Over the last century, climate change has increasingly come to the forefront of many political and public debates. One symptom of the increasing impact of climate change is the number of people who must flee their homes due to climate change making them uninhabitable. Climate refugees are not currently covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention, as they are not fleeing conflict or persecution. As such, many who flee from the effects of climate change are not aided under refugee guidelines. This is a particular problem for the Commonwealth, which contains many countries whose populations are threatened by the effects of climate change.
For instance, in May 2016 five islands belonging to the Solomon Islands archipelago were lost due to rising sea levels, while in Bangladesh an estimated 200,000 people a year are made homeless due to river erosion. It has also become normal to discuss the buying of land for migration in the case of homes vanishing due to rising sea levels, which led to Kiribati purchasing land in Fiji in 2014 for the purpose of relocating some, if not all of its population. Not only are whole nations of people facing losing their homes, they are also tackling the day to day problems brought by rising sea levels, which include losses of land that can be used for farming due to levels of salt in the soil.
As a Senior Advisor at the UNHCR put it: "In the case of cross-border movement, we’re looking at a gaping legal hole" when it comes to migrants fleeing the results of climate change. The UNHCR has emphasised that it is first states which must deal with climate refugees, showing that this is an issue UNHCR are willing to tackle, but not until states also begin to work on this issue. The reluctance of the UNHCR to tackle this issue without states at least first stepping in, suggests that this is arguably where the Commonwealth can make a difference. One of the main issues that the UNHCR cites for its reluctance, is the fact that it cannot relocate people to other countries until these countries are willing to accept refugees from climate change. Thus, using its common ties, as well as the knowledge that many of its member countries, including Kiribati, Fiji, Tuvalu and until recently the Maldives, are all facing a similar future, the Commonwealth may be able to enact change that will lead to greater help when it comes to migrants fleeing the effects of climate change.
At present, the Commonwealth is doing a lot of work in the field of combating climate change. This primarily involves using the network that the Commonwealth provides to link a diverse range of people and allow them to discuss and develop various ideas and strategies. The 2015 Malta Declaration on Governance for Resilience states that many Commonwealth nations ‘are at the front line of facing climate change impacts, economic and environmental shocks’ and therefore need to be ‘at the front line of the dialogue which genuinely seeks pathways that offer the possibilities for people, communities and their cultures to flourish.’ The Queens Commonwealth Canopy, launched in 2015, is a project which uses the ties of the Commonwealth to create a network of forest conservation initiatives; recently the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada was added to the network, launched by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Moreover, as of early October 2016, over 50% of the countries who have ratified the Paris Agreement are in the Commonwealth.
Currently, the population of the Commonwealth is made up of a majority of young people. As such, networks such as the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network are important for engaging young people, and ensuring their voices are heard. Moreover, many of the RCS Associate Fellows are tackling the issue of climate change in their work. For example, Gideon Commey runs the company Solar People in Ghana, which aims to provide sustainable and environmentally friendly sources of light to areas in Africa that are not connected to the main power grid.
However, the problem of climate refugees is not one that is being as readily tackled. While the world is beginning to wake up to the problem of climate change, the victims of this change, in particular migrants from more affected areas such as the Pacific Islands, are not yet being treated as refugees. This is an area in which the use of Commonwealth networks may be able to play a key role in aiding those who are forced to leave their homes. Understanding between Commonwealth nations and aid between these countries may be an important part of helping those whose livelihood and homes are destroyed by climate change.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.