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Time to plan for migration forced by climate change


Climate change-forced migrationAn unseasonal week of warm weather had people in my hometown celebrating the benefits of climate change. We joked that our homes, in fifty years or so, would be prime real estate; that by then, we would live in a tropical climate and with rising sea levels and the erosion of the coastline, we would have beach frontage.

Yet the impact of climate change on the movement of people around the world — more often than not, the poorest — is almost entirely absent from public debate.

A British non-governmental organisation, Christian Aid, recently released a report, Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis, describing the impact of climate change on forced migration. If the figures contained in the report are to be believed, there is good cause to be alarmed.

Extrapolating from current trends, Human Tide suggests that between now and 2050, one billion people will be forced to leave their homes. One billion human beings! That is equivalent to the entire population of India. Of this one billion people, a quarter — more than the population of Indonesia — will be "permanently displaced by climate change-related phenomena such as floods, droughts, famines and hurricanes".

During recent budget estimates hearings, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle pressed Immigration Department officials about their planning for climate change-related migration. She was told that the department monitors the literature and the studies on climate change, but that it has no specific contingency for the sort of outcome described in Human Tide.

Time to plan for migration forced by climate change  Indeed, reading the transcript of the estimates hearing suggests that the department is not altogether serious about the issue. According to Peter Hughes, Acting Deputy Secretary in the department, "It is not a necessary conclusion that international migration would be the direct consequence of climate change because, for example, in many circumstances an internal movement within a country — depending on the size and nature of the country — would be a solution, as opposed to international migration."

There is some truth to the assertion that the effects of climate change may be met in some instances by internal and not international migration. But Hughes’ statement both implies that if forced migration remains internal we ought not to be too concerned, and reflects the most optimistic of positions, underestimating the potential for these internal movements to blow out beyond borders.

In contrast to Hughes, the Christian Aid report asserts that the new forced migration "will fuel existing conflicts and generate new ones in the areas of the world — the poorest — where resources are most scarce. Movement on this scale has the potential to de-stablise whole regions where increasingly desperate populations compete for dwindling food and water."

It is possible that the lack of seriousness expressed by senior public servants reflects something of the views of their political masters. In the estimates hearing Liberal Senator Ellison sought to draw links between climate change and the drought cycle in Australia. "We have had our own droughts here", he said, "Then you have a good season and people are able to recover."

He seemed to be suggesting that we should not be too concerned about the potential for a massive number of people being forced to leave their homelands due to climate-change, and intimated that it is likely they will be able to return to their homes at some time in the future. This is certainly not what the Human Tide report suggests.

Climate change-forced migrationThere is an urgent need for Australia, and the international community, both to seek to avert the worst aspects of climate change and to plan to respond to the likelihood that very large numbers of people will be forced to flee their homelands due to climate change and related factors.

Human Tide calls on the polluters — those of us in the wealthiest countries of the world — to establish a US$100 billion a year fund to help poor people. According to the British economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, these people are the most likely to bare the brunt of the problems the world may face.

Further, there is a need for the international community to develop the tools — legal, institutional and logistical — to aid people forced to flee their homes for reasons associated with climate change. The international community responded to the refugee crisis of the Second World War by signing the 1951 Refugees Convention and establishing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This could be a model upon which to base a system for offering security to those forced to flee their homes due to climate change.

From an Australian immigration perspective, there is a need to challenge some of the assumptions that have underpinned our approach to forced migration for many years. We cannot simply stand, arms folded, on Australia’s borders repeating the mantra that we will decide who comes and the circumstances in which they come. We need to be more creative, more flexible and more engaged with the real world.



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Existing comments

I'm amazed that no-one has commented on this article. It's important.
I have visions of millions of desperate people, in fifty years time, desperately trying to get to Australia in whatever they can sail, and our navy patrolling the seas and sinking them.

Gavan Breen | 04 June 2007  

The comments by the Acting Deputy Secretary of the Dept. of Immigration leave me horrified. Australia's nearest Island neighbours would have little chance to solve internal movements... Let's keep in mind too where those Australians, living either in threatened coastal areas or drought affected regions would be welcome.

Veronika Jeffrey | 06 June 2007  

Gavan and Veronica: Whether the Australian Navy sinks (or turns back unseaworthy boats, leaving them eventually to sink somewhere out of sight out of mind) boat people who are fleeing an environmental disaster area in Asia or the Pacific depemds entirely on the kind of government Australia will have at the time and the instructions it gives. The Navy will do what it is told to do by the Government on a matter defined as about national security - as it did in 2001 If we care about this, we have to make sure we elect a government that will care too.

tony kevin | 08 June 2007  

A most timely article which makes it abundantly clear that the time has well and truly come for the world's richest nations, including Australia, to confont unparalleled moral problems which can be resolved onl by national leaders with the vision, courage and generosity to think beyond national self interest.

David Dyer | 09 June 2007  

A most timely article which makes it abundantly clear that the time has well and truly come for the world's richest nations, including Australia, to confont unparalleled moral problems which can be resolved onl by national leaders with the vision, courage and generosity to think beyond national self interest.

David Dyer | 09 June 2007  

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