By Sir Ronald Sanders
NEW YORK, United States, Monday September 23, 2019 – “Hurricane Hell” and “The Bahamas is at war being attacked by Hurricane Dorian. And yet The Bahamas has no weapon to defend itself”, are two memorable expressions that emerged from the wreckage of the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama in the chain of islands that make up the territory of The Bahamas.
The first was a description by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, after he inspected the ruin inflicted by Hurricane Dorian. The second was the lament by Bahamas Prime Minister, Hubert Minnis, as the storm hung over his nation for 24 hours, driving 185 mph winds, creating surges of 18-to-23 feet above normal tide, and decimating all in its path.
Both the “hell” that the UN Secretary-General described, and the hopelessness expressed by the Prime Minister as the Bahamas was attacked by Hurricane Dorian, are now part and parcel of Caribbean life.
These conditions will worsen as the causes of climate change – the rapid rise of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity – continue unabated in wealthy developed countries such as the U.S., and in China and India. A recent UN report titled, “The Heat Is On: Taking Stock of Global Climate Ambition”, states unequivocally that “Temperatures are already up about 1.0°C from pre-industrial times and the last four years were the warmest on record – including July 2019, which was the hottest month of all. And there are ever starker signs of harm caused by climate change. Coral reefs are dying, Arctic sea ice is shrinking, and sea levels are rising, while droughts, floods, and hurricanes grow more severe”. The people of the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama can testify to the lived reality of hurricanes growing more severe.
What the aftermath of Dorian in the Bahamas brought into stark reality is that the phenomenon of climate change refugees in the Caribbean is not limited to Barbuda in 2017. In the complete decimation of Barbuda, the entire population had to be evacuated to Antigua. Similarly, large numbers of people had to be moved from the Abaco Islands where little was left to sustain livelihoods.
These large movements of people were possible in The Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda because they were done within the same national jurisdiction. Refugees from Barbuda after Hurricane Irma were accommodated on Antigua and those from the Abaco Islands in The Bahamas have been billeted in Nassau.
But, had the territory of the Bahamas not been a chain of islands and had Antigua and Barbuda not been a single state, the people from the Abaco Islands and Barbuda would have had to seek refuge outside of their own national borders.
The possibility of an entire territory being decimated cannot now be ruled out in the future. Consequently, the prospect of cross-border climate refugees is looming large. For, it should now be obvious to all that the damaging effects of climate change are growing. And, there is little point in wishing away the suddenness of having to absorb the entire population of one or more islands as refugees, or at least large numbers of vulnerable groups.
It should be recalled that in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, Puerto Rico received ships evacuating not only US citizens but also vulnerable persons of other nationalities from affected British, Dutch and French overseas territories in the Caribbean. Puerto Ricans also fled their homeland in the aftermath of its destruction. Fortunately for them, they could go to the U.S. where they have the right to live and work.
But, the US is not open to non-citizens and residents as was evident when non US visa holders were decanted from a ship taking refugees from The Bahamas to Florida.
The question then arises as to where would climate refugees from an entire country go, who would accept them, for how long would they be accepted, how would they be transported, and who would pay the cost of sheltering them? Then there is the cost of supplying food, water, clothing and medicines. Who would foot that bill? And, since children will be among those refugees, will accepting countries be able to accommodate them in schools and provide textbooks?
Clearly, Caribbean countries, however well-meaning they are to their kith and kin, would be unable to tackle the enormity of such a problem alone. The region would require meaningful financial, technical and other international assistance within a legal and regulatory framework.
The problem should be placed squarely before the UN starting at this year’s UN General Assembly at which every Caribbean speaker should rail against those countries and their governments whose profligacy is killing Caribbean countries by storm after storm, each more destructive than the last.
Collectively, Caribbean countries should also use their unified voting power in all the appropriate committees of the UN, particularly the Sixth Committee (the Legal Committee), the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions, to secure an agreed definition of the term, “Climate Refugee” that could be adopted in international law where it does not now exist. The term is also not endorsed by the UN because powerful nations, in protecting the economic interests of the oil, gas and coal industries, refuse to recognize climate change.
Right now, the UN High Commission for Refugees, which operates under the 1951 Refugee Convention, contemplates refugees only in the context of conflict and or political upheaval. However, the relatively large number of refugees already created by climate change and the potential for greater numbers in the future, demand that the legal recognition of a “refugee” includes persons forced to seek refuge outside of their national borders.
Even as Caribbean governments should give urgent attention to seeking an international framework for addressing the problem of cross-border refugees created by climate change, they should also urgently consider what preparations they could make regionally for dealing with refugees caused by sudden disasters in neighbouring states.
The sooner Caribbean governments establish a multi-disciplinary task force to consider all the aspects of dealing with rapid-onset disasters and migration flows, the better.
Wishing and hoping are not options.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.