Call It What It Is: A Global Migration Shift From Climate, Not a Migrant or Refugee Crisis

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Call It What It Is: A Global Migration Shift From Climate, Not a Migrant or Refugee Crisis

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk toward the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, August 10, 2014.(Photo: Reuters/Rodi Said)

Hundreds more died off the coast of Libya today, on the heels of 71 deaths of migrants trapped in the back of a truck near Vienna, Austria. At the same time, NASA officials just warned that rising global sea levels from climate change could affect coastal regions, including 150 million residents in Asia who lived "within a meter from the sea."

While news organizations and policymakers around the world wrestle with calling displaced persons "refugees" or "migrants"or "asylum-seekers," a far more dangerous precedence of denial over a looming global shift of populations largely from climate change is taking place.

There is not a migrant or refugee crisis. We're in the midst of a global migration shift. While its unrelenting realities of forced displacement, whether from war, persecution or economic despair originate from disparate causes, they all share a singular fact: The nascent stages of this historical migration shift require long-term planning, not short-term designation.

Standing on the shores of Sicily two summers ago, the jagged remains of a shattered boat at our feet, I listened to an Italian villager describe the voyage of "migranti" across the Mediterranean. The survivors of the boat crash, which had been launched from Libya, included Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, and Syrians, among others.

Framing the issue as part of a cycle of migration, on an island whose ruins and current ways betray millennia of migration realities, the Sicilian fisherman understood better than anyone of what the United Nations refugee agency recently termed a "paradigm change" in unprecedented levels of forced displacement.

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Nearly 60 million people fled their homes in 2014, according to a recent UN report. Within a generation, according to estimates by numerous climate scientists and the international organizations dealing with migration, 150-200 million people could be displaced by the fallout of severe drought, flooding and extreme climate.

As the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted in a recent study, "the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought," which has triggered some of the largest displacements of refugees across the Mediterranean, are a significant part of the roots of the Syrian civil war itself.

"This is just the beginning," the Sicilian told me, who has watched the shifting populations over the years. In fact, nearly 200,000 travelers have been rescued attempting to cross "mare nostrum" in 2015.

The real crisis is denial: Of inaction by Europeans on the seas to meet the immediate urgency of rescue; and on land, to recognize a historical cycle of transition and migration that requires integration, regeneration of communities and climate action.

The old saying--a crisis is never a crisis until it is validated by disaster--has never been truer than in the Mediterranean and other migration corridors in Asia and the Americas. An estimated 2,000 nameless human beings have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the last nine months.

As a writer, I agree with Al Jazeera editor Barry Malone that words matter, especially in how we define human realities. However, the term "refugee" is no less dehumanizing than "migrant," when we are dealing with deadly border crossings and subsequent marginalization. In both instances, we deracinate people from their homelands, their countries of origin, their ethnicity, and their very names--and a future.

A recent "10-Point Plan to Solve Europe's Refugee Crisis" proposed by German officials fails into the same well-meaning but illusory trap: It calls on European nations to "help genuine refugees," as if migration from environmentally ravaged and climate destabilized economies, including parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is somehow less "genuine."

This is not only wrong; it is delusive. We need to recognize we now live in an age of mass climate migration. Banter over building walls or policing seas or drawing classifications matters little.

While the United Nations Population Division designates "migrant" as someone has resided for a year or longer in a country other than their own, perhaps it's time we come up with a new term for climate refugees--or migrants. Or, rather, perhaps it's time, as Italian parliament member Luigi Manconi recently wrote, to transform our view of migration from a "crisis" management situation to a long-term opportunity for economic and cultural gain. Or, in the case of Goslar, Germany, recognize the possibilities of migration in regenerating a depressed local economy.

Earlier this summer in Bologna, Italy, I met Frederick, an eastern Nigerian immigrant and university student, who I had interviewed last year. His journey across the north African deserts, and through the labyrinths of war-torn Libya, had been harrowing. He fled his country for myriad reasons. In the year since our first meeting, he had learned basic Italian, gained proper residency documents, and found a seasonal job in construction.

"I won't be returning to Nigeria any time soon," he told me, and discussed educational and entrepreneurial ideas.

Indeed, Frederick isn't a crisis for Italy or Europe. The unfolding hardship of climate change along his path, alas, remains one.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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