A New Reality: The Rise of Climate Migrants
Written By: Wiley McGowan
Edited by: Jumana Khafagi
"In 2018, the World Bank estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050"
Climate change poses an increasing threat to the safety of the global population. There are a myriad of reasons why individuals and communities are forced to migrate. Climate-related disasters such as wildfires, tsunamis, and hurricanes, have become prominent causes of migration. Underlying negative externalities resulting from climate change, insufficient agricultural productivity, and access to water, being a few examples, have heavily influenced people's decisions to relocate (Sherbinin, 2020). These impacts are particularly acute in developing countries that already face vulnerabilities that the climate crisis only exacerbates.
Due to the unequal distribution of the effects of climate change worldwide, people are forced to leave their homes with the onset of climate-induced disasters at alarming rates. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050 (Podesta, 2019). Climate migrants are getting further from an idea to a stark reality that the world needs to prepare for.
Madagascar is a striking case on the brink of climate-induced famine (BBC, 2021). The recent famine plaguing the citizens of Madagascar is a direct result of a drought that "has devastated isolated farming communities in the south of the country" (BBC, 2021). This drought has forced families to migrate from urban to rural areas to seek assistance (Climate Refugees, 2021). However, this internal relocation does not come without risk; displaced individuals are forced into informal settlements, leaving them in marginalized neighbourhoods vulnerable to labour exploitation, human trafficking, and insufficient public services (Climate Refugees, 2021).
Despite the alarming nature of the current situation, the negative externalities induced by climate change are not solely experienced by Madagascar. Over the past year, Turkey and California have experienced horrendous wildfires due to the rising temperatures. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, almost 160,000 hectares of forest have burned in Turkey in 2021, four times the average between 2008 and 2020 (The Economist, 2021). California paints a similarly bleak picture; the Dixie fire, California's largest wildfire in history, grew to over 395 sq miles across Plumas and Butte counties (The Guardian, 2021).
There is significant overlap between the issues faced by both Turkey and California in tackling the wildfire crises. However, there are also fundamental differences in how each state dealt with the calamities internally based on the government's responsiveness and emergency services. Which, in turn, resulted in drastic differences in each country's ability to deal with displaced individuals. How the international community received the crises also raises many red flags.
Through the cross-analysis of Turkey and California, we can better understand how to deal with these climate-induced disasters. Beyond the obvious answer of solving climate change, the international community needs to provide immense support to start solving these issues at the national level. It is evident that climate change is a powerful push factor of migration.Yet, there is no form of a multilateral strategy or a legal framework to account for climate change as a driver of migration, which is a fundamental flaw in our system as it removes accountability for the international community (Podesta, 2019). Failing to acknowledge it as such will only harm already marginalized individuals who are affected by these "unprecedented" disasters (Podesta, 2019). By first focusing on the domestic level and preparing countries like Turkey for the onset of climate-induced natural disasters, the overwhelming number of climate migrants may cease to exist. Until then, the international community needs to support those most vulnerable to contain the effects of climate change.
Turkey, compared to California,was not prepared in the slightest to combat the wildfires. The Turkish government, "caught badly off-guard by the disaster, is also feeling the heat" (The Economist, 2021). Local mayors across the country pleaded for help, while ministers stated that they had no working water bombers, forcing them to resort to helicopters (The Economist, 2021). The agency's head responsible for the planes admitted he "had gone to a wedding at the height of the crisis" (The Economist, 2021). Turkey was far from prepared to combat the fires and protect its citizens domestically due to the negligence of its leadership. Juxtaposing this, California paints a different narrative. In the case of California, although also having faced a catastrophic series of events due to the fires, it was far more prepared. As wildfires are now anticipated , already having experienced two devastating seasons in California, emergency response to the crises is far more coherent and efficient than Turkey. According to officials, an estimated 27,000 firefighters have been deployed across the West in the summer, and local crews benefit from the support of federal agencies, soldiers, and national guardsmen (The Guardian, 2021).
The wildfires in Turkey this summer present a case of neglect and the misallocation of resources. Shockingly a country of 85 million people failed to "own a single operational firefighting plane (The Washington Post, 2021). The Turkish government partially sums this up to the mislabelling of Turkey as a developed country, when in reality, they want to be recategorized as a developing country to receive funds (Cupolo, 2021).Social vulnerabilities facing Turkey were exacerbated with the onset of the wildfires in July and August of 2021. Given that more frequent climate hazards have a greater likelihood of prompting people to migrate, especially when the population has a lower capacity to adapt (Sherbinin, 2020), Turkey is especially vulnerable due to the current economic downturn and massive refugee influx which it already faces. It is clear that "Turkey is experiencing an unbearably demoralizing chapter in its history" (The Washington Post, 2021).
Even though there are few cases where climate change acts as the sole factor for sparking migration, it is broadly accepted as a critical de facto factor that exacerbates migration and conflict (Podesta, 2019). This new reality of climate change as a cause of migration needs to be reflected in the policies and aid of the international community. The case of Turkey demonstrated that the internal failure of under-preparedness to combat the wildfires, alongside the lack of response and support from the international community, drastically exacerbated the situation.
Countries such as Turkey need to prepare and reevaluate their priorities through internal means. However, assistance from the international community to curb the increasing potential for environmental migrants in the future is just as crucial.
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