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Why does the UK want Climate Visas to handle Migration?
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Blog...Why does the UK want Climate Visas to handle Migration?

Why does the UK want Climate Visas to handle Migration?

Ecology News
Policy
refugee camp
In this article we’ll explore why climate migration is a growing issue, what the current legal situation is, and how climate visas may offer part of the solution.
Ecology News
2023-04-14T00:00:00.000Z
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refugee camp

Given the increasing impacts of climate change that are being felt around the world, experts in the UK have urged the UK Government to start preparing for a potential increase in numbers of climate migrants. They highlighted the moral obligation of countries such as the UK to help vulnerable populations to deal with the effects of climate disasters, which are disproportionately caused by wealthy nations. One of the proposed methods of dealing with the growing issue of climate migration is the creation of a climate visa system. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore why climate migration is a growing issue, what the current legal situation is, and how climate visas may offer part of the solution.

Firstly, what is climate migration?

Before we dive into climate visas and the UK’s current asylum system, let’s first explore the issue of climate migration in order to understand why it’s about to become one of the most pressing issues of the century. 

Imagine losing your home or source of income due to a devastating forest fire, or severe flooding. Imagine struggling to feed yourself or your family due to failing crops and food scarcity caused by long term drought. Imagine having to abandon your home and community because sea levels are rising, making staying there impossible. 

Sadly, this is the reality that millions, and perhaps even billions of people across the world will face in the coming decades. According to the UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) an average of 21.5 million people are forcibly displaced by weather related events annually and as many as 318 million people have found themselves displaced as a result of climate disasters since 2008. Worryingly, these numbers are expected to surge in the coming decades. 

What this situation describes is climate migration. Defined as the movement of people due to extreme weather disasters such as flooding, heat waves, forest fires, droughts, as well as on account of slower building climate challenges such as rising sea levels and increasing water scarcity. Climate migration is a growing problem and is expected to get worse in the coming decades. 
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Why is climate migration predicted to be more prevalent in the future?

As the effects of climate change become more severe we can expect to see not only increasing incidences of extreme weather events and natural disasters but also slower developing climate changes that may leave people with no choice but to leave the place they call home. 

The Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank focusing on measuring and communicating the economic value of global peace, estimated that as many as 1.2 billion people, spread across 31 different countries, do not have the resilience to be able to withstand the growing threat of climate change. This could result in not only internal displacement of populations, but also movement across borders, with huge impacts for both the developing and developed world. 

What’s more is that many of the countries who are expected to be the worst affected by the impacts of climate change, are also regions that are experiencing significant population increases which places further strain on the situation. 

Migration on this scale will have a huge social and political impact. And while the regions most affected by the growing crisis can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia, significant numbers of displaced people will also lead to large refugee flows into other regions of the world. Developed countries in particular can expect to see an influx of migrants, which is why they are starting to confront the issue and consider options such as climate visas to help deal with expected uptick in migrant numbers. 

refugee camp

The legal status of climate migrants

Climate migrants are often referred to as climate refugees, however, they’re not actually legally considered to be refugees according to international law. 

The status of ‘refugee’ is a legal term with a very specific and defined meaning. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Therefore, as the current definition stands, people who find themselves displaced on account of climate stressors may not actually meet the legal definition of refugee. This means that protection for affected people is limited in an international context and those who are forced to move for environmental reasons may find themselves in legal limbo. 

In recent years, the international community has increasingly recognised the plight of those who are forcibly displaced on account of environmental reasons. However, even though it has become a recurrent topic in international forums, we are yet to see any attempt to meaningfully address the status of such externally displaced people in international law. 

As the issue of climate displacement intensifies over coming decades, the international community may find itself being forced to consider amending the legal definition of refugee to incorporate those unable to remain in their countries on account of climate change. However, if no consensus can be reached on the matter at a global level, it will be left up to individual countries to establish how they will deal with the situation of climate migrants.

What is the UK’s current position on climate migrants?

The UK Government is cracking down on refugees in the UK and the numbers speak for themselves: in 2002 103,000 claims for asylum were received by the UK Government, whereas this has dropped to just 75,000 in 2022. Significantly less than some of its European neighbours such as France and Germany. 

The UK Government’s attitude towards asylum seekers reflects this trend in numbers, and they have come under fire in recent years and months for their increasingly hardline approach. They’ve been accused of being unduly harsh on migrants trying to reach Britain via the English Channel with calls from UK politicians to “do whatever it takes to stop the boats”. And in December 2022, the UK High Court determined that it is lawful for the UK Government to send asylum seekers with ongoing applications to Rwanda - a contentious decision to say the least.

Even more recently, in March 2023, the UK Government introduced new legislation to the House of Commons, which if passed, would, according to the UNHCR, “amount to an asylum ban - extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how compelling their claim may be.” In effect this would mean that the vast majority of refugees would have no legal way to reach the UK and claim asylum - essentially only Ukrainian refugees, those from HongKong, and a limited number of Afghan refugees who are currently able to reach the UK via government approved safe pathways would be able to legally seek asylum. 

These recent developments in UK asylum policy are worrying to say the least, and don’t give much hope when it comes to the UK’s position on climate migrants. However, it’s something that the UK Government is going to have to address sooner rather than later - the impacts of climate change are being felt more severely across the world and it’s only a matter of time before we start to see climate refugees at our borders. 

Given the fact that countries such as the UK are responsible for more than their fair share of carbon emissions, many are of the opinion that they have a moral obligation to help climate migrants and one recent option that’s been put on the table is that of climate visas.

uk parliament

Climate visas in the UK

Conservative UK think tank, Onward, has warned the UK Government that environmental breakdown, conflict, and demographic growth is forming the perfect storm and will likely make mass climate migration a significant challenge in the future. And although Europe and the UK are not the most adversely affected regions when it comes to climate change, they can expect to see increasing numbers of people wanting to relocate there in an effort to escape climate stressors. 

The UK in particular has a number of draws which could attract climate migrants, for example a strong economy, relatively high wages and cultural ties with many climate vulnerable countries in Africa and South Asia. There are also already high numbers of people living in the UK who hail from climate vulnerable countries - 32% of people born overseas but now living in the UK come from countries in the top 25% of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries. 

Given the growing threat of climate change, the think tank’s report highlighted the need for the UK Government to be proactive in helping vulnerable countries to not only better adapt to the effects of climate change, but also to take the proactive step of ensuring safe and legal routes to the UK for climate migrants. 

In line with this, Onward has proposed the creation of a natural disaster and environmental resilience visa scheme. Let's take a look at the two different proposed visa schemes in more detail.

flooding

Natural Disaster Visa Scheme

Under the natural disaster visa scheme, climate visas would be offered to people who find themselves displaced by extreme weather events such as flooding or forest fires, or due to longer term climate stresses such as rising sea levels.

The climate visas would offer refuge in the UK either temporarily (where it’s eventually possible to return to their home country), or permanently (for example where an island nation is no longer habitable due to rising sea levels). 

Where individuals are to be granted a climate visa on a temporary basis this would allow them to earn money to help them rebuild their lives before returning home.

natural disaster

Environmental Resilience Visa Scheme

An environmental resilience visa scheme on the other hand would offer UK visas to skilled workers with recognised qualifications in sectors undergoing sustainability transitions. It would be targeted at climate-vulnerable countries and would also help the UK Government to fill its own skills gap.

workers

The report also included recommendations for more investment from the UK Government in climate adaptation in developing countries, in an effort to reduce the number of people forced to abandon their homes in the first place.

Climate refugees are a growing issue and governments around the world need to act now to both prevent the issue and also prepare for inevitable climate migration - “unless we act today, the problem will be worse tomorrow.”

How likely are climate visas to become a reality in the UK?

As we’ve already discussed the Conservative UK Government is taking an increasingly hard-line approach when it comes to refugees in the UK. Therefore, many wonder how likely it is that the UK Government will take on board the think tanks recommendations to create climate visas. 

What's more is that public support for a climate visa scheme is unlikely to receive unanimous backing from the UK public. As it stands, only 29% of those surveyed in the UK agreed that the UK has a moral obligation when it comes to hosting people who are displaced by climate change, and 41% actively thought that the UK had no moral obligation whatsoever. The report showed that the UK public was more in favour of supporting overseas climate adaptation and resilience building. 

Given these factors, it seems unlikely that climate visas are something that the UK Government will consider adopting in the near future. However, as the climate crisis grows and the effects are more readily felt across the world, the UK Government, and other governments, will no longer be able to ignore the issue. 

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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