Outlaws

For people who flee violence and conflict and seek refuge across borders, pain and suffering does not necessarily end once their destination is reached. According to IRIN, as many as 46,000 Somali refugees are living in Kenya with an “unclear legal status.” (The Refugee Consortium of Kenya puts this number around 100,000.) For all intents and purposes, a refugee with an “unclear legal status” translates into “illegal”:

“Urban refugees live largely without material assistance or legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to police arrest at any time, and face high levels of xenophobia from the local population,” Okoro [from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said. “The challenges faced by urban refugees in Kenya falls within the broader issue of the ‘hidden’ urban humanitarian challenges.

“Confusion over the processing of legal status for urban refugees and fear of deportation is exposing more than 40,000 urban refugees to serious humanitarian challenges with significant protection issues,” she said. “Responding to protection issues for urban refugees is a challenge without a clearer and better plan for implementing legal status for urban refugees.”

“Illegal” refugees – as they are sometimes mistakenly called – cannot avail themselves of their legal rights as refugees, nor can they access educational or employment opportunities without risk of alerting the authorities. Another IRIN report from last week quotes the Kenyan commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration:

“The government has a duty to provide protection to refugees and this involves provision of shelter, food, health and medical care and education,” said Peter Kusimba, commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons. “These, however, are only provided to refugees with legal immigrant status or are mandated by the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to be in the camps.

“It would, however, be difficult to provide services to unregistered urban refugees because they wouldn’t come out for fear of arrest but we encourage them to come and apply for legal immigrant status so that they receive these services like everybody else,” he added.

Yes, I’m sure that the process of applying for legal immigrant status is simple, straight-forward and focused on protecting individuals…No wonder so many refugees linger in legal limbo.

Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change: Paradise Lost

Boy am I late in the game here…It’s not even *really* October 15th anymore, but hey. In any case, I’m really happy to contribute to Blog Action Day 09 (BAD09). If you haven’t heard of it, BAD09 is a great, simple initiative from our friends over at change.org. Basically, it’s “an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.” BAD organizers emphasize that the first and last purpose of BAD is to create a discussion – clearly, a blog post (or 10,000) can’t be the tipping point on an issue like climate change, which is not only broad and complex, but also divisive and polarizing. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I hope that this post will, at the very least, be thought provoking.

Few places in the world inspire awe like the beautiful atolls of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Their startling blue waters and white sandy beaches have inspired artists and attracted tourists since modern transportation has made these little pieces of paradise accessible. However, climate change has made these typically low-lying, coral protected islands atolls — such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or the Maldives — particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels, storm surges and the increased acidification of ocean waters, which contributes to the loss of coral reefs, are already threatening the livelihoods of these islands’ inhabitants. According to the Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

  • Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities
  • There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.

Studies from the University of Copenhagen (here and here) argue that island cultures have developed and refined coping mechanisms to handle variations in climate and habitat: storm surges, erosion and shifting sea levels are fundamental features of island life, and cultures have adapted to these realities. However, the current challenges posed by climate change patterns are so stark, that traditional coping strategies will likely not suffice:

Polynesian cultures on small islands in the Pacific have a long tradition for adapting to climate change and variability, as well as to changes in other factors, in order to maintain their culture and way of life. Current and future climate change constitutes, however, a qualitatively and quantitatively different set of challenges.

While there is still some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what the impact of current climate patterns will be on island atolls, there is a broad consensus that (i) these effects are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, a lot of it attributable to human activity and, (ii) that there is a strong chance that these islands will become unsuitable for people to live on. In fact, it is the very existence of island atolls that is at stake.

(Watch: Impact of Climate Change in the Pacific from Oxfam Australia on Vimeo.)

To draw attention to the threat faced by low-lying islands, the Maldives government will be holding an underwater cabinet meeting on October 17:

The president of the Maldives is desperate for the world to know how seriously his government takes the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to the survival of his country. He wants his ministers to know as well.

To this end, Mohamed Nasheed has organised an underwater cabinet meeting and told all his ministers to get in training for the sub-aqua session. Six metres beneath the surface, the ministers will ratify a treaty calling on other countries to cut greenhouse emissions.

pg-24-maldives-afp-_248191s
AFP/Getty

The Maldives, like other island atolls, may very well become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This raises a number of critical questions regarding the legal obligation of states to provide a territory to live on for its citizens. If entire island nations disappear, what then happens to its people, its culture? The Maldives government has been wrestling with this question, and is establising a sovereign wealth fund with revenues generated from tourism for the purchase of territory. President Nasheed said

Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.”We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.

In the Pacific, the Carteret Islands have become the poster child for the issue of climate related migration flows. The Carteret Islanders, a matrilineal community living on an island chain 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, have become the world’s first “climate refugees”. The government of Papua New Guinea has begun the evacuation, scheduled until 2020, of some 3,000 islanders.

While predictions vary as to the precise number of people around the world who will be forcibly displaced by climate related events, a commonly accepted figure is that an estimated 200-250 million people will have to migrate by 2050 as a result of climate change. According to Oxfam, 75 million of these people are living in poor islands and low-lying areas of the Pacific. And, as the evacuation of the Carteret Islands is a clear demonstration of, there is an urgent need to create legal safeguards for “climate refugees”.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 42 million displaced people in the world, 25 million of which are receiving assistance or protection from the agency. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which constitute a majority of the displaced (26 of 42 million) do not, in fact, fall under the mandate of the UNHCR de facto – the agency regroups certain IDPs, stateless persons and other special cases that do not fall under its strict, narrow mandate under the umbrella of “persons of concern.”

Migration and asylum-seeking due to climate change will likely be on the increase in the coming years, however, the UNHCR (or any other international organization, for that matter) does not have a mandate to protect or assist “climate refugees”. Legal and funding constraints mean that dealing with “climate refugees” will most likely not be a core UNHCR task.  Not only that, but there is currently a dearth of legislation (both international and national) that would guarantee the rights of people displaced by climate change. Rajesh Chhabara, writing for Climate Change Corp, explains:

Sources at UNHCR, who want to remain anonymous, add that UNHCR is not equipped or designed to handle hundreds of millions of refugees from climate change. It already finds its resources stressed in handling the 14.3 million political refugees in the world.

Clarifying UNHCR’s position, Yoichiro Tsuchida, UNHCR Senior Advisor on Climate Change, explains that the case for environment refugees is too complicated and disparate to fit within the current refugee framework. Justifying international migration due to natural disasters is difficult, as is the task of attributing environmental phenomena directly to climate change. “While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law,” she says.

Tsuchida claims that “the broader international human rights regime” should serve as the basis for guiding the responsibility of states towards people who are in need of international protection but who do not qualify for refugee status.

Elements of a response are being developed – Australia and New Zealand, whose small neighbors are sinking, are beginning to shape policy responses. New Zealand, for example, has a Pacific Access Category for migrants hailing from Pacific islands, a fast track, simplified immigration option. The Australian Labour Party published a policy paper in 2006, “Our Drowning Neighbours“, which outlines steps for Australia to take to assist Pacific islands. The paper includes recommendations regarding what sort of assistance Australia should provide Pacific islands to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as its responsibility as a leading voice for the advocacy of strong action internationally and locally to address climate change.

However, while these initiatives are necessary, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Some experts suggest that policy makers need to construe the inevitable migration flows resulting from climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. Indeed, while displaced people and migrants already suffer disproportionately from discrimination and difficulties in integration, it is critical for policy makers and governments to prepare us for increased and more complex migration flows. A paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009 argues:

There is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, in conjunction with income diversification, is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalisation. In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. Policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important for both adaptation and the achievement of broader development goals.

In addition to questions related to the development of an appropriate framework for managing migration due to climate change, the consequences of the impending disaster facing islanders is well summarized by Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. Of the displacement and relocation of islanders, she says: “It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said  “It is about your identity.”

Addressing climate change is more than just figuring out how and when a carbon tax is appropriate, or whether coal is clean or not. It will force us to grapple with very difficult and fundamental questions about the preservation of culture and civilizations.

Assorted Thoughts

Given that, as of late, the world is revolving around the Financial Crisis and its ramifications (or the Crash of 2008 – I think we should now think of this as a seminal event that deserves capitalization!), conversations usually veer off on that topic. I was recently discussing the measurement of prosperity with a friend – and how, for rich countries, GDP appears to be the single most important determinant of prosperity. As Megan McArdle from The Atlantic aptly puts it:

Because fiscal stimulus “working” is more than a question of increasing measured GDP. In every other context, liberals are all too aware of the limitations of GDP as a proxy for human wellbeing. In the context of the stimulus debate, however, all those reservations seem to fly right out of their heads.

Interestingly, the stimulus measures being debated in the United States are intended to positively affect different areas of our society – chief among them, economic output – but also, for instance, the quality of education and access to medical care.

There seems to be a tension in the public debate: we are asking for genuine, systemic change, but at the same time, we are not willing to spend the time and resources necessary to do so. What gives? And the United States is a good example, but it’s true in many other places where the status quo is maintained because of some sort of collective inability to compromise.

We have been using the Human Development Index to measure progress in and between countries for nearly two decades – perhaps it would be interesting to adapt some variation of it to suit a national context — as a proxy for human wellbwing — it would allow the public to construe well-being in a less unidimensional, more holistic way.

Just a thought.

By the way, the US ranks 15th in the 2008 HDI rankings. Liberia 176th out of 179 countries. And Sierra Leone, its neighbor, trails in the last position.

I like this, although I’ll cynically add that there might be something a little bit contrived about it… (via TED)

– I missed this story earlier this month. The violation of refugee and human rights goes unabated, in a context of complicated politics between Egypt and Israel. Once again, the UNHCR is unable to weigh in decisively – I’m looking forward to the 2009 edition of the Human Development Report, which will focus on migration, both within and beyond borders.

– Lastly… I am extremely pleased that B. Easterly just debuted his blog. He started with a bang, throwing punches at Jeff Sachs and Robert Zoellick, and making fun of Davos party-goers (I am secretely hoping that the title of that particular post…”and now for something completely different:…” is a direct reference to Monty Python.)

A good response to Easterly’s criticism of Zoellick’s plea for increased and sustained foreign aid flows can be read here. Excerpt:

But these are not normal times we are living in. Poor countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are facing an unprecedented crisis. Private capital flows, which had been rising faster in Africa than any other region, are drying up or reversing. Remittances, estimated at $20 billion a year to the continent, are also slowing because, for the first time, the crisis started in the sending countries (77 percent of remittances to Africa come from the U.S. and Western Europe). And the fall in commodity prices is sending many commodity exporters into a recession. Previous growth decelerations in Africa have been associated with increases in poverty, infant and child mortality and out-of-school children. Worst of all, just when economic reforms were beginning to take effect in Africa (growth had been sustained for ten years and accelerating over the last three), people are being asked to tighten their belts—for a crisis that is not even remotely their fault.

Intersecting tragedies

At last, an update on this blog. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I often feel like everything’s already been said and that I’m preaching to the choir. There are dozens of stories that inspire me to write, but I have a difficult finding something to say that I don’t find redundant. For instance, this story on “personal terrorism” (warming: photo not for the faint hearted)really shook me to the core when I first read it a few weeks back, and I have been pondering a post about it, but what can I say other than the fact that I find it deeply offensive, sad and backward… Sort of like this story about a 13 year old girl who was stoned to death because SHE was raped. I am – as we all are, at least those reading this blog – appalled that this sort of medieval, senseless and cruel violence against women still exists in this supposedly “modern” world. 

In any case, I have been watching all sorts of retrospectives and “year in review” programs on the various news channels on my parents’ cable (god bless satellite television), and when it’s all strung together, like a chain of very dark pearls, one really gets a sense of a flailing modern civilization. Sure, we’ve elected an amazing individual to the highest office in the land in the United States, but we have also witnessed a number of horrendous natural tragedies (the typhoon in Burma and the earthquakes in China claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each), ever continuing violence and hatred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Colombia… everywhere else…, a financial crisis of incomprehensible proportions (1000s of billions of dollars later, we will have fixed nothing), and, of course, we continue to witness the destruction of this planet. 
I was asked a few months ago to investigate the nexus of climate change, sustainable development and diplomacy – a broad topic, indeed. The focus, because of my background, was to be on “climate refugees”, which sounds like something from some sort of sci-fi movie, but is actually becoming a reality to contend with. Because of my new job and constant stress of running out of money for The Niapele Project, my mind has been consumed and I haven’t had a chance to delve into this topic. But watching one of those fascinating (yet frigthening) retrospectives on France 24 last night (France 24 is France’s response to CNN and BBC…. ), I saw a segment on the effects of climate change on a small group of islands called Carteret Islands.
This small group of islands, in my mind, symbolize the coming intersection of tragedies. We are used to thinking about climate change in a separate realm from man-made wars. Natural disasters have been, for some time, hermetically considered from the rest of the problems that affect humanity. I haven’t been able to find this again, but back in 2004, when the tsunami hit large swaths of Asia, and billions of dollars of aid poured in quasi instantly, a cartoon was published showing a couple African children in rags, watching a plane fly overhead with the words “Humanitarian Aid” written on it, and the following words appearing in a bubble above one of the kids: “Too bad we didn’t get hit”. We tend to separate suffering caused by other men and suffering caused by nature, as if the victims were true victims in one case, but not the other.
Anyway.
The people living in the Carteret Islands are among the world’s first “climate refugees“, and their home is slated to disappear in the oceans – forever – in the next 10 years or so (although predictions vary, clearly, like a lot of the other island states in the Pacific, the Carteret Islands’ fate is essentially sealed). Island nations have been among the first to call for concerted global action to deal with the issue of climate change – for them, it’s a matter of simple survival. Cynics might argue that these islands should not be inhabited in the first place, similarly to places like New Orleans or Holland or Venice. But the future of communities who live in these places has been compromised by humanity’s destructive behavior. 
Bangladesh – one of the world’s poorest and most populated countries – is also facing intractable challenges due to climate change.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.”

It is a frigthening prospect – rising sea levels and disappearing homelands, leading to mass migrations. While we haven’t yet seen this happen on a massive scale, we are quick to dismiss the impact of environmental destruction and climate related causes of war and violence. In the Sudan, desertification is one of the underlying causes which pitted nomad cattle herders against sedentary agriproducers. As the world’s basic natural resources dwindle, and more and more previously habitable land is rendered unfit for human exploitation, we will undoubtedly witness some unprecendent population movements – how and where is hard to say, although clearly island nations, low lying coastal areas and landlocked deserted areas will be on the frontlines. 

I’m fascinated by this intersection of man made and natural tragedies, and curious to see how the world will respond. I’ve already mentioned ad nauseam how the international legal framework that governs the treatment of refugees and displaced people is outdated and unable to address modern challenges. Will the UNHCR blaze trails and design specific legal protections for communities and individuals displaced by environmental catastrophes? If so, when? Probably once it’s too late – it always takes a disaster of monumental proportions for the world to react (world war I was not enough for Europeans to stop killing each other – only at the end of world war II did we devise a system to prevent this from ever happening again [at least in our lifetimes]). 

For 2009, I wish that the leaders of our vulnerable little planet WAKE UP and realize that we are about to self-annihilate. It may even be too late – who knows, really – to reverse the effects of decades of selfish exploitation of the Earth. But the impending intersection of tragedies – the natural ones and the man-made ones – will surely be a wake up call, at some point down the line. 

To close of this post, and this year, I leave you with one of my favorite proverbs (sometimes attributed to ancient African wisdom, other times to Hindu philosophy, but nonetheless a deeply potent thought)

“We did not inherit this world from our forefathers – we are borrowing it from our grandchildren”