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FARMERS in a maize field.

Climate change refugees: How to protect them

TWO people in two different countries, forced by climatic hazards, left home; faced it all; and left the world with valuable lessons for what is coming. In fact, it’s already here.John Moonga a small-scale farmer of Mkushi in Zambia’s Central Province left his native Monze district, in the Southern Province in the early 1990s.
‘’We experienced a long drought in the mid-90s and since that time, the rains have been low and erratic, so my farm yields got lower and lower’’, Moonga explained. He added. ‘’I had no choice but to leave home.’’
Rosmon Daimon, a teacher from Fiji left her homeland for the United States under an environmental condition that could have solved Moonga’s problem except that it was in excess.
‘’There was water everywhere’’, Daimon said in reference to massive flooding that had resulted from a rapid rise in sea level.
Moonga and Daimon became a modern kind of refugee – the type that leaves home voluntarily and often times after lots of talking and convincing by government officials. They are environment refugees aptly called climate change refugees. Such people leave home after unbearable climatic changes. Droughts, floods and high temperatures make their journeys inevitable.
The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that globally, an average of 25 million people are displaced by sudden onset of disaster. Millions of other undocumented people continue to be on the move.
Within the United Nations though, establishing the veracity of statistics about the actual number of climate change migrants remains a major challenge.
‘No statistics exist about how many people have moved due to climate change but this does not mean we must not do something about it,’ noted Benjamin Schachter of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva recently.
When Moonga arrived in Mkushi, a fertile farming region in the Central Province of Zambia, the only thing he could do was farming. Had Mkushi not been a farming area, Moonga would have experienced the worst that can happen when climate change refugees settle into a new land.
‘All migrants are entitled to enjoyment of their human rights. The millions of people who are moving across borders due to climate change effects are more vulnerable to human rights violations,’ Schachter told a meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva recently.
Lots of the human rights violations experienced by climate change refugees stem from the fact that in the majority of cases, the migrants do not have the skills needed to survive in a new land as Daimon learnt when she arrived in the United States.
‘I have had to learn how to hustle, running away from police and immigration and learning to speak English the American way. It’s been 10 years and things are only just beginning to look up,’ she told this writer.
Natural resources have a way of determining the skills of indigenous people. When severe environmental conditions like a rise in sea levels and droughts happen, some natural resources to which the skills of indigenous people are linked also disappear over time.
Often times though, even when migrants move to areas where natural resources like they had back home existed, they may be blocked from using their skills by the people they find there, making the migrants more vulnerable as acknowledged by professor Vasuki Belavadi, a communication expert at the University of Hyderabad.
‘You break their indigenous knowledge, you take away their skills and it becomes easy to control them,’ Belavadi stressed. This can be the trigger for conflict between the migrants and the local people. Moonga leant this quickly in Mkushi.
‘It took me a very long time to understand the ways of the Lala people because I am Tonga. Sometimes it was frustrating but I had to be patient,’ Moonga narrated.
But patience is only possible when conditions are favourable. Several scholarly studies are increasingly showing that climate change and migration share a common link – conflict – especially at the local, within-countries migration.
On the African continent, climate change-related mass movements of people has already begun to cause unseen before conflicts as explained by Noah Phiri, CAB International representative for Southern Africa.
‘As natural resources like water and land are eroded, there will be conflicts as a result of shortages of grazing land. The recent land invasions in Kenya were driven by pastoralists in search of grazing land and water,’ Dr Phiri said.
Moonga found the water he wanted with less trouble and was able to survive with his land-based skills. Daimon, on the other hand, fleeing water, arrived in a ‘concrete jungle’ with basic inadequate skills so her status as a refugee could not be granted easily. She encountered a problem politicians globally are struggling with – the slow pace at which progress is being made in addressing the issue of climate change migrants because there is no definition, precedence and laws in place to address climate change-related mass movement of people across borders.
The definition of a refugee has never taken into account people displaced by environmental conditions.
“Judges in most countries have had trouble deciding whether people should be granted refugee status when the environmental condition is permanent or one-off like a seasonal flooding, a tsunami, drought or hurricane,” noted Schachter.
Another problem facing judges in making decisions is about whether climate change hazards must be permanent or if a one-off environmental disaster such as a hurricane or tsunami is sufficient. Before there is wide international agreement though, the ball rests in national governments’ courts.
The one most important action that governments, regional and international bodies must be considering now more than ever before is enacting and mainstreaming into all national programmes climate change policies that aim at not only protecting people from hazards but most importantly, protecting the inalienable human rights of climate change migrants from abuse.
Fiji ambassador to The United Nations Nazhat Khan, speaking about the Fiji climate change and internally displaced people’s policy showed how governments must act.
‘Any policy must respect the people’s wishes to relocate when resources in their ancestral land cannot support them. No one should be moved against their will. Policies must ensure that inequalities are not perpetuated,’ Ambassador Khan stressed.
When this is done people like Moonga and Daimon, when it becomes inevitable to leave home, will have the assurance and protection every human being deserves.