Climate Refugees

The Green Party has long championed the rights of refugees and in this piece, local campaigner and local party member, Helen Kilburn shares the facts on climate refugees and highlights the work of global, national and local organisations.


“ only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well...”

Home by Warsan Shire


The Green Party has been at the forefront of the fight for climate and social justice in the UK and abroad. We stand in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers and proudly echo the Refugee Welcome Pledge made by Caroline Lucas, MP at the last general election to champion the rights and human dignity of refugees and asylum seekers.

A “refugee” is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees). In some contexts, the definition extends to persons fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order” (1969 OAU Convention; 1984 Cartagena Declaration). To be recognised as a refugee, an individual must first make a claim of asylum. This is a legal right to which all human beings are entitled, but governments are entitled to reject that claim.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the UK is the 5th largest economy in the world and yet the numbers of refugees we accept annually is one of the lowest in the world, but this is unsurprising. Just last year, an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill (9 Jan. 2020) that would have “protected the right for unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their family after Brexit” was defeated in the House of Commons. The vote carried by 348 votes to 252. Once asylum seekers reach the UK, they face a long and uncertain wait for a decision on their claim. The UK Visas and Immigration Service state that a decision should be made on cases that are not “complex” within six months. However, research done by Refugee Council has revealed that over half of applicants at the end of 2017 were waiting longer than six months. Most concerning is that a 2018 report from The Guardian found that almost three-quarters of denied asylum claims were overturned in court, which raises concerns that the “hostile environment” policy pursued by the government is needlessly subjecting vulnerable people to a degrading, and alienating court processes at substantial cost to the tax payer. In the meantime, asylum seekers live on just £5.66 per day without further recourse to public funds or the ability to work or study. The Refugee Council states that this had substantial, negative impact on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers, some of whom wait up to five years for a decision.

In Southwark, the Southwark Refugee and Migrant Project (SRMP) and the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers (SDCAS) provide essential support and companionship to asylum seekers as they navigate this system. The SRMP was established by refugees and 1991 and refugees continue as a backbone of the charity. It has seen substantial funding cuts in recent years but continues to offer ESOL classes, Back to Employment surgery and social activities for free with the support of volunteers. SDCAS, was founded in 1996 by local church leaders and community activists in response to changes in government policy that markedly increased poverty, distress and homelessness amongst refugees and asylum seekers. SDCAS offers general advice to assist access to mainstream services focused on health, housing, employment, training, education and asylum issues as well as social space to help reduce loneliness and isolation. It also offers emergency food parcel and other essentials from their Peckham Park Road centre every Wednesday from 10am-2pm. We salute the work of SRMP and SDCAS and encourage anyone in need of their services, or those of know of someone in need, to reach out to them.

Evidently, the asylum system in the UK needs radical reform but changes proposed by the present government will only further entrench the “hostile environment”. Refugee-Action reports that at the end of 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded 126,720 refugees, 45,244 pending asylum cases and 125 stateless persons in the UK, roughly 0.25% of the total UK population. By contrast, Turkey hosted 3.7 million refugees, Pakistan hosted 1.4 million and Uganda hosted 1.2 million. As the Refugee Council makes clear, it is often unrecognised that 85% of all refugees are hosted by developing countries. More tellingly, as the fourth largest economy in the world, Germany has a comparable economy to the UK but has hosted 1.8 million refugees at the end of 2018 according to the Centre for Global Development. Though the asylum system in the UK is already strictly controlled and incredibly complex, on 23 March 2021, the Home Secretary, the Rt. Hon. Priti Patel M.P., announced drastic changes to the UK asylum system that would further restrict asylum seekers’ ability to establish refuge in the UK. The proposals are founded on the idea that an asylum seeker must access “legal” routes to refugee status as opposed to “illegal” routes, something that the government argues is a “fair but firm, long term plan”. However, as the charity Care4Calais highlights, only 1% of the world’s refugees are able to access resettlement schemes, which are the main “legal” route to asylum. This is because typically those seeking asylum are escaping war, oppressive regimes, and even modern-day slavery which limits their ability to obtain a passport or visa for travel. Consequently, in order to claim asylum in the UK from within the UK, the majority of refugees are forced to use “illegal” routes. It must also be recognised that more than half of refugees globally originate from Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan. Each is listed on the Global Peace Index as amongst the 28 most dangerous countries in the world. In many of these countries, men are especially vulnerable to conscription in military service under oppressive regimes or for radical groups such as ISIS or the Taliban. This explains why young men are overrepresented in the Calais Jungle, especially as women and children are prioritised for resettlement or accommodation in social housing as they await the decision on their asylum claim.

Finally, the Refugee Council explains that although under the 1951 Convention the first safe country in which an asylum seeker arrives must hear their claim, the asylum seeker is not legally obliged make a claim there. This mechanism was intended to ensure that countries that were the first port of call for refugees would not be overwhelmed and that the global community would share the responsibility of providing refuge to those in need. Still, most refugees do remain in the first safe country in which they arrive, with 85% of refugees settling in countries neighbouring their country of origin. However, those who choose to move on mostly do so to reunite with family who have settled elsewhere. For example, Malika Bouhenia, a researcher from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) found that over half of those living in the Calais Jungle already had relatives living in the UK. Other asylum seekers choose to move on for more practical reasons, such as being able to speak the language of the host country which makes resettlement and finding a job easier. According to the World Economic Forum, English is the most widely spoken language in the world with non-native speakers accounting for 75% of the 1.5 billion English speakers worldwide. These figures are a legacy of the British Empire and other colonial languages, French and Spanish, follow similar patterns. That history should not be lost in the debate on our obligation to refugees and asylum seekers originating from formerly colonised nations. All of this information combined demonstrates that the Home Secretary’s claim that “to stop the deaths, we must stop the trade in people that cause them” only misdirects public attention away from the government’s pursuit of an asylum system which is deliberately obstructive towards desperate people trusting their lives to smugglers for lack of a safe, and legally transparent alternative.

Climate crisis and refugees

Jason Hickel (Goldsmiths University) led a recent study that found that the global north is responsible for 92% of excess global carbon emissions. The United States is responsible for 40% of emissions, the European Union is responsible for 29%. Yet, Hickel argues that the effects of climate crisis including “the increased frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, sea level rise, storms, and associated damage to infrastructure and human lives” will disproportionately harm the global south. He continues that the United Nations (UN) has estimated that the cost of adapting to climate change would cost developing nations $500 billion by 2050 despite those countries contributing little to excess global carbon emissions. However, those displaced by climate disaster have limited ability to claim asylum from its effects. The definition of a refugee outlined in the 1951 Convention was drafted in the wake of the second world war and the definition of a refugee was shaped by the needs of those who had survived the fascist regimes of mid-century Europe, but the climate crisis requires governments worldwide to work together to expand the existing definition of refugee status.

[Visual showing the shrinking of Lake Chad from 1973 - 2017, Source: Nasa and Transaqua project, via website]

The Global Compact on Refugees, which was affirmed by an overwhelming majority in the UN General Assembly in December 2018, was a good first step in this process. The compact recognizes that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements”. More recently, the findings of the UNHCR 2020 study, In Harm’s Way, prompted the body to issue Legal Considerations to guide interpretation and steer international discussion on asylum claims which argued that the claimant’s displacement was caused by armed conflict and violence fuelled by competition for resources depleted by climate change. However, the UNHCR fell short of endorsing the term “climate refugee” and instead it states that it is more accurate to refer to “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.” This is despite, for example, the UN having highlighted that humanitarian crises in the Lake Chad basin are partly attributable to the lake having diminished by 90% since the 1960s. The reduction of the lake has resulted in armed conflict between herders and farmers who compete for pasture and an ever-depleting body of water on which 30 million lives and 80-90% of livelihoods depend. The climate crisis is pressing for all of humanity but presently it most adversely affects citizens of the global south. Globally, governments are falling far short of their obligations towards people and planet and this is fuelling the refugee crisis.

To make a donation in support of the Southwark-based charities mentioned in this article please click the links below:

Southwark Refugee and Migrant Project

Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers

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  • Bartley Shaw
    published this page in News and Views 2021-06-13 20:53:37 +0100