During the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community agreed upon and defined the word “refugee.” Article One calls him or her a person who has left their country, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

But events of the last century have shown this definition inadequate. Some flee severe poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Some seek access to clean water, a consistent source of food or much needed health care. Many are forced from their homes by natural disasters. These people are called climate change refugees.

The UNHCR reports that in the last 20 years, the number of natural disasters per year has doubled and now sits at 400. Nine-tenths of natural disasters are climate related.

The organization breaks disasters into categories.

Hydro-meteorological disasters are floods, hurricanes, mudslides, etc. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and displaced nearly 4 million people. But they remained in the country, and the typhoon had not been after their freedom of speech or religion. Technically, the victims did not fall under the purview of the UNHCR. Still, aid was provided.

Second are zones designated ‘high-risk’ by their governments. Third is the sinking of landmasses, for the most part, small islands.

Fourth is “environmental degradation.” Deforestation and desertification, a reduction in available water, flooding and salinization of coastal areas are all included. For communities affected by climate change, especially those whose economies are agriculture-based, any one of these could be devastating.

Last is conflict caused by a change in availability of essential resources, namely water, land and food.

In 2010, over 42 million people were forced from their homes by natural disasters, sometimes across international lines. In response to the great number of migrant peoples affected by natural disasters, the UNHCR has had to reconsider its role in emergency relief.

The Nansen Initiative recommends vulnerable communities have an exit strategy in case of disaster. IRIN recently reported on Sebana-Demale, an Ethiopian village in an active, volcanic region. Combined with an utter lack of rain, living in Sebana-Demale is difficult. But in 15 years, it could be impossible.

So, according to the Initiative, people of Sebana-Demale and villages like it should be prepared to move. The Ethiopian government, as well as area states, should be ready to integrate the newly displaced population.

Favoring the-end-is-nigh rhetoric, the media and public interest have often ignored the humanitarian crises created by climate change. When they do, they ignore those now called climate change refugees.

— Olivia Kostreva

Sources: UNHCR, UNICEF, IRIN, Huffington Post
Photo: Treehugger

Fleeing political, racial and religious persecution, more than 15 million people worldwide have left their homes and sought safety across international borders. They are refugees; often as unwelcome in their host countries as they were in their own.

For many, it is out of the frying pan and into the fire.
International law forbids the deportation of peoples with refugee status. Still, deeply rooted ethnic and national divides can make neighboring countries reluctant to accept them.
It is estimated that half of refugees today settle in major cities. Hundreds of thousands of Somali citizens, for example, have gone not to internationally established camps, but to Nairobi, Kenya. These urban refugees, with neither shelter, funds nor connections, find themselves in situations nearly as desperate as the ones they left.
Hindered by language and social stigma, they are limited to the poorest paying jobs. Their ambiguous political standing, meanwhile, affords them none of the safeguards given to citizens of their new homes. The British organization, Hidden Lives, quotes one man, “I don’t have legal documentation. I don’t have a job. I don’t leave my house.”
Access to health care, though needed by many, is often restricted.
So why not just head for a refugee camp? Conditions there are no better. Camps are notoriously overcrowded and vulnerable to the spread of communicable disease. Violence and sexual assault goes largely unchecked. For basic needs such as food and water, refugees are reliant on international aid. Refugees also must rely on international aid for health care, education and development. Who do they rely on for security forces? International aid. International aid, unfortunately, must come in waves.
Consequently, any group that raises awareness or funds to sustain displaced peoples, in and out of country, becomes integral to their survival. None is more widely known, perhaps, than Refugees International (RI).
RI focuses on advocacy and policy reform. In addition to meeting with world leaders, it organizes 15 yearly field missions to determine the living conditions of refugees and internally displaced people across South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These missions are essential to the organization: because of the information gathered, it is an influential authority. RI is consulted on not only the need for aid, but also the amount required and its distribution.
It was RI that alerted the United Nations to the lack of post-rape kits available in the Central African Republic earlier this year. It was RI that encouraged the United States to support the Nansen initiative, which protects displaced victims of climate-related disasters. The U.S. set aside more than $150 million for the deployment of peacekeepers to the CAR at the request of the organization. In response to their report of violence against women in Syria, the United Kingdom provided more than $14 million dollars in funding.
The U.N. Refugee Agency calls 10.8 million people ‘refugees of concern.’ Almost three times as many live as IDPs. While they wait for resettlement, or war and persecution to end, they have to entrust their lives to the international community at large. But the nations most capable of giving aid are often the furthest removed. It is left to Refugees International, and organizations like it, to bridge the gap.
– Olivia Kostreva

Sources: UNHCR, Health Poverty Action, Refugees International, Hidden Lives
Photo: The Global Herald