As a professor of global health at UAB, I mentor a lot of students on projects and research that deal with international and global issues. In the past year, I’ve seen a surge of interest in climate refugees and climate change. Climate refugees (sometimes referred to as climate migrants) are people who are displaced and leave their home due to an environmental disaster like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts. Climate refugee is not (yet) a legal term; it’s a scholarly term. Academics and advocates use this term to highlight the distinction from a refugee being forced to leave their home as a result of conflict versus a refugee being forced to leave their home because it was destroyed in an environmental or climate-related disaster.
Recently, I collaborated with one of our Master of Public Health Students, Kerry McCulloch, on a health needs assessment of migrant shelters at the US-Mexico border in Nogales (Sonora, Mexico). Kerry asked migrants why they had left their home and were seeking asylum in the US. The primary reasons for leaving were to escape violence, particularly criminal violence (67%) or armed conflict (58%). I also encouraged Kerry to include a few environmental reasons that people might leave their home based on research around climate refugees. A very small sub-sample emerged; just around 13% selected climate-related reasons, specifically floods, hurricanes, and landslides.
Although the numbers are small, they do highlight the fact that environmental and climate-related reasons are not distinct from conflict-related ones. Climate may be as much of a driver as political persecution is for many people seeking asylum. Climate may also be the tipping point for some people; “the last straw” so to speak. In Kerry’s study, we found some correlation and significance among these climate-related issues and family reunification, a
motivating factor for seeking asylum. In other words, some of the asylum seekers Kerry spoke with are the second wave of family members crossing the border. Maybe their spouse, sibling, or cousin had already crossed and started the legal process, and those waiting at the border plan to reunite their family while also leaving because the floods, hurricanes, and landslides are just getting to be too much.
I wanted to share this research note with ALIRP and their climate series because I really do think it’s complicated. The reasons people leave their home are complicated and, often, tragic.
We researchers need to do more to understand the role climate plays in people’s decision- making. And we, who advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, need to do more in describing the places where people come from. Where crime, corruption, and civil unrest persist, there may also be weak environmental infrastructure and regularly occurring natural disasters that make it difficult to stay and fight back or to wait it out. The distinction between conflict and disaster may not be so different as we sometimes may think it is.
Acknowledgements: ALIRP would like to thank Kerry McCulloch, MPH for sharing your photos with us and we would like to acknowledge the Sparkman Center for Global Health, Moses Sinkala Travel Scholarship which funded Kerry’s research.