OP ED – Response to ‘The Great Climate Migration’ The New York Times (July 23rd, 2020)

By Katrin Bell


The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to stay inside and spend a lot of time thinking about our ‘home’. While most of us in the West have been able to take comfort in the relative safety of our houses in the last six months, there is a growing number of people globally being forced to accept that their homes are becoming the least-secure place to stay. Before Covid-19 was keeping us in, climate change was driving them out.

Internationally, there is already a greater number of people displaced due to climate-change related factors than violence and conflict. Floods and drought are pushing people away from their homes; extreme heat alone is expected to make 19% of the planet unlivable by 2070. Historically, Canada has been fairly welcoming to refugees and migrants seeking a stable place to rebuild. Currently, through a lack of legislation and recognition, we’re letting them down. 

There is no clause in Canada’s immigration law for refugees to claim climate change, or the associated environmental challenges, as a valid basis for their application. Often, climate policy is discussed as though we have 20-30 years before it becomes a life-threatening crisis; but for many, the crisis is already here. With the current rate of sea level rise, in 50 years the island nation of Tuvalu will no longer exist. There have already been situations in which migrants have unsuccessfully attempted to use climate change as a base for their refugee application. A citizen from Kiribati, another island state, was denied refugee status in New Zealand with a claim based on an inhospitable environment and rising sea levels in his home country. The UN  Human Rights Commission upheld the decision of the New Zealand government, stating the risk to this individual’s life was not ‘imminent’ enough to warrant protection in another state.  With this logic, we will be waiting until people are dying before considering whether they should be allowed to try to find a new home elsewhere. Not to mention the inevitable shortage of food and health supplies, as well as the emotional trauma, that will pre-empt an island’s disappearance. 

The Canadian government and legal community must take action on this issue. Our legislation needs to adapt to be able to respond to the issues we are facing and maintain our role as a human-rights protector. The long-term goal will be to implement policies that help reduce climate change but right now we need to provide a home for people who are facing the loss of their own.

Published by Katrin Bell

University of Ottawa Faculty of Law J.D. Candidate Class of 2022

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