Op-Ed: Here’s why Canada should modernize its immigration policy to respond to people displaced by climate change
By Muzna Dureid
In October 2021, leaders from all over the world gathered in Glasgow for COP26, the U.N. Climate Change Conference, to follow up on their commitments related to the Paris Agreement to mitigate global emissions. Canada participated in the conference with Prime Minister Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Freeland, and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Guilbeault. While these efforts try to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, few efforts focus on the impact of climate change on civilians.
For many years, scientists have warned governments about the destructive impact of climate change. For the international refugee system, the impact of the modern climate crisis remains poorly understood. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people were newly displaced worldwide in 2018 due to disasters. A report from the World Bank has estimated that 143 million people will be displaced by 2050 due to climate change in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The disappearance of cities and islands is another issue that will cause massive displacement due to climate change. According to the World Economic Forum, there are 11 sinking cities in danger of disappearing. Among them are cities in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Citizens of countries that may disappear completely or almost completely due to rising sea levels will need legal recognition as climate refugees because they may no longer have a physical territory to call their “home country”. The most pressing question is what happens if their countries totally disappear due to climate change.
“Citizens of countries that may disappear completely or almost completely due to rising sea levels will need legal recognition as climate refugees because they may no longer have a physical territory to call their “home country”. The most pressing question is what happens if their countries totally disappear due to climate change.”
In 2010, Ioane Teitiota fled from his country Kiribati, an island country in the Pacific. He applied for asylum based on rising sea level and the disappearance of his country. This scenario seems inevitable because scientists have stressed that even if countries cut half of their emissions in coming years, these islands and cities will still sink.
The dilemma is the lack of legal recognition and adequate remedy for climate refugees. There is no legal category of “climate refugee” in international or Canadian law. To date, there is no international agreement for people forcibly displaced because of climate change. The current international refugee system was created after World War II by the United Nations under the legal framework of the 1951 Refugee Convention to protect only refugees fleeing their countries on the basis of political persecution. Climate-related reasons have no basis in international law, in part because the majority of people affected by climate change are displaced internally. However, even if they cross international borders, they are not legally considered refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Canada’s Responsibility and Response: Modernizing Immigration Policy
There is a responsibility for Western countries to support climate refugees because of the damage caused by their emissions. Canada is ranked as one of the top polluters in the last century, contributing 1.58% of global emissions. Canada’s emissions per capita are among the worst in the world and most Canadians benefit from the revenue of fossil fuels, as Canada is one of the top five producers of oil and gas. Canada is a wealthy country and has the capacity to respond to climate-related displacement.
“We have passed the turning point of climate change and there is no way to completely prevent climate-related displacement.”
In 2019, The Canadian parliament declared a national climate emergency that acknowledges the gravity of climate change. Despite this progress, the status quo remains in place, and we are missing the opportunity to manage this crisis before it gets worse. The progress of the Canadian government in joining international climate actions such as the Paris Agreement to mitigate Canada’s emissions may lead people to believe that the resettlement of climate refugees is unnecessary, because emissions reductions will reduce displacement. This perspective fails to take into account that we have passed the turning point of climate change and there is no way to completely prevent climate-related displacement. As a result, we have one option, which is to act adequately and promptly to save the lives of those who have already been displaced and who will become displaced.
“The progress of the Canadian government in joining international climate actions such as the Paris Agreement to mitigate Canada’s emissions may lead people to believe that the resettlement of climate refugees is unnecessary, because emissions reductions will reduce displacement. This perspective fails to take into account that we have passed the turning point of climate change and there is no way to completely prevent climate-related displacement.”
Canada has hosted and resettled many refugees over the years, and it can respond to climate-related displacement through its immigration policy. In the 2019 Speech from the Throne to Canada’s Parliament, the Government committed to “provide help for people displaced by climate-related disasters.” In the past, Canada has positively responded to natural disasters through adjustments to immigration policy. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Canada suspended the removal order for Haitians who were unable to return to Haiti because of the destruction related to the earthquake.
The absence of an international legal framework that addresses environmental displacement should not prevent the possibility of developing specific national policies based on our domestic law to protect those who are forced to move because of climate change. In 2018, Canada joined 167 countries that signed the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration which stressed that Member States need to develop comprehensive solutions for people displaced because of climate change. Although the UN’s global compact is not legally binding, it offers strong ground to improve Canada’s immigration policies. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has encouraged states to use all existing international and domestic laws and frameworks related to displacement, disaster management, and regular migration. Canada could follow the example of the Kampala Convention (the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons) that was adopted by the African Union 2009 as binding normative standards. This Convention has codified and institutionalized the subject of climate displacement in great detail. It offers a legal ground to recognize the fundamental human rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and to protect persons displaced by natural disasters and climate degradation. The Kampala Convention has transformed the UN norms into binding norms for the Member States of the African Union and offers important implications for climate cases.
In order to craft a new immigration policy to address climate displacement, Canada should adopt the following three principles:
First, it should acknowledge climate-related displacement as a threatening crisis.
Second, it should establish a safe and legal complementary pathway for climate refugees to be resettled in Canada.
Third, it should engage Canadian society in sponsoring climate refugees through the existing Canadian private sponsorship program.
Based on a report by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the optimal solution for the sake of both climate refugees and the Canadian government will be using Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program, because it is much easier to amend an existing domestic law than to create a new one. Implementing this option would require amendment of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (2001) and its related Regulations to redefine refugee eligibility. Expanding refugee eligibility will allow climate refugees to be legally considered for sponsorship in Canada. From a public policy perspective, there are also other possible measures that could be taken to ensure legal migration for these displaced people, such as a climate visa. Overall, Canada has the responsibility, the capacity, and the policy tools to respond to climate displacement.