Girl displaced by drought stands in front of tent in Afghanistan.

Wakila, about 11 years old, stands in their home since being displaced from Bagdis province because of the ongoing drought in Sharak Sabz, a camp for drought displaced families from all over western Afghanistan on October 20, 2023 in the periphery of Herat City, Afghanistan.

(Photo: Lynsey Addario, with funding by the National Geographic Society/Getty Images)

Beyond Bullets: Bringing Climate Justice to the Asylum Process

There is a growing movement of displaced people who are sharing our stories of climate and displacement and calling for recognition of climate change in asylum and refugee policies.

I was born in a small village in the heart of Afghanistan, but most of my childhood was spent as a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan. My family returned to Afghanistan in the early 2000s after the American invasion. Both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I grew up amid the chaos of conflict, and the sounds of bullets and bomb blasts were a part of my daily life.

However, the conflict that loomed the largest for my family was between people and nature. Like many from our village, leaving became inevitable for my family as our homeland was transformed by drought into a barren wasteland again and again. As resources dwindled, we were forced to chase water, which became increasingly scarce and expensive. Like so many others, my family became nomadic, changing homes, cities, provinces, and countries in search of water to survive. Afghanistan is one of the world’s most vulnerable places to climate change, and as I write this, the country is undergoing the worst drought in decades.

A decade later, in 2017, I applied for asylum in the United States. When I attempted to include this narrative of my community’s plight from drought and natural disasters in my application, my lawyer strongly advised against it. Instead, I was encouraged to focus solely on the impacts of war and my triple minority identity as a Hazara-Shia-Afghan woman. It didn’t make sense to try to separate the religious and political persecution I faced from the reality that my ancestral village, once verdant and flourishing, had been reduced to dust by decades of unyielding drought. My attorney seemed fixated on presenting me as a “Western-educated Hazara-Shia-Afghan woman” fleeing persecution and ignoring any mention of the environmental devastation that compelled my family to flee our homeland numerous times.

Amid these struggles with armed conflict, corruption, and dictatorship, there lurks another adversary: global warming, the silent killer.

Unfortunately, my attorney’s stance proved valid. There are currently no systems or protections in place for individuals displaced by climate impacts under U.S. or international law. My asylum application was approved with a selective narrative devoid of the true underlying causes of my displacement.

As I became an immigrant rights advocate, first at the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and now as the director of We Are All America, I connected with fellow asylum seekers with the same thread of environmental injustice woven throughout their stories. I met people who, like me, saw their vulnerabilities multiplied by the climate crisis and faced much more intricate, intersectional challenges than our current asylum pathways recognize.

Paul, an asylum seeker from Congo, is one such example. He and his family of farmers initially fled due to war, but when floods and heavy rain destroyed their new home in Kenya, they were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. After experiencing this double displacement, Paul sought resettlement in Canada because he knew the U.S. didn’t have a protected asylum pathway that aligned with his experience.

Amid these struggles with armed conflict, corruption, and dictatorship, there lurks another adversary: global warming, the silent killer. Despite its profound impact, our stories about it are often left untold, overshadowed by tales of violence and persecution. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, climate is now the leading cause of global displacement, surpassing conflict. Our limited asylum policies shape the very stories of our displacement, masking the extent to which climate change is interwoven with other root causes and warping climate-displaced people’s perceptions of what makes a valid reason to move to safety

However, there is a growing movement of displaced people, like Paul and myself, who are sharing our stories of climate and displacement and calling for recognition of climate change in asylum and refugee policies. Some asylum seekers and their lawyers are beginning to include climate impacts as a central part of their cases, and attempting to set precedents that would require immigration judges to consider them. In the past few years, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies started tracking asylum cases with prominent climate impacts and already has an extensive number in their database, including some promising successes.

There’s a lot the Biden administration could do to support these efforts. In one of his first executive orders, President Joe Biden created an inter-agency task force on climate and migration. However, three years on, the task force has produced little tangible action. Meanwhile, advocates have offered a number of immediate actions for the administration to take, from prioritizing the resettlement of climate-impacted refugees to training USCIS officials to consider climate impacts as a supporting factor in asylum claims.

Of course, the need to update the United States’ outdated refugee and asylum policies is at the heart of this issue. Last year We Are All America’s sister project, the Climate Justice Collaborative, led a broad coalition of immigrant, refugee, and climate justice organizations that supported the reintroduction of Sen. Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) Climate Displaced Persons Act (CDPA). The CDPA would create a new visa program parallel to refugee resettlement, specifically for people facing forced displacement due to climate impacts. It would also create a global climate resilience strategy to help vulnerable countries, like mine, adapt to climate change. This is the kind of bold policy change we need to bring our country into the modern age and build a life-sustaining future in the face of the climate crisis and its intersectional impacts on our society.

Climate displacement is not a far-off problem for future generations. It is happening now and has been happening for decades. Our voices have just been silenced, and our experiences have been buried by those deemed valid by our antiquated asylum policies. We deserve the same empathy and support as those fleeing bullets. It’s time for policy to reflect that.

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