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Could Canada be a safe haven for climate refugees?

This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In our backyard, which examines the effects of climate change in Canada, from extreme weather events to the transformation of our economy.


The islands of Kiribati are located in the central Pacific Ocean and look like a tropical paradise. Surrounded by crystal clear waters and coral reefs, with coconut palms and pandanus trees lining the islands, it comes straight from a holiday brochure. On a given day, the temperature varies by 30 ° C and rarely falls below 25 ° C.

But looks can fool you.

In 2015, KIoane Teitiota, a Kiribati-based person, applied for refugee status in New Zealand (and was denied it). His reason to seek refuge? It is estimated that the Kiribati Islands – as well as others in the Pacific – will be completely gone by 2100. They will succumb to rising sea levels and may have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The question remains: where will all these people be go?

Canada, land of abundance

No country in the world will escape the effects of climate change. Some will experience increasing drought, more frequent storms or rising temperatures.

Canada will probably see everything.

In the Atlantic probably eroding coasts are to be expected. in Central Quebec and southern Ontario rising temperatures with more frequent heat waves and long-lasting storms; The prairies can suffer long periods of drought. In Alberta and British Columbia, forest fires could increase. And there have been dramatic changes in the Arctic, with sea ice and thawing permafrost gone.

Every effect has its own consequences.

But with the changing climate, there will be areas in the country that were previously considered uninhabitable and could become more temperate. Some suggest that this puts Canada in a unique position to welcome those displaced from their homes due to climate change: climate refugees.

The sea ice breaks apart as the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica crosses the Northwest Passage through the Victoria Road in the Canadian Arctic on July 21, 2017. Since the first orbit images were taken in 1979, Arctic sea ice cover has fallen by an average of 88,000 square kilometers per year. (David Goldman / Associated Press)

A 2010 Federal Government report titled "Climate Change and Forced Migration: Canada's Role" concluded that by best estimates, hundreds of millions of people could be on the move in the coming decades due to the effects of climate change, now an orderly and effective one To plan a response to the coming crisis. "

But there does not seem to be a solid plan yet, and that is largely due to the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951.

If a refugee is not a refugee

According to the UN Refugee Agency, around 68.5 million people have been displaced from their homes, of whom 25.4 million are refugees.

Although the UN refugee agency is tracking forced migration, it does not specifically monitor the number of people uprooted by climate change. In large part because the Refugee Convention of 1951 does not recognize climate threats as something a person may flee.

"At present, even in the Refugee Convention, climate change factors are not seen as reasons for refugee status," said Adrian Edwards, the UN spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "The Refugee Convention usually covers conflicts: wars and persecution."

But as with extreme weather events, climate change can play a role in the conflict.

"We are increasingly seeing climate factors impact situations that cause conflicts that cause exactly the things that bring refugees and internally displaced persons," Edwards said.

The situation in Syria is remarkable, as some believe that the drought between 2006 and 2010 was partly the catalyst for the ongoing war that started in 2011.

On this photo in June 2014, a man rides a bicycle through a part of Homs, Syria, which was destroyed by the country's civil war. Climate change is more than rising thermometers, forest fires, droughts and storms. it can even change the Wallieder, flowering plants and civil war. (Dusan Vranic / Associated Press)

The Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen refused several interview requests from CBC News. However, a statement from his office said, "In order to be considered for resettlement to Canada, the individual must generally be a Convention refugee under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act."

This Canadian law largely adheres to the convention.

The statement added, however, that "with regard to individuals likely to be affected by climate change, decisions on Canadian government action in the event of natural disasters will be taken on a case-by-case basis."

At the end of 2018, Canada was one of 167 countries that have signed the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which requires participating countries to identify, develop and strengthen migrant solutions based on their countries of origin of slow natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change. "

However, the pact is not legally binding.

According to Jamie Chai Yun Liew, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, who specializes in immigration, refugee and citizenship law, the Immigration Refugee Protection Act has no specific provisions for migrants related to climate change.

"However, we see government reactions to the earthquake in Haiti, for example," she said. "One could argue that these people were migrants as a result of an environmental catastrophe, so we see governments respond when disaster strikes."

While a disappearing island can be a clear sign that you have lost your home due to climate change, Liew said that not every change would be so easy to identify.

Although Canadian governments have responded quickly to extreme environmental disasters, the same response is usually not extended to "something more gradual or something invisible or invisible."

"I think there has to be a conversation about what we want to respond to to help people," Liew said.

Internal shift

Not everyone affected by the effects of climate change has to leave their country.

"The vast majority of people who need to move for climatic reasons are likely to move to their home country," said Robert McLeman, a professor of geography and environmental science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Often, he said, it is farmers who suffer from drought and move to a city. This adds to the burden on resources and infrastructure, which can lead to pollution and overcrowding in cities, ultimately encouraging residents to leave the country.

But is migration due to climate change? It is a blurred problem.

"Most of these cities can not handle the influx of people during these weather and climate disasters," McLeman said. "This leads to a negative spiral in which climatic and weather-related events drive people into the cities and the quality of life drops."

McLeman said we could observe internal migration in the US, especially from places with eroding coasts such as South Texas, Florida and Louisiana. And maybe these people will consider crossing the border.

In this file photo from August 2017, lifeboats fill a flooded road as evacuated flood victims from tropical storm Harvey in Houston. It was a slow, rainy role that made Harvey a monster and caused billions in damage. (David J. Phillip / Act / Associated Press)

There is unlikely to be a sudden and rapid influx of climate refugees in Canada, said Luisa Veronis, Professor of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Ottawa. But over time, an influx can build, she said. Therefore, it is important for our governments to start planning this, especially in terms of infrastructure.

"Preparing and preventing the road saves a lot of money," Veronis said, pointing out the damage Flooding in eastern Ontario and south of Quebec this spring.

I'm looking forward to

It is likely that the climate migrants that Canada is seeing come from countries that already have a history of migration, such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and China – all of which are among the countries most vulnerable to climate change because of their poverty, Population pressure or geography that is particularly prone to rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

As for the people of Kiribati, it is not known where they land or if they will ever go.

Kiribati's former president, Anote Tong, believes there may be plans to rebuild the tiny nation as a floating island – an idea that sounds like science fiction that some engineering firms are already trying to design.

And in any case, Tong has also bought an island in Fiji for more than 100,000 Residents.

Today, Tong travels around the world, talking about the changing climate, and calling on governments to hold their inaction to account.

But he does not see those who are exposed to the hard fact that their homes are no longer habitable as refugees. Instead, he believes in "migration with dignity" and equips migrants with education and skills to volunteer to migrate.

In the meantime, people who have little to do with raising greenhouse gases are likely to face the hardest consequences of a changing world.

"I think climate change will apply to the people most affected, and they will find robust solutions to their particular plight," Yiew said. "I am not sure that the international community will do anything about it, unless there is a reasonable interest of a state to tackle this problem."

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