Climate refugees, the forgotten of a changing world
250 millions climatic refugees are expected all around the world in 2050 but international law still does not recognize their status. Meanwhile, environmental upheavals, political crises and war are affecting migration from South to North. At the Refstad camp, the only refugee reception center in Oslo, who are the faces of these displaced people? What is their life in Refstad ? What life is waiting for them? Report.
« It’s like family here » smiles Iman Sayyah, an enthousiast coordinator for children and families. In the kindergarten, three childrens, around 3 years ord, run up and queue to make a high-five to Iman. « The playroom is closed today, but it will be okay to come here tomorrow » adresses Iman to the mother of the children. This family, a single mother and their young kids, comes from Turkey and is seeking asylum in Norway. They do not know yet if they will have the right to start a new life here. Originally from Lebanon but born in Kuwait, Iman has been working at the center for asylum seekers in Refstad, the only transit and arrival center in Oslo, since she arrived in Norway eleven years ago. « I am a social landmark for them. I take care of the relationship between parents and children, but also all the support and activities for children. After what they goe through, it allows them to feel better. » At the same time, we hear the laughter of Syrian children in the garden.
Iman Sayyah, coordinator for children and families. The painting was made by here to help children realizing where they are.
Because in the center of Refstad, many nationalities intersect. An average of 59 people are coming every week. 58 % of them are turkish, 19 % are coming from Syria, and then people from Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Afghasnistan, and even Chechnya. « Refstad is a transit and an arrival center. You have people from everywhere, most of them are seeking for political asylum. They are waiting here to receive a positive or a negative answer to stay in Norway » explains Balasubramaniam Venkatasmy, head manager of the Refstad Center. « It’s very hard to go to Norway but people still manage to arrive. » Indeed, arriving in Norway takes the obstacle course to cross many european countries including Germany, France or Denmark. Roads that some asylum seekers walked without the choice, desperate, looking for a new life. Political, social and environmental upheavals are re-shaping population all around the globe and affecting new migration flows. And in these intense migratory flows, climate change has its role to play. « This is going to be one of the biggest reasons for people to migrate. » claims Venkatasmy. According to UN, if nothing is done, 250 millions of climatic refugees are expected in 2050. Around 25,3 millions people between 2008 and 2016 migrated every year in the world because of climate change according to the Norvegian council of refugees.
These new displaced people are fleeing their country because of their local environment, for example sea level rise, desrtification or even disruption of weather patterns. Responding to many names such as ecomigrants, displaced person or environmental refugee, they have no legal status. Today, despite the fight of many NGOs campaigning for their recognition, climate refugees are not recognized by international law and as such can not apply for asylum. « The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees does not include climate change as a grounds for refugee status. Climate change displacement usually results in temporary protection or humanitarian protection status. According to the convention, climate change does not register as a persecution that can push an individual to flee. » precise Cecilia Bailliet, Deputy Director of the Research Group on Human Rights, Armed Conflict, and the Law on Peace and Security and responsible for the Profile on International Law. About that question, the Geneve Convention is clear and recognize as a persecution, reasons related “to race, religion, nationality membership of a social group or adherence to political opinions”.
In the words of several NGOs, environmental migrants are condemned to be forgotten in international law, living in the impossibility of being cared for. Climate disruption creates a vicious circle that forces people to live in poverty and to migrate to survive. « Most of the religious people, they are working in fields, they grow something, then they sell. And when there are drought, floods, or no rain, they go to the city to take jobs. Their wage will be even more low. It will lead to a stronger poverty and they won’t have enought income. Then, they will find a way to migrate outside. It’s a chain. » adds Venkatasmy, head of the Refstad Center. This circle is all the more vicious because climatic reasons are oftenmixed to a political crisis. War refugees can also be victims of climate change. The consequences of natural disasters re-raise the impossibility of a government to meet the needs for the population.
Climate change, responsible for war in Syria ?
In Syria, the second population in Refstad, big periods of drought preceded the revolution of 2011. This situation brought a rural exodus from the north of the country, about 1,5 million Syrians arrived in big cities. The strong influx in town and the mismanagement of the resources led an increase of unemployment and prices of the rents.This discontent is one of the elements behind the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. Here, climate change is not the spark but definitely an aggravating factor. « Displacement often has mixed motives- drought and war often figure in the same narrative of a migrant. States are reluctant to recognize either scenario as grounds for refugee status, both are usually given humanitarian protection. There are however cases in which certain groups, either ethnic groups or political groups, are denied access to humanitarian assistance after a natural disaster- such discrimination would amount to persecution. Where warfare is conducted in pursuit of racial or ethnic discrimination, there would be a link to the Convention as well. » explains Cecilia Bailliet, Deputy Director of the Research Group on Human Rights, Armed Conflict, and the Law on Peace and Security and responsible for the Profile on International Law.
Iman made drawings all around the center to give joy to the kids.
In his personal story, Balasubramaniam Venkatasmy, with origins from Sri Lanka, has witnessed the complexity of climatic and non-climatic reasons that can affect migrations in the country : “« Our main income from the fishing and tourism. Because of the war, we didn’t have any of these. We got poor. Climate change, war, it’s a combination of all factors than can lead a person to flee his country. » From 1983 to 2009, a civil war in Sri Lanka broke out between the government of the country and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ilam, LTTE, a separatist organization. « 10 years before, I would have had half the chance to have asylum if I were coming from Sri lanka, but today I will have no chance ». Because, in fact, Norway does not recognize climate and economic refugees, the asylum process is a new path for the combatant that awaits the men and women who have crossed the world to get there. Of all asylum seekers, 60% will receive a positive response. The remaining 40% will be returned to the first country they arrived in Europe, usually Greece or Italy. « Mostly, they are refused because the war came to an end or the country is recovering. We don’t accept economical migrants but we can give sometimes a temporary permit for humanitarian reasons, even for climate related reasons. » says Balasubramaniam Venkatasmy.
“Some of them are lying to get asylum seekance”
The different foreign languages are confronted and provoked in a burst of diversity in the Refstad Center. In the facilities, families and single women are separated from men to avoid incidents. In the hallway, a group of male residents discusses. Tor Johansen walks over to them and in a cheerful tone claims : “it’s lunch time” interrupting their discussion but inviting them to eat. Carpenter, here, he is also the handyman. “When something is broken, I fix it.” smiles Tor.
Tor Johansen, carpenter, a social link for the residents.
Working here for years, he does not only fix the material but is a real support for the residents : “
Whether they come from Africa, Europe or Asia, that does not matter. We are all equal and we have to treat everyone the same way. I encourage residents to mix, meet other people. Some wait alone for the days to pass. “. To instill moments of escape to people and slow down the stress of the uncertainty to stay in the country, many activities are organized all day: sewing, football or even swimming. The motto for Tor is « never to go into judgment« . Tor confide : “ I listen their story, but i don’t want to know everything. I don’t want to be a judge. Because then i’m becoming a part of their story. I just hear a little bit. It’s not my responsibility there.” Staff who live on a daily basis with the residents don’t have to decide whether they will stay or notin Norway. But there are many stories and destinies here. Sometimes even adapted to have the best chance to stay. “Most refugees are very smart, they have a lot of information before coming here. They know that if they talk about climate change, they would be rejected even if this is the reason they left their country. Some of them are probably lying to get asylum seekance” explains Iman Sayyah, the coordinator for children and families. Life is not easy for residents. While associations fight for the recognition of climate or economic refugees, asylum seekers have little to say about the global context. They just want to survive. In the installations, many sad faces are silent as if they apologize for being there. If new friendships seem to be formed on the spot, some flee from the eyes interlocutors. More than half will have the chance to continue their life on the territory, but others will soon return. The mother and the three children whom Iman greeted this morning have received a negative answer but don’t know it yet.
“The light after the darkness “
Closer to the residents, Iman regularly realizes the ravages of war, indelible marks that will never leave the refugees. Taking care of the children, she had a shock with young Syrian children. At the sight of a doll, their first reflex was to hide it under a bed. « He told me that it was a dead body and that there was no interest in leaving it outside, these children only knew the war before coming here. » tell Iman. During drawing activities, a young Syrian girl was drawing everything entirely in black. Even the green trees of the garden formed under huge black blocks. « We did a lot of work to get him out of his anger. Sometimes the Syrians refuse to play with the Eritreans because of their skin color, but we always manage to beat that. » Symbolically, Iman pushed the boy to add color in these drawings, a large green block is now in the middle of his black painting. “ The light after the darkness” smiles Iman.
A little syrian kid made a drawing all black. Iman pushes him to put color in it. (Crédit : Roberto Garçon)
What’s next ?
Given the forecasts of the World Bank and the UN, the future may seem alarming for the next decades. Many climate upheavals are expected and political crises are tearing people apart. Without being able to be recognized by international law, what is waiting for the climate refugees? “The trend in international law and refugee law is soft law, non-state actors, and civil society. Management will be ad hoc transantional initiatives involving a plurality of actors which will complicate transparency and accountability.” answers Cecilia Bailliet, Deputy Director of the Research Group on Human Rights, Armed Conflict, and the Law on Peace and Security and responsible for the Profile on International Law. Perhaps, like Iman’s work with the dark drawings of the young Syrian, it’s time to put a little green in the middle of the dark.