Corine Gerald remembers her two children crying while her husband braced a broken window with a mattress to protect the family from flying debris. Her island home of Barbuda, which covers an area smaller than the District of Columbia, was the first to feel the force of Hurricane Irma when the storm made landfall on September 6, 2017.
The storm crashed into the island with 185 mile-per-hour winds, damaging 90 percent of properties across the nation and killing three people. Two days later, fearing Barbuda would be hit again by the oncoming Hurricane Jose, the prime minister ordered an evacuation.
All 1,800 residents were ferried to neighboring Antigua, and for the past two years, the Gerald family has been forced to live on separate islands. Corine remains in Antigua so her children — James Jr. and Jerrene — can continue school, while her husband, James Sr., a carpenter, is in Barbuda to help rebuild the island.
“It’s tough if you have to just move like that by force,” Corine said. “You don’t have money; you don’t know where you’re going. I would tell any parent: plan for a day like that, because when we look around now, every year, it’s like hurricanes are getting worse and worse.”
The warming of the atmosphere and ocean, due to human activity such as burning fossil fuels, create conditions ripe for hurricanes to become more intense with faster wind speeds and more rainfall — and storms in the Caribbean are no exception. Research shows climate change can also contribute to more destructive fires, floods and winter storms.
As climate change worsens, more people like Corine and her family are likely to be forced from their homes. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, there will be 143 million climate change-driven migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia alone.
While those migrants are being deemed “climate change refugees” by advocates and media organizations, the phrase is not an official legal term, and that they do not have the same protections as traditional refugees under international law.
A United Nations ruling this week, however, could give climate refugees more rights. The UN Human Rights Committee issued a landmark decision Monday that opens the door for other asylum seekers to use climate change as a reason for seeking asylum.
In 2015, Ioane Teitiota was denied asylum to New Zealand and was deported back to his home country of Kiribati. Teitota had argued that rising sea levels had contaminated fresh water on the nation’s main island, Tarawa, making much of the land uninhabitable and leading to fatal land disputes.
This week, the UNHRC ruled against Teitiota, saying New Zealand did not violate his rights because enough protection measures were put into place to keep Teitiota safe.
Still, in its ruling, the UNHRC acknowledged for the first time that human rights law protects people from staying in their countries where an immediate threat is posed by climate change.
The UNHRC ruling is not formally binding for U.N. nations, but it puts pressure on countries to consider climate-related asylum claims.
“A non-binding decision simply states that this is a possibility and that we need to figure out safe legal pathways to ensure that people are not vulnerable because they’re moving due to climate change,” Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager of the Refugee International’s climate displacement program said. “What this new U.N. Human Rights Committee decision does is allow lawyers to actually use this precedent-setting text to argue in future court cases [for] a client that fits within this kind of narrow definition.”
Ober said that while the ruling constitutes progress, it is not widely applicable right now. The UNHRC ruling does not mean that climate refugees will become an official legal term or that climate change will be incorporated into the 1951 Refugee Convention, which outlines who qualifies for refugee status.
Existing international law
According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” But some question whether the international convention drafted more than 60 years ago is too limited in scope.
“Simply because you’ve got a treaty doesn’t solve the problem,” said Jane McAdam, an international refugee lawyer. “The refugee convention is one of the most widely ratified treaties in the world, but we still have more refugees now than at any time since the Second World War.”
The threat climate change poses to communities around the globe is top of mind for many international leaders who gathered for the past two week at the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP25, in Madrid.
Migrant advocates say there is an urgent need for a coordinated international community response to the massive human migrations caused by climate change, disasters, and environmental degradation. In 2017 alone, 18 million people — 61.5 percent of global displacements — were forced to move due to natural disasters. Currently, nearly 1 billion people live in areas of “very high” or “high” climate exposure.
“Whole islands, people’s homes, are at risk of disappearing much sooner than previously predicted. The time to act decisively and meaningfully is rapidly running out,” Omar Figeuroa, Belize’s minister of forestry, environment, sustainable development and climate change, said in a statement made to the UN conference on behalf of 44 low-lying island and coastal nations.
Whether they stay or go, climate migrants live in limbo
Most climate migrants are internally displaced, which means they take refuge within their home nation — if there is space. Some nations like small island states often lack internal relocation options, McAdam said.
“For instance, if you’re in [the central Pacific island nations] Kiribati and Tuvalu, there is no high land that people can move to,” she added. The annual Emissions Gap Report, released on the eve of the UN climate change conference, noted that by 2050 Tuvalu and Kiribati will be entirely inundated by sea level rise and could become uninhabitable due to coastal erosion and freshwater contamination.
And when forced to cross international borders, climate migrants find themselves in legal limbo and a financial pit. Once resettled, traditional refugees are given government assistance, housing, help with job placements and other temporary services to rebuild their lives. Climate migrants are not granted the same privileges, even though their forced displacement can last for years as communities rebuild.
Small island nations across the Pacific and Caribbean are the most vulnerable to climate change, even though they have contributed less than 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
The climate crisis is also a child rights crisis, where an estimated 761,000 children were internally displaced by storms in the Caribbean between 2014 and 2018 – the highest five-year period on record. The poorest people suffer most, and repeated storms trap island states in a cycle of disaster, displacement and debt.
The Emissions Gap Report predicts rapid sea-level rise to inundate critical infrastructure and whole communities within the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean. Ocean warming, acidification and coral bleaching all pose serious threats to the islands’ limited economies and food sources.
In September, Barbados Рrіmе Міnіѕtеr Міа Amore Моttlеу ѕpoke аt thе Unіtеd Nаtіоnѕ Сlіmаtе Ѕummіt, stressing thаt small island nations саnnоt ѕurvіvе thе сlіmаtе сrіѕіѕ and that a mass migration of refugees will follow if action is not taken. In the Caribbean, 8.5 million people have been displaced across 21 Caribbean countries over the past 10 years.
“Unlike countries that have land borders where you can in theory cross over, for people to get out of small island states, it’s extremely expensive to fly, and most people just don’t have the money to do it,” McAdam said.
Can treaties or local governments help climate migrants?
The UNHRC ruling this week stated that within 10 to 15 years climate change could render places virtually uninhabitable.
“In that case, it will be hard to argue that you should be able to return someone to their place of origin if it’s so impacted by climate change that they’re not able to live a life with dignity,” Ober said.
But revising the 1951 UN convention or ratifying an entirely new treaty to include climate migrants could take years.
That’s why some international refugee lawyers recommend lower-level action instead, such as enforcing building codes to make homes more resilient to natural disasters or granting humanitarian visas.
About 50 countries worldwide have a history of granting visas for compassionate and humanitarian reasons, and these programs are commonly instituted in the aftermath of disasters. In these instances, a country can expedite an applicant’s claims or suspend any deportation order that could arrive if a visa expires.
For instance, in the Caribbean, Free Movement Agreements grant displaced nationals important protection benefits after catastrophic hurricanes and liberalize migration restrictions between participating member states After Hurricane Maria, Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua, St. Vincent, Grenada and St. Lucia governments all used Free Movement Agreements to welcome and shelter displaced people from the island nation Dominica.
However, these programs are usually only temporary.
McAdam urges governments to implement long-term strategies that will take into account the possibility that some areas will become permanently uninhabitable.
“We may have a climate crisis, but we don’t have to have a displacement crisis,” McAdam said.
Small island nations at the frontline of climate action
While countries around the world are deciding how to handle an influx of climate migrants, the most susceptible nations, including many in the Caribbean, are already taking proactive measures to combat the effects of climate change.
In Bequia, Martinique, and Curacao, reverse desalination plants were installed to prevent saltwater intrusion into aquifers. Local fishery space projects in Jamaica and Belize are allowing regeneration of depleted fish stock across the region.
Adaptation is equally important as lowering carbon emissions, said Tyrone Hall, media and policy adviser for the Alliance of Small Island States. But he added that the alliance is calling on action from developed countries, because “inaction is tantamount to sacrificing small island developing states.”
“We need to see a good faith commitment from developed countries to encourage co-development and ready transfer technologies, to climate-proof ports, to drive industry, to build better schools, and hospitals,” Hall said. “They can encourage North-South partnerships with our universities or private sectors. The technology and capacity development is key; finance is critical.”
All 44 members of the Alliance of Small Island States participated in negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 late last year.
Small island states were instrumental in the “loss and damages” provision of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which concerns the transfer of resources from wealthy countries to developing countries to compensate them for climate harm.
“Whole communities are at risk when you lose the land that you’re connected to and when you go somewhere else,” Hall said. “If you really want to be fair to small island developing states, you have to find a way to compensate them for what they’ve lost that you can never replace.”
A year ago, climate-caused migration was recognized for the first time under the Global Compact on Refugees, which was adopted by an overwhelming majority in the UN General Assembly. However, skeptics say the agreement was more of a rhetorical commitment by governments to protecting people than a binding treaty obligation.
“Today’s political world shows us that despite there being good international will or global agreements about things, it doesn’t mean countries will adhere to them or sign on to them,” Ober said.
As is the case with the UNHRC ruling this week, the challenge lies in mustering the political will to change countries’ laws and regulations to allow people to claim protection from the adverse effects of climate change.
What’s at stake
In Barbuda, traditions like horse racing, living in caves, and construction of traditional houses are endangered by climate change.
Hurricane Irma devastated the relatively pristine landscape of extensive forests, beaches and coral reefs — all of which had been spared the ravages of 18th-century sugar plantations and 20th-century large-scale tourism. This is in part due to Barbuda’s unique law of communal land ownership, which is passed down through generations and central to Barbudan identity.
Even today, Barbuda has continuing problems with the supply chain. Local produce is limited, and shortages of water and bread are commonplace. The one hospital on the island remains on limited capacity. The bank only resumed business in July and is open two days a week.
For Corine, she not only lost her home in Barbuda but her financial security and the resilience of her children were affected. With no credible caretaker in Antigua, Corine has to be a stay-at-home mom while her husband provides for the entire family from Barbuda.
The rebuilding process has been slow, and James Sr. is affected by delays in payment from the government for his reconstruction work. The aftermath of Hurricane Irma also impacted the mental health of their son, James Jr, who had to repeat the sixth grade.
“My son was devastated,” Corine said. “He wasn’t learning in school. The teacher didn’t understand what was going on. He experienced the hurricane from the start to the end. So he was traumatized, and there was nobody for counseling.”
The Gerald children were eventually able to participate in a UNICEF psychosocial program for children to help take the stigma out of the idea of counseling. And today, the Gerald family is settled in a small two-bedroom house. Corine hopes one day the family can be reunited and live under the same roof in Barbuda.
In the meantime, she is urging the world to address the threat from climate change so other families do not go through the same struggles as her family.
“We can stop this disaster,” she said.