Cracking Down on Climate Migrants

"Make no mistake," the prime minister of Barbados warned the international community at the UN climate summit in September, "there will be mass migration by climate refugees that will destabilize the countries of the world."

It's a familiar warning on the perils of inaction on the climate crisis. But even as the prime minister thundered in New York, a crackdown on would-be climate migrants had begun. Hurricane Dorian had unleashed its fury upon the northern islands of the Bahamas, decimating the homes of 70,000 people. But there would be no mass movement of climate refugees to disrupt and destabilize industrialized countries. 

No legal infrastructure on the international or national level facilitates the migration of those displaced by the climate crisis. This legal vacuum allows governments to use climate disasters, which disproportionately impact already marginalized communities, to achieve other policy goals, with disastrous consequences for human rights.

In the Bahamas, where Hurricane Dorian hit informal settlements of Haitian migrants the hardest, the Bahamian government used the opportunity of the hurricane to jumpstart a stalled program of ethnic cleansing and redevelopment. According to human rights advocates, government officials have confiscated hurricane survivors’ land, refused them aid at shelters, and deported hundreds to crisis-stricken Haiti.

According to the UN's International Organization on Migration, as many as 200 million people will need to leave their homes as seas rise, deserts spread and increasingly severe storms strike. But warnings about the destabilizing effect of mass migrations to come obscure a more brutal reality: today's survivors of climate disasters suffer not when they migrate, but because they can't.

Climate Change Will Drive People Across Borders

Despite projections that climate change will lead many people to leave their homes for climate-related reasons, no legal framework exists to help migrants relocate, let alone to protect them in their most vulnerable moments.