Archive for migration

Suffering , Grievability and Covid-19 – An Indian Nightmare

By Guest Contributor Yash Karunakaran. Yash is an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign College of Law and the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR). He is currently an advocate practicing before the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi High Court. He is also involved with a civil society organization that helped arrange for travel, food and medicine for migrant workers stuck as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown in India. This organization has filed Petitions before various Courts challenging state restrictions placed on the return of migrant workers.

The primary weapon used to counter epidemic outbreaks within the Indian subcontinent has, for the past 123 years, remained the 1897 Epidemics Act. The legislation grants special powers to State Governments, allowing them to make their own regulations to counter the spread of disease. This piece analyses the colonial history of the Indian response to epidemics, highlighting how it colours the manner in which the Indian State operates to this very day.

The colonial era response to disease, i.e., of executive highhandedness and a lack of concern for the poor, has seemingly been replicated by various parties in power both pre, and post- independence. Even today, the Indian state chooses to use excessive coercive force as a manner by which it can create or regulate a certain form of social behaviour. When we look back at the British era response to Cholera, we see how the Cholera-induced deaths of white soldiers and generals during the siege of 1857 led to the growing suspicion that it was spread by the local camp followers – all of whom were all indigenous civilians. These individuals mostly hailed from the lowest echelons of Indian society and were hierarchically ranked the lowest within the military. These individuals were treated as a different class of citizens, who barely deserved any care or attention.  No efforts were made to introduce medical care or hospitalization for the indigenous population. 

The closest the East India Company came to intervening in civil life was an attempt to study the link between Hindu pilgrimages and the spread of the disease, thereby resulting in the Company regulating the sanitation of such sites. European observers of the 1817-1821 outbreak noted one aspect of the disease that would be of particular significance for the subsequent history of disease in the subcontinent – its predilection for the poor and the undernourished.

This act of valuing a certain class of lives while barely caring for the other has not left us; it is alive in the approach taken by the Indian Government towards wage labourers and migrant workers during this period of lockdown. Judith Butler, in her writing on Precarious Life, spoke of how specific lives are never apprehended as injured or lost, if they were not apprehended as having been lived in the first instance. For a life to be ‘injurable’, i.e., that it could be neglected or destroyed, we accept the fact that such life is not only finite (that it shall certainly end in death) but that it is also precarious. This precariousness implies that life requires various social and economic conditions that need to be met. Thus, living in a society, the value of one’s life is always in the hands of others. The value of life is drawn from the fact that in the absence of care, it may be lost. Thus, grievability exists for a life that matters. In the absence of this ‘grievability’, there is something that isn’t a life, or rather, there is no life. In such a ‘no life’, it would be a life that has never been lived, therefore there exists no regard nor testimony, and such life is ungrieved when lost.

During the Cholera epidemic, there existed no respect or value attributed to the lives of the indigenous. No steps were taken to set up a civil medical association nor were basic healthcare systems made available to them. Applying Butler’s approach here, the only grievable life was that of the British or at most the lives of those indigenous who served as foot soldiers for the Company. This approach was continued by the British India Government in the subsequent Bombay Plague Outbreak, where they claimed  in the absence of a vaccine against the disease, there was nothing that they could do to help the indigenous. However, this was only half true; even though there was no vaccine, steps could have easily been taken to avoid the rapid spread of the disease within indigenous settlements. Basic steps (proper identification of the source of disease, effective quarantine) were already being practiced in civil lines and in British Settlements, but no move was made to try and set up these systems in rural areas (or rather, areas without British residents). It was only when concerns were raised that the industrial workforce was dwindling due to indigenous labourers falling ill, that the British Indian Government was forced to act. The Epidemic Diseases Act, drafted during the time of this plague, became an instrument of colonial domination and control.

The Act was often used to prevent the gathering of protestors in large numbers, prohibiting railway bookings, locking down areas where protests were simmering, imprisoning freedom fighters, and so on and so forth. The response to this legislation was of course, one of distrust and riot – the 1900 Plague Riot of Kanpur being one such example. Again, most individuals targeted under the law were those hailing from the economically or socially weaker sections of society. Rarely were any of the urban elites subjected to such treatment (with the exception of a few freedom fighters). Further, the planning of major Indian cities was done in a manner so as to safeguard the urban elite from disease

While India is no longer a suzerain subject, this cultural context of domination behind the Act still plays a part in how it is currently being used to implement the Covid-19 lockdown. The justification given for this sudden lockdown is that if it were to be forewarned, workers would carry the disease back to their districts of origin, thereby escalating the crisis at hand. However, one may then ask – what about those citizens stranded in foreign locations that were flown back to India? Further, when the extended lockdown was announced, the underlying assumption was that citizens could ‘just stay home’ and be ‘heroes’. How would this logic apply to workers who are now stranded on city streets, evicted from their places of work but now also unable to head home?

 The implementation of the lockdown without these considerations shows not a lack of planning, but rather a calculated cost the state is ready to pay. The lives of lakhs of migrants have been weighed against the danger Covid-19 poses to the urban elite. 

These lives are of no concern to the Government, they are what Butler calls the ‘ungrieved’, those who have a life not lived, and where there is no concern or grief when such life is lost. That is why it is so easy for the state to impose such a costly lockdown, because such lives do not often make the news the same way in which widespread deaths of middle or upper classes persons in an urban setting would (i.e., lives that are traditionally considered ‘grievable’).

There exists a need to counter the apathy we have towards the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. This requires that we be empathic towards daily wagers and migrant workers, on the backs of whom our roads have been paved and our cities have been built. It is natural to understand the desire to return home in times of crisis, and to be surrounded by those we know, and it is incorrect to paint this desire as an attempt by the ill-informed to spread disease. 

The response to epidemics in the Indian context have always been at the cost of the socially and economically backward. There is a need to break away from this chain and value the lives of all citizens equally. Unfortunately, with the current state of things, and the manner in which states are treating migrants, this goal remains a distant dream.

A Fresh Start in EU Migration Policy: Re-examining the Dublin Regulation

Guest Contributor Ali Cain is an M.A. Candidate in the European History, Politics and Society Program at Columbia University. She is additionally the Program Coordinator for the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR). Her research interests include populism, refugee rights and transatlantic relations.

During her 2019 candidacy for European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum to “relaunch the Dublin reform of asylum rules.” Ms. von der Leyen is correct: Europe’s asylum system needs a fresh start. The Dublin Regulation III mandates that asylum seekers register upon arrival in the first European Union (EU) member state he or she enters. At the refugee crisis’ peak in 2015, 1.3 million asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Europe. Many traveled through the Mediterranean Sea, designating Italy and Greece as first ports of entry and, therefore, responsible for processing asylum claims. The influx of asylum seekers has led to immense strains on local governments, inciting animosity against refugees and creating a significant backlog of asylum decisions. 

According to Politico, there is a backlog of 90,000 asylum cases in Greece alone. The Greek government recently released a plan to create a “floating wall” to block migration routes on the Aegean Sea and will soon begin construction of closed detention centers that will limit the movement of asylum seekers. At a press conference on February 27, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis explicitly told those who do not qualify for international protection to “not come to Greece”, and warned that they will remain stuck on the islands until they are returned home. Although Greece’s treatment of refugees is appalling, their actions and rhetoric towards refugees demonstrates the depths of desperation which border states are being driven to due to EU inaction. To complicate issues further, the EU received its highest numbers of asylum applications since 2015; the European Asylum Support Office reported that 714,2000 applications were received in 2019. Future migration crises are inevitable, especially given climate change as an increasingly central driver of forced displacement. Commission President von der Leyen must prioritize the reform of the Dublin Regulation to create a cohesive asylum process in Europe. 

The Dublin Convention was created in 1997 in response to the Schengen Zone’s development. Under the Convention and its succeeding regulations, geographic arrival points determine state responsibility for refugees. The number of refugees already present in a state are not taken into consideration when determining relocation destinations or places of stay during the processing of asylum applications. Although the Dublin Framework includes rights for refugees that are already solidified under international law, including family unification and speedy asylum decisions, those rights are not enforced equally among EU member states. Following the 2015 refugee crisis, the EU began to discuss reforming the Dublin system to include burden-sharing measures and increased human rights protections. The European Commission proposed a reallocation quota determined by each country’s population and gross domestic product (GDP). The European Parliament suggested amendments to the Commission’s proposal also to include family reunification and prior residence/study in relocation decisions. The European Council must decide whether to implement burden-sharing provisions, but has been divided on the best way to actually relocate refugees since December 2018. The Visegrád countries – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have refused to accept refugees or abide by quotas.

As a result of Council gridlock, member states have relied heavily on third-party agreements to curb migration. These agreements have been successful in achieving the EU’s overall goal of curbing migration but pose threats to human rights and are not sustainable in the long-term. Although the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey led to a 97% decrease in migration from Turkey to Greece, 3RP reported that over 64% of the 3.6 million refugees living in Turkey are living in poverty. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for the “voluntary” resettlement of refugees in a “peace zone” in Northern Syria. Pushing refugees to return to Syria would violate non-refoulement standards under international law, which mandates that a host country cannot return asylum seekers to a country where they would be in danger or would be persecuted. Furthermore, President Erdogan announced on February 27, 2020 that Turkish authorities will not prohibit Syrian refugees from leaving Turkey to go to Europe, as Turkey is facing an influx of Syrian refugees from Idlib due to recent attacks by the Assad government and Russia. This recent announcement demonstrates the precise issue with third-party agreements: they provide short term reprive for host countries but kick the can of dealing with refugees down the road at refugees’ expense.  

The EU-Turkey deal also has implications for those already in Europe. For example, thousands of refugees are stranded on the Greek island of Lesbos as the EU-Turkey agreement prohibits their arrival on mainland Greece. Most recently, protests against inhumane living conditions broke out at the Moria refugee camp, where 20,000 refugees are cramped into facilities built to house 3,000 individuals. These conditions, which are common in many refugee camps throughout Europe, infringe on basic human rights secured under international conventions, including the 1951 Refugee Convention.  The EU’s 2015 Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has decreased economic factors that encourage migration from Africa by providing over 50,000 jobs and improving living standards. However, as explained in a recent Oxfam report, European investment in specific countries and regions is tied to migration levels stemming from each origin country. Addressing underlying societal issues like poverty and inequality, and political issues like corruption is not tied to aid. The EU also increasingly has depended upon the Libyan Coast Guard for search and rescue (SAR) missions, which intercept boats and return passengers to Libya. Those sent back to Libya face torture and trafficking in detention centers run by both the government and militias. Forced returns to Libya also violates the principle of non-refoulement.

A report released by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that member states may now be more open to asylum relocations and burden sharing. In July 2019, fourteen states signed a solidarity mechanism, pledging to relocate migrants across the EU. In September 2019, Italy’s staunchly anti-migrant interior minister Matteo Salvini was recently replaced by migration specialist Luciana Lamorgese in September 2019. Italy’s migration policies have already begun to change as private charity’s boats can now dock at Italian ports. Additionally, a recent European Council on Foreign Relations survey found that a majority of EU citizens no longer see migration as the most pressing issue of concern. Instead, survey respondents reported “health, housing unemployment, and living costs as standout issues.” Although it is easy to get caught up in the pessimism of current EU affairs, all European countries can agree that the current system under the Dublin Regulation is not working. A November 2019 EU Council Presidency report acknowledges the importance of the EU speaking in one voice about migration and concludes that “the more members states have the perception that EU legislation is meeting their concrete needs and taking into account their administrative realities, the more likely it is that the implementation will be successful.” The new Commission’s expressed interest in reforming the CEAS and the designation of €949 million ($1,039,120,000) to the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund presents an opportunity for reform. The EU has also pledged 30.8 billion ($41,608,700,000) for immigration and border control issues in the 2021-2027 budget.  Furthermore, the conclusion of Brexit provides a pivotal moment for the remaining 27 member states to reestablish the EU’s joint efforts and cohesiveness.

Migration is one of the most complicated and emotionally-driven issues to nation-states, as it heightens various concerns regarding economic and cultural security. The EU’s current approach in relying on third-party agreements, increasing general border control, and remaining gridlocked over how to better distribute refugees throughout Europe is a significant problem. Border states, especially Greece, and larger financially stable states like Germany, cannot be solely responsible for asylum seekers. The European Commission must push states to reopen discussions and negotiations on reforming the Dublin Regulation.

A Way Forward? Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part II of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

A potential solution to the looming issue of climate migration has recently been put forward by a commission of academic and policy experts who spent the last two years developing the Model International Mobility Convention. The proposed framework establishes the minimum rights afforded to all people who cross state borders, with special rights afforded to forced migrants, refugees, migrant victims of trafficking and migrants stranded in crisis situations.

A Way Forward? Advancing the International Mobility Convention

The Mobility Convention broadens the scope of international protection by recognizing what it terms “forced migrants.” Climate migrants lacking legal grounds for asylum under the 1951 Convention would qualify for protection under the forced migrant definition it advances.

“We were looking for rules that will really improve protections for forced migrants and refugees,” says Michael Doyle, who helped develop the Model International Mobility Convention as the director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and co-director of its International Migration project. “The moral claims that they make on us— environmental reasons— are not that different from the grounds of the 1951 Convention, which are just too narrow,” he said. “We have no expectation that Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Andrzej Duda in Poland will be interested. But this is a long game, so we’re visiting universities and NGOs to explain the logic behind this highly comprehensive convention that we’ve prepared.”

Doyle rattles off an enviable list of recently visited cities— Nairobi, Mumbai, Paris, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, Barcelona, São Paulo— where he’s travelled to spread the word about the convention. “The hope is to build a valuable network of alliances, building the kind of coalition that will get the attention of friends in government, a sufficiently significant number of them that this prospect might be established,” he explained.

He cites the landmark Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa in 1997, as exemplifying the power of academic and civil society organizations mobilized in pursuit of a common goal.

The Mobility Convention proposes key changes to international migration, for instance in terms of responsibility-sharing. “The current principle is responsibility by proximity,” Doyle says, referencing the disproportionate impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. “84 percent of refugees live in developing countries nearby, and that is not sustainable.”

On the outskirts of Dadaab refugee camp, a family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and shelter. The carcasses of animals which have perished in the drought are strewn across the desert. //  Andy Hall // Oxfam East Africa, 2011

According to Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the vast majority of climate migrants will be internally displaced, or will travel cross-border to a neighboring country that isn’t much better off than they are.

“Some are able to use their social networks and social capital, their skills and financial resources to move, but the most highly vulnerable people don’t have any of that capital – and if they can move, it’s not very far from where they’re already endangered,” she said. 

“Responsibility is nominally determined by your capacity to exist, but this top-down quota system fell flat in Europe,” Doyle explained. “We’re proposing using naming and shaming against a set of standards to encourage better behavior.”

The proposed system would have UNHCR annually identify refugee costs and the number of refugees needing to be resettled worldwide. The agency would then examine country population, GDP, past refugee loads and so on in order to determine a proportionate quota system based on each country’s capacity. Countries would be expected to make voluntary pledges in terms of dollars and resettlement based on the agency’s calculation. To create a naming-and-shaming incentive, UNHCR would publish a report at the end of each year revealing whether each country lived up to its commitments and resettled its fair share of refugees according to its socioeconomic capacity.

The political tensions that come with responsibility-sharing could be dramatically lessened if we start now. According to Martin, the key is building resilience early by focusing on increasing financial resources and human capital. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have begun admitting people in small numbers who can form the backbone of a diaspora for later climate migrants. Seasonal programs providing supplementary income for farmers and fishers affected by environmental impacts can similarly help raise financial and educational resources.

“This way, they’ll be better able to meet the standards of immigration in other countries rather than being treated as an emergency,” Martin said.

“It’s much better to help people qualify for legal immigration instead of responding to it as a crisis,” Martin emphasized.
“That’s what happened with the Syrian crisis – European countries, including those in Eastern Europe, could have easily absorbed those numbers.”

Conflict, Chaos, Money: Good Preparation is Good Politics

Governments have many incentives to prepare for climate migration. Climate impacts will exacerbate conflict, and failure to prepare legal avenues for displaced persons will only further increase the risks of regional destabilization. For example, climate-related conditions, particularly droughts, have driven conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010.

Man holding a boy during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as Macedonian riot police block refugees from crossing the border, August 2015. // AP Photo // Darko Vojinovic

“If no attention is paid and no relevant action is taken to resolve conflicts, you have thousands of refugees in the region with no solution and no prospects for peace to allow voluntary return,” Bertrand warned, highlighting that refugees now make up 25 percent of Lebanon’s population. “Those very numbers can destabilize the destination country – and these situations can last 15, 20 years.”

Bertrand pointed to Afghanistan to illustrate how protracted refugee situations can be. He was sent to Kabul in 1988 to repatriate Afghans after the departure of Soviet forces, as legal arrangements were made for UNHCR to open a repatriation office and ensure that displaced Afghans could return home. “But it’s been 30 years and there are still significant numbers in Pakistan that have not yet returned,” he explained, “and the situation is still triggering new movements.”

Second, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, immigrants actually have positive economic impacts on host countries. Doyle urges the implementation of labor-based migration. “Why not identify where a country is likely to experience shortages and open up visas for this?” he asked, pointing to Canada and Australia, two countries that have already started doing this.“Legal documentation is a win-win all around: design a better system, say, matching recent graduates with openings. There will be a large demand in many areas.”

Martin similarly highlights that many immigrants have the skills needed for the labor force in highly developed countries, especially when considering the implications of aging baby boomers. The reality is that immigrants are not often competing with natives for jobs. 

What now? Making Migration a Social Norm

To convince people opposed to migration,  we need to focus on making migration in urgent circumstances a norm. Looking at the populist boom in North America and Western Europe, Martin highlighted that framing migration solely in terms of international law and international frameworks can feel elitist, as it excludes large swaths of society who have been excluded from these types of issues and discussions. Rather than appearing as hot topics during sudden times of unrest, concepts of migration and displacement should be promoted at an earlier stage so people of all strata, education levels and belief systems grow up understanding the phenomenon to be natural and normal.

A “Refugees Welcome” sign displayed on the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, October 2015. // Harvey Barrison //  Creative Commons.

Doyle urges students to campaign in the human rights sense of climate migration, lobbying governments, forming campaigns, and mobilizing in support of low-hanging policy fruit like family reunification. He suggests looking to cities as bases of support. 

The private sector, too, presents a key partnership opportunity. Companies like Ikea, Google, and Uniqlo all have corporate social responsibility initiatives that can be mobilized in support of more adept immigration policies.

Over the next ten years, Doyle hopes that civil society and academia will mobilize in support of the Mobility Convention, urging cities and governments to adapt immigration policies and offer stronger protections to both conflict and climate-driven migrants.

“By 2028, we hope to have formed a coalition,” Doyle says. “A coalition that will see the value of bringing international law up to date.”


Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

When the Wave Comes: Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part I of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“Climate refugees”— broadly defined as people displaced across borders because of the sudden or long-term effects of climate change—are not a future phenomenon. Climate migration is already happening in a growing number of countries around the world: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that the impact and threat of climate-related hazards displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. In 2016 alone, climate and weather-related disasters displaced some 23.5 million people.

Floods, droughts and storms are the primary causes of climate-related displacement. In the coming decades, severe droughts are expected to plague northern Mexico, with some studies predicting up to 6.7 million people migrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result. High-intensity storms like cyclones have already displaced thousands from Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and rising sea levels are projected to put Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island with the smallest carbon footprint in the world, completely under water.

A woman and child walk through Chennai, India after severe floods in December 2015. // Anindito Mukherjee // Reuters

Projections of future migration patterns expect at least 200 million citizens to flee their homelands by 2050. Further, according to a recent paper investigating the correlation between migration and significant fluctuations in temperature, asylum applications will increase by almost 200 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. 

“Climate Refugees” Do Not Exist  Technically

The problem, however, is this: under international law, there is technically no such thing as a “climate refugee.” The 1951 Refugee Convention and the Additional Protocol adopted in 1967 define the term “refugee” as “any person outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In other words, under the current framework, the millions of people soon to be displaced due to climate-related impacts will have no legal grounds to seek international protection.  

 


“It’s interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems polar bears will face, rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.” 

Bill Gates, 2009

According to Pierre Bertrand, former Director of UNHCR in New York and Lead Rapporteur to the UN Global Migration Group, the “climate refugees” phenomenon is increasingly visible in the public discourse, despite its lack of legal status. “People are on the move for many compelling reasons. But what is more compelling than people whose country disappears?” he said.

The 2016 Paris Agreement, a landmark international climate agreement signed by 195 countries, failed to address climate-related disasters as a basis for asylum despite significant lobbying by international NGOs.

Bertrand says this was due to fears surrounding amending or expanding the definition set out by the 1951 Convention. “The thinking in UNHCR is that if we put this up for revision and discussion to adapt the Convention to contemporary forms of forced movement, it will risk downgrading the standards of the Convention itself,” he said. 

UNHCR// Ibarra Sánchez

Citing the current political mood towards migration, Bertrand highlighted the risk that opening the Convention to review may carry.

“Countries in the North and in Europe want to review the Convention to bring some limits to it, rather than improvements,” he said.

In December 2015, for example, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen suggested that the 1951 Convention might need to be renegotiated in light of the European migration crisis.

“In the discussion of migration, there is a divide between countries who export migrants, and the countries who receive them. Some are interested in how their nationals are treated in countries of transit and destination; they want the best treatment possible for their nationals,” Bertrand told RightsViews via telephone. “But then you have the elephant in the room: the countries in the north arguing that they have the competence to decide who to admit, which is a sacred principle. It remains the right of states to decide, based on the classic concept of sovereignty enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.”

He points to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, developed in 1990 and entered into force in 2003, to illustrate his point. “This Convention has 51 ratifications, all from the South. No developed country has ever ratified it,” he said.

Walls Won’t Work: Adapting National Immigration Policies

Despite the predictions of climate-fueled migration on the horizon, American and European political leaders are currently building walls and slashing annual refugee quotas. Among the most visibly anti-migrant is the Trump administration, which in only one year cut its federal refugee program by more than half, cracked down on undocumented immigration, deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border while the president’s controversial wall remains stalled, and proposed slashing legal immigration numbers by half over the next ten years. Anti-migrant policies are hardly unique to Donald Trump and strongly correlated with the rise of far-right populist parties across the European Union. The number of border walls around the world has jumped from 15 in 1989 to 70 today.

Flooding in the Walia neighborhood of N’Djamena in Chad, October 2012, caused by the rise of the Chari and Logone rivers. // Pierre Peron // OCHA

Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, notes that migration is a natural and effective adaptation process for environmental changes. “There needs to be preemptive action to provide legal avenues to facilitate those movements,” she said.

Some countries have already begun to adapt their immigration policies in preparation for climate migration, particularly those who have already experienced it. After a devastating earthquake in 2010 killed 300,000 Haitians and displaced more than one million, Brazil developed a policy issuing humanitarian visas and work authorizations for those arriving from the stricken nation. Argentina and Peru have implemented similar policies accounting for people affected by environmental disasters, and New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to introduce a climate refugee scheme by creating a special “refugee visa” for Pacific Islanders forced to migrate because of rising sea levels. Humanitarian visas, work authorizations, and other legal pathways are innovative policy options that states can institute even without an overarching international legal framework.

Other states, however, have responded to high rates of current asylum applications by closing existing legal avenues for climate migrants. In response to the European “refugee crisis,” for example, both Finland and Sweden— previously hailed as the only two countries in the world recognizing environmental disaster as a basis for protection— recently removed the clause from their respective immigration and asylum legislation.

Part II of the two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law coming soon.


Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews.