
At the same time the United Nations Refugee Agency says, “The Earth’s climate is changing at a rate that has exceeded most scientific forecasts. Some families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change, forced to leave their homes in search of a new beginning. For UNHCR, the consequences of climate change are enormous. Scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. Many crops and some livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security, already a concern, will become even more challenging.”
The World Economic Forum also expresses concern, saying, “A new study in Science finds that as crops fail in agricultural regions of the world, more people will seek asylum in Europe in the coming decades. If the current warming trends were to continue, the research predicts that by 2100 Europe will receive around 660,000 extra applicants each year. ”
Whatever the number of displaced people turns out to be, whichever regions of the world they escape from and flee to, there are eventually going to be millions of us leaving climate change-affected countries to find safer, better lives. You might be one of them. If you’re flooded out of your home, it’s impossible to grow food on your land any more, or climate change related violence is threatening your family, you might have to leave.
Would you expect compassion from your new country?
If it happens to you, you’ll expect your new country to treat you with kindness and respect. You’ll want the people to be welcoming, and the officials to help you settle down quickly. You’ll expect the right facilities and support at every stage. And you’ll be even more distressed, lost, and frightened if it didn’t happen.
A refugee isn’t a problem or an issue to solve. A refugee is a fellow human being in need. Far too many governments around the world already dehumanise refugees, painting them as a big problem, people we should be suspicious of, people we should protect ourselves against. And that’s not human. It’s a disgrace.