Climate Refugees facing Crisis of Asylum


Is Canada prepared for climate refugees?

by DANIEL TSEGHAY on DEC 23, 2013

Some estimates say the rising sea level will displace 30 to 50 million Bangladeshis by 2050.

THE WINDS, AT more than 150 kilometres per hour, flattened almost all the homes, leaving bodies washed as far as 90 kilometres from the coast. Rice fields were destroyed, thousands died, many more were displaced, and, ever since, the soil has been saturated with salt.

“The tsunami that devastated the region in 1988 was the trigger,’’ Donatien Garnier wrote in 2010’s Climate Refugees about the disaster that struck southwestern Bangladesh 25 years ago. “Salt contamination has been increasing since that time due to rising sea levels and reduced river flow during the dry season.…With saltwater penetrating further inland and deeper into the groundwater, global warming is gradually poisoning the population and destroying rice farming and jobs.’’

In Munshiganj, a 12-hour bus ride from the capital, Dhaka, people now take a boat across a river to drink uncontaminated water. Shrimp farms, employing few people, replace robust crops. People increasingly turn to fishing and hunting to survive, putting pressure on the stock of shrimp and fish hatchlings. This, in turn, drives others into the Sundarbans, a massive mangrove forest pressed against the Bay of Bengal and lying across both Bangladesh and India. The overexploitation of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is, consequently, having an impact on the biodiversity upon which thousands, directly or not, depend.

Among other drivers, the reality of a changing environment triggered by climate change is putting people in Bangladesh on the move. “In Bangladesh, the estimate is that 30 to 50 million people will be displaced by rising sea level by 2050,’’ Mohammad Zaman, the executive director of the Vancouver-based Society for Bangladesh Climate Justice (SBCJ), says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.

“The crisis has already started,’’ the social-sector specialist continues, pointing out that people are being displaced every day. On October 24, Zaman—who works as a consultant for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank—and his organization held an event at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues to address the issue facing Bangladesh, situating it within the global phenomenon of climate migration.

Extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan, the global reduction of fish stocks and staples such as rice and wheat, rocketing food prices that trigger unrest and social instability, disputes over dwindling water reserves—all these developments are putting pressure on people to migrate.

“If you’re looking 50 years from now, that’s when the real impacts of sea-level rise start to manifest,’’ Robert McLeman, professor of geography at Wilfrid Laurier University, says during a phone interview with the Straight. “That’s when food supplies start to become under threat because of all these changes we’re making to climate systems.’’

McLeman is the author of the just-published Climate and Human Migration: Past Experiences, Future Challenges (Cambridge University Press). “We’ll get these large populations in places like Vietnam, coastal China, and Bangladesh, where you’d have tens of millions of people living within a few metres of sea level, and that’s where we’ll see very large-scale displacement.’’

People in Canada are also being displaced because of climate change. ‘‘In the North, we’ve seen erosion of coastal shorelines because of decreasing sea ice—which is a natural protector for shorelines against erosion by waves,’’ says Cheryl Schreader, a Capilano University geography professor, in a phone interview. “People in Tuktoyaktuk were talking about having to relocate part of their town because they’re located right on the coast. They were talking about having to move their spiritual sites and their graveyards because of these changes.’’

Exactly how many people will migrate globally is difficult to conclude in light of the many factors to consider. A 2009 report by the International Organization for Migration estimates that there will be between 200 million and 1 billion migrants due to climate change by 2050.

How such migrants will be received is even more difficult to conclude—but there are some telling signs.

“Bangladesh is bordered with Burma and India, and many displaced people have moved across these borders. In response, India has developed a long fence along Bangladesh to stop migrants,’’ the SBCJ’s Zaman says about the 2.5-metre-high structure—called the “wall of death’’ by locals—along the length of India’s 3,000-kilometre border with Bangladesh.

In 2011, the signatories to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees failed to tackle the reality of climate migration, and Canada neglected to sign up for the 2012 Nansen Initiative (launched by Norway and Switzerland), which is set to publish a report in 2015 providing recommendations on the issue.

“There are these countries in the West which aren’t really doing anything in terms of international agreements,’’ Cap U’s Schreader says. ‘‘I don’t see Canada playing a lead role in the status of climate migrants.’’

Stephanie Gatto is the lead author of a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report to be published early next year titled Starting the Conversation—Preparing B.C. for Climate Migration: An Uncertain Climate for Migration and Settlement. “With respect to climate migration, our current immigration and refugee policies and practices are not designed to accommodate the role of climate change and its impact on migration,’’ Gatto says.

“There are categories of refugees that are denied coverage for vision care, dental care, and prescription drugs,’’ Gatto notes. “Some of these people are fleeing exceptionally awful circumstances only to come to a country that won’t afford them coverage for the most basic needs. It’s a reflection of how our society’s prepared to treat the most vulnerable.’’

In 2010, the Canadian government passed the Preventing Human Smugglers From Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act, dramatically changing our asylum system and establishing the practice of indefinite detentions of migrants. In the past year, almost 10,000 people have been put in administrative detention while the state considers their case. The average length of their stay is 25 days, but some are detained for years.

As of November 8 of this year, 585 people who had unsuccessfully applied for refugee status, or who did not have documentation, were being held in Canadian immigration cells. Sixty of them had been languishing for more than a year in a country that is one of the few western states to impose indefinite detentions on migrants.

In Maple Ridge, at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, asylum seekers are settled among criminals. They wear prison uniforms, and because guards in our province’s prisons don’t know the immigration status of detainees—and B.C. Corrections won’t differentiate between asylum seekers, other migrants, and various detainees—correctional authorities can’t say what proportion of inmates are seeking asylum.

In August 2010, when 492 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers reached B.C.’s shores on the MV Sun Sea, a Thai cargo ship, they were, Gatto says, “generalized as potential terrorists’’ and queue jumpers.

Sara Kendall, a Vancouver community organizer involved with the Mining Justice Alliance, says the Tamils were treated accordingly. “All 492 of them were put in jail immediately, and they were fleeing one of the most violent situations on the planet,’’ Kendall tells the Straight by phone.

All 380 men—teenagers among them—were detained at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre. The women without children were held at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women; those with children ended up at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre.

“In terms of seeing how it might get worse, I feel like it’s already bad enough,’’ Kendall says about the treatment of migrants in Canada. “Jailing refugees, criminalizing them, using [them for] our entertainment…on national television—it’s already at that place where we should really be ringing alarm bells.

“It is very conscious,’’ she says of the effort to depict migrants as taking advantage of Canada, which justifies their criminalization and plays a role in feeding them into the temporary-foreign-worker stream rather than the immigration process. “So what I’m seeing as a white Canadian,’’ Kendall says, “is that brown people from all over the world—or Eastern Europeans who are also racialized ‘others’—are unwelcome, with increasingly stricter policies to enforce it, except as cheap labour.’’

Exploring the reasons why some countries might be on this path, U.S. investigative journalist Christian Parenti’s 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, makes the case that certain elements in society use the spectre of an influx of migrants to frighten the citizenry. (The Harper government, for instance, helped create, and then capitalized on, the anti-migrant sentiments swelling after the arrival of the Tamil asylum seekers in order to pass the “antismuggling’’ legislation being used to detain people today.)

“[T]he drift toward authoritarianism,’’ Parenti wrote, “has so far been driven less by genuine emergencies and more by the crass political theater of posturing candidates and elected officials.

“Immigrants are the canaries in the political coal mine, and immigration is the vehicle by which the logic of the ‘state of emergency’ is smuggled into everyday life, law, and politics.’’

Greek journalist and poet Constantine P. Cavafy’s 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians’’ echoes this theme of powerful interests disingenuously constructing foreign threats for the purpose of social control and exploitation. The poem depicts a public square with an emperor anxiously awaiting the supposed arrival of barbarians near the main gate, the senators preparing to finally legislate, and consuls wearing “rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds’’.

Nearby, after the travellers fail to appear, one citizen recognizes the meaning of this spectacle.

“They were, those people,’’ the citizen says of the barbarians, “a kind of solution.’’


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