Seeking recognition before refuge

Why we need to be wary of applying labels so readily

Rebecca Hingley

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The Pacific, The World

20 June 2019

Due to the vastly differing experiences of climate change within the Pacific, the international community must avoid pigeon-holing all those affected as ‘climate refugees’, Rebecca Hingley writes.

A recent trend within conversations on climate change has established a collective definition of individuals affected by this natural phenomenon as ‘climate refugees’. This label is most often applied to the peoples of the Pacific whose nations struggle to stay above water as they endure more frequent and intense weather events.

This term, however, is rejected by the very subjects it describes. They do not wish to be depicted as a vulnerable and powerless group destined to abandon their homes.

Two non-state actors in particular can be held responsible for the proliferation and adoption of the term that strips the Pacific peoples of their agency: Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the media.

More on this: What's in a name?

Surprisingly, well-intentioned environmental NGOs are the most frequent culprits of Pacific islander victimisation – a process that grants compensation but not necessarily due recognition.

The first document to contain the phrase ‘climate refugee’ was published by a Washington-based NGO in 1988 that described the group as ‘helpless victims’ of environmental incidents imposed on them by others.

It appears that the portrayal of the Pacific peoples living as passive victims of climate change is now a near universal trend within the NGO sector, with more and more organisations joining ‘the cause’ each year.

The use of alarmist rhetoric in association with ‘climate refugees’ by the media is common. Obtuse headlines such as ‘sink or swim’ and the use of dramatic and emotive language such as ‘doomed’ and ‘swallows’ are used to create shock value and attract audiences.

The cost of such sensationalist journalism is high, as the desire of Pacific island countries to be portrayed as self-determining and proactive agents of change is sidelined in return for short-term profit.

To further complicate the issue, there is a patchy acceptance of the term itself within global refugee politics. This is a result of the confusion surrounding what it means to possess a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ – as outlined in the United Nation’s Global Compact on Refugees – and the fact that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees does not recognise climate change as a causal factor forcing people to leave their homes.

More on this: Policy File: Climate refugees - where to next?

It seems a definitional crisis has been reached, one in which those labelled ‘climate refugees’ receive pity and sympathy but are not awarded any real protection on behalf of the international system.

The subtext concerning those affected by climate change within the Pacific is therefore one of vulnerability and victimhood. The Oceanic understanding, however, of what it means to be a sufferer of climate change contrasts greatly.

There is a large-scale rejection of the term ‘climate refugees’ among local populations who have asserted their resilience from multiple directions.

Grassroots activists have promoted the prevalence and seriousness of the issue by staging protests against the fossil fuel industry and developing migration strategies on their own terms. The Pacific media has reported on the value of traditional knowledge, resilient development strategies, and last resort relocation.

Lastly, the peoples’ international representatives have reiterated their constituents’ desires to stay and protect their homelands rather than fleeing and throwing themselves at the mercy of larger countries.

More on this: Podcast: The policy and politics of refugees and asylum seekers

The reality is that the peoples of the Pacific are no longer privy to the discussions that will ultimately determine their fate, and as a result, they experience growing existential – in addition to physical – insecurity. Instead of being consulted, they are cited by well-meaning western activists as ‘evidence’, and commodified by media outlets for greater news value.

So, if the use of the term ‘climate refugee’ proves so damaging, then how are we to refer to this group of people? Is there an alternative term that can be adopted? The short answer is ‘no’.

As those affected by climate change in the Pacific endure vastly differing realities, there is no one term that can be applied to all. This is potentially why the international community has opted for an easy solution: the use of one oversimplified label for all those affected.

It is possible to refer to those affected accurately, but it does require more thought and effort. Little progress, for example, has been made on the distinction between climate refugees and climate migrants – they are often used interchangeably. We cannot deny that genuine climate refugees do exist, but in other cases, some are better described as the latter.

Perhaps the only solution will be to write an entirely new narrative of climate change in the Pacific that moves beyond compulsive classification altogether. Documentaries such as Anote’s Ark released last year, for example, help better represent the injustice experienced between the Global North and South in relation to climate change.

Although the effects of climate change are indiscriminate, they are not equally endured. As such, a single and poorly defined label should not be applied ‘willy-nilly’ to all those affected.

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