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If we could talk to climate refugees around the world, what would they tell us?

Tacloban-victims-yolanda-11

Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda, was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, devastating portions of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, in early November 2013. The Philippines faced a humanitarian crisis days after the typhoon hit with 1.9 million homeless and more than 6,000,000 displaced. In Tacloban alone, ninety percent of the structures were either destroyed or damaged.

Second in a series of blogs on climate change and population displacement.

By Claire Havens, ACT population displacement researcher.

After meeting someone who identified themselves as a climate refugee for the first time a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the stories that other people displaced from their homeland might tell us. How did their livelihoods come to be threatened by climactic changes, or by political conflict exacerbated by extreme weather patterns? Was this a gradual change they saw coming for years, or a sudden, violent event that wrenched them from their beds and set them on the long road to finding a safe haven? When they reached a refugee camp, or crossed into a new country, what did they experience and did our international protocols and organisations like the UNHCR kick in to help them?

I came across a report today called Moving Stories, published by the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition in 2014, written in the hopes of highlighting the voices of people who move due to severe environmental change, voices that are largely absent from the mainstream dialogue on climate migration. It’s a heartbreaking read.

The stories include testimonies of survivors of repeated typhoons in the Philippines, devastatingly powerful weather events that are being exacerbated by climate change. There is no such thing as climate change denial in the Philippines, where natural disasters such as floods, landslides, drought and forest fires are now the most significant factor driving internal displacement.

The report also looks at impacts occurring in Latin America, where internal displacement is also on the rise; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that migration from the countryside to cities in the region will be intensified by the impacts of climate change.

A villager from Bolivia expresses concern regarding climate-induced migration sending the next generation from developing to developed countries:

“I am very worried. The snow and ice are disappearing and melting day-by-day, year-by-year. The sun is stronger. It doesn’t snow as much. We are very concerned … There could be a tremendous drought. There might be no more snow, no more water coming down. So how would we irrigate our plots of land? My son would have to leave and go somewhere else, to other countries.”

Indonesia is another vulnerable region detailed in the report. The capital, Jakarta, home to some 9.6 million people, and the islands of Java and Sumatra are at risk from rising sea levels and coastal flooding. The Asian Development Bank estimates that as many as 20.5 million Indonesians could be at risk of coastal flooding by 2050.

One fisherwoman notes: “Previously the weather change was manageable. Now the weather in recent years has gotten worse. It has become more difficult to sail the sea, especially for those using rowing boats. The sea is not safe for us anymore.”

How can these sad and thought-provoking stories help prepare us for the arrival of increasingly intense waves of refugees, as global temperatures rise and directly or indirectly affect vulnerable populations? Such firsthand accounts tug at our heartstrings. They also give us valuable data about specific impacts on people’s ways of life, and what affects the decision to move – whether internally, or across borders to safety.

They also give us a window into how those affected by climate change see their own circumstances. I was surprised to read many accounts of survivors who were very emphatic about the impacts they perceive climate change has had on their personal lives.

As a grandmother from Bangladesh laments: “Climate change has wrecked everything; our people are living in other towns and cities, like refugees. All I wanted was to grow old with my children and their children. But now they are gone and I don’t think they will ever return.

It is essential that we begin now to think about how Canada may be able to provide support and compassionate services for such people as they are displaced – for a country as large and affluent as ours will surely be a destination for them as the impacts of global warming advance in the coming years and decades. How can – and should – we prepare to receive the people telling these stories?

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