Nine years after federal civil servants first urged Ottawa to “plan an orderly and effective response” to help resettle at least some of the tens of millions of people forecast to be displaced by climate impacts by 2050, Canada has no comprehensive plan to do so, and international law isn’t helping.
Part of the problem, CBC reports, is that the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act takes its cue from the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which does not yet recognize climate impacts as legitimate grounds to claim refugee status, focusing rather on guaranteeing protection to those fleeing violence, either from war or persecution.
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The situation may yet change, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Adrian Edwards told the national broadcaster. Citing the Syrian civil war, which scientists now believe was triggered in part by extreme drought, Edwards noted increased incidence of the climate crisis causing “the very things that produce refugees and internal displacement.”
But in the absence of changes in international law, things remain “fuzzy,” CBC writes.
On one hand, in late 2018, Canada affirmed its willingness to welcome climate refugees, joining 166 other countries in signing the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a non-binding agreement which asks signatories to “identify, develop, and strengthen solutions for migrants compelled to leave their countries of origin due to slow-onset natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change.”
On the other, in a statement released to the CBC in response to an interview request, the office of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen said that “generally speaking, in order to be considered for resettlement to Canada, individuals must be a Convention refugee as defined in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.“
Relieving the bitter Catch-22 between an aspirational pact and actual law was the added comment that “with respect to individuals potentially impacted by climate change, decisions on actions the Government of Canada may take in the event of natural disasters are taken on a case by case basis.”
In the absence of provisions specific to climate refugees in the federal Act, however, government responses to slower-moving crises like salt water inundation are likely to be sluggish, said Jamie Chai Yun Liew, a University of Ottawa specialist in immigration, refugee, and citizenship law.
“I think there has to be a conversation about what is it that we want to respond to in terms of helping people,” she told CBC.
As to which populations may sooner or later arrive on Canadian shores—or at its long land border—one possibility will be refugees fleeing sea level rise, like residents of coastal Louisiana and Florida.
While internal displacement is likely the more immediate option for most people forced to move for climate-related reasons, Wilfrid Laurier University geographer Robert McLeman said migration into already overcrowded cities (often the initial move for farmers wiped out by drought) may be a step in a much longer journey.
CBC says many of the climate refugees most likely to try to come to Canada from countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, and China, for example, will likely be the expression of such secondary waves of flight: from the country to the city, to out of the country.
Whether those refugees will actually find a welcome remains in doubt. Notwithstanding the Global Compact, Liew is not optimistic. “Unless there’s some vested interest for a state to tackle this issue, I’m not really sure the international community will step up and do anything about it,” she said.
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