When It Comes to Climate Refugees, the U.S. Has a Lot to Answer For

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

You can’t separate climate change from immigration. While many people are fleeing persecution and violence, there are others trying to migrate because of severe climate conditions. 

Storms worldwide have tripled in number since the early 1980s, while dry areas are becoming drier, according to NASA research, and greenhouse gases put so much moisture into the air that it increases the risk of more extreme precipitation. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that, each year since 2008, an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards – such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. 

Following natural disasters, people are most likely to seek refuge within their own countries, but that is not always an option. Most migrants crossing Mexico into the United States are actually from Guatemala, which has the highest poverty rate in the region. Severe drought, followed by heavy rains, has slashed food harvests in the country by 90%, leaving a third of the population without enough food. 

Rising temperatures that lead to food and water shortages can also bring about political instability, as in North Africa and Sudan. And sometimes, there is no country left: Five Pacific Islands have been lost to sea-level rise and others are threatened. In low-lying Bangladesh, the population of what that government labels “immediately threatened” islands exceeds 4 million, Scientific American reports. 

Since the United States has surely contributed to climate change more than any other country, we should be receptive to helping those who suffer as a result of our wasteful lifestyle. That is why climate immigration needs to be connected to other justice movements. After all, it is the poor and people of color who are more likely to suffer from the consequences of climate change, although it is the wealthy who burn more fossil fuels.

“Climate refugee” is not an official label; these folks are not entitled to refugee status under U.S. law. We have all read about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but do you realize how immigration has become a gold mine for corporations that build and run migrant housing centers? The two largest companies, Geo Group and CoreCivic, house 72% of all detained migrants and earned $985 million in 2017. Who is paying for this? You and me. 

The good news is that numerous groups are organizing to fight these profit centers, and environmentalists have been very present at protests, including both 350.org and Clean Water Action.