Why Canada needs to think about accepting climate change refugees

As countries around the world wrestle with the growing impacts of global warming — including fires, droughts and rising sea levels — there’s one that critics say Canada is failing to properly consider: climate change refugees.

According to a 2018 World Bank report, by 2050, the planet could see 143 million people become migrants escaping extreme weather, crop failure, water scarcity and other climate-related harms.

An upcoming report from the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) is calling on the federal government to be better prepared for these shifting migration patterns.

Canada doesn’t recognize climate migrants, says Warda Shazadi Meighen, an immigration and refugee lawyer who co-authored the report. 

“There’s nothing in the policy that requires immigration officers to specifically turn their mind to the plight of climate migrants,” Shazadi Meighen said in an interview with What on Earth host Laura Lynch. That means any person fleeing the effects of climate change would need to seek refugee status for persecution, based on allowed grounds such as race, religion, nationality or political opinion.

In January 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canada called on the federal government to examine its own laws and policies when it comes to refugees, migrants and climate change. 

The new CARL report offers several suggestions to address this. For example, it recommends employing the same kind of approach that was used following disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, allowing people to apply for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

The report also suggests Canada use its much-lauded sponsorship program, which allowed Canadians to sponsor refugees fleeing war in Syria. 

In a statement to What on Earth, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it constantly monitors the implications of climate change on migration, and remains steadfast in offering protection to refugees fleeing persecution. 

It also says that, in the event of natural disasters, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and can include expediting refugee applications and extending temporary resident visas for those already in Canada.

David Boyd, the B.C.-based UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, has travelled to many regions where climate change is already displacing people. One of them is Fiji, where people were rendered homeless by tropical cyclone Winston in 2016 (see photo above), one of the strongest ever recorded.

“People are now living in really difficult circumstances, basically in slums on the outskirts of Suva, the biggest city in Fiji, and there is no question that, from a science perspective, they are climate migrants,” said Boyd. 

He also visited a village named Vunidogaloa, where an Indigenous community had been forced three kilometres inland. “It was heartbreaking to see, because these people for many, many generations have been so directly connected to the ocean for everything in their life.”

Boyd is calling on his home country to do more. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, there are three central humanitarian obligations: mitigate climate change by reducing emissions; help adaptation efforts by reducing climate-related risks; and address loss and damage where it occurs. 

Other international agreements require Canada to help countries in the global south to improve living conditions so there’s less impetus for migration, said Boyd, who is also an associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. 

“We love to think of ourselves as a generous and compassionate country. But if you actually look at the amount of official development assistance Canada provides, we’re at somewhere around a quarter to a third of what the Scandinavian nations are currently providing,” said Boyd.

“So we have a long ways to go before we can say we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

Shazadi Meighen argues that Canada could implement some climate migrant measures quickly because they don’t​necessarily require new legislation, and because climate risk is scientifically quantifiable, it would also be easy for authorities to evaluate the migrants’ claims.​​​​​

What’s more, she says Canadians would likely back the approach. 

“The support for immigration has never been higher,” said Shazadi Meighen, who came to Canada as a refugee from Pakistan when she was six. “We’re at a time in Canada when a lot of folks are liable to rally around granting status to individuals who are being displaced by climate migration.”

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