You can batten the hatches against a storm, but bureaucracy is harder to ride out. Last week, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record made a direct hit on the northern Bahamas and stalled there, destroying nearly half the homes on Great Abaco and Grand Bahamas islands. Days later, with their homes in ruins and food and water scarce, hundreds of fleeing Bahamians were asked to leave a ferry bound for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., because they didn’t have a U.S. visa — despite visas not being required in the past. And while U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials blamed the ferry operator, the federal government announced Wednesday it wouldn’t be extending the Dorian survivors temporary protected status.
Rising sea levels, wildfires, drought or a slow-moving hurricane can all threaten your way of life as surely as a bomb. But unlike victims of war for whom the causes and effects of the threats are clear and codified, there are no protections for environmental migrants. That’s despite World Bank estimates that tens of millions of people could be climate refugees by 2050, research showing asylum seeking already increases in response to climate-related issues like rising temperatures, and the fact that researchers have been talking about the plight of people who must escape not-entirely-natural disasters since at least 1988. Technically, in the context of legal and political systems, climate refugees don’t exist. There’s no space for them in international law and no special plans for how to treat them in the United States when they arrive. Here and around the world, fleeing climate change means running to bureaucracies as inhospitable to your survival as the places you left behind.
Just ask Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati who applied for asylum in New Zealand in 2010 on the basis that rising sea levels were slowly swallowing the land under his feet. His claim was denied because he didn’t fit existing definitions of what a refugee can be. Same with the other Pacific Islanders who have been seeking status as environmental migrants in Australia and New Zealand since at least 2000. The problem for Teitiota and others wasn’t that immigration officials didn’t believe climate change was happening. If only it were that simple and easy to judge. Instead, the rulings centered on the fact that systems designed in the 1950s simply aren’t accommodating the needs of the modern world.
Life-threatening climate change crises are almost never just one thing. In Teitiota’s case, New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal pointed out (correctly) that climate change was stacked on top of other problems on Kiribati — too much population growth, not enough sanitation infrastructure and greater numbers of people packing into urban areas. Sure, Teitota’s house was increasingly threatened by high tides, but other parts of the island were still safe. And, anyway, the Tribunal argued, refugee status in New Zealand is dependent on both the prospect of long-term human rights violations and a failure of the migrant’s own state to act. If climate change exacerbates a downward spiral in Kiribatians’ standard of living while developed nations that produce far more of the world’s greenhouse gases do nothing — well, there’s no legal precedent to call that a problem big enough for them to run from.
Climate change is real. But it’s also messy and complicated. In a climate change era, a hurricane can behave in a way that matches scientists’ predictions of how extreme weather is likely to evolve on a hotter planet. But we can’t say with absolute certainty that it was climate change — and climate change alone — that destroyed those Bahamian homes. In a climate change era, government policy (or lack thereof) can be directly responsible for death, destruction and impoverishment. But those don’t count as human rights violations when nature is the weapon.
And just as the complexity of climate systems can be used to sow doubt about the ways humans can alter them, complexity also can provide a convenient excuse for ignoring the victims of those changes. We can’t be sure who counts as an environmental migrant and who doesn’t. The paperwork isn’t right. They just don’t fit the established pathways.
To be fair, including environmental migrants would represent a radical shift in the way we think about migration. The original United Nations compact on refugees — the first international agreement to help displaced people — was signed in 1951 and basically only protected Europeans who had been made homeless or stateless by the second World War. Later agreements stripped away the limitations of geography and time, but not enough to encompass the effects of a slow-motion global disaster. Expanding migrant and refugee protections that far could potentially allow millions of new asylum claims. Low-immigration advocacy groups consider it incompatible with U.S. sovereignty.
So climate change migrants are stuck in a legal and political gray zone. Our systems aren’t designed for them. Changing those systems would be complicated, inconvenient and expensive. Efforts to create frameworks to take them into account run into opposition — such as the U.N. compact on migration that was signed last December, which was rejected by the U.S. and other countries most responsible for the changing climate. If this all sounds a bit like what got us into this climate problem to begin with, well, yes, it is.
There’s not necessarily a clear answer to what we should do about climate migrants. Again, it’s complicated. But what is clear is that ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. If rising temperatures and volatile weather have taught us anything, it’s that threats don’t vanish just because you refuse to make eye contact. When the U.S. denies Bahamian survivors of Hurricane Dorian protected status, we’re participating in another international failure to protect the people most harmed by climate change. It is, in some ways, a microcosm of climate change itself. The comfortable build a system that affects the poor, but the poor can’t benefit — all they can do is lose and lose.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight. @maggiekb1