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Paul Vallely: How to respond to climate refugees?

22 September 2023

Countries should work together — but that is not enough, says Paul Vallely


Italian police speak to migrants protesting at a reception centre on the island of Lampedusa, in southern Italy, last Saturday

Italian police speak to migrants protesting at a reception centre on the island of Lampedusa, in southern Italy, last Saturday

THE little Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies closer to Tunisia than to the Italian mainland, has been taking in migrants from North Africa for more than three decades. It has a refugee centre to accommodate 400 at a time. But nearly 7000 migrants arrived there in just 24 hours last week, more than doubling the entire population of the island — and signalling a gear change on the issue of immigration for the whole of Europe, the UK included.

The Italian Prime Minister, who came to power on a pledge to be tough on migrants, summoned the European Commission President to the island. She brought with her a ten-point action plan to step up aerial surveillance of migrant boats, crack down on people-smugglers, and call on EU nations to accept voluntary transfers. The blueprint does not sound dissimilar to Sir Keir Starmer’s proposals to replace Rishi Sunak’s unworkable Rwanda and hotel-barge schemes with an approach based on co-operation rather than deterrence.

Yet, such ideas are not without their own problems. France and Germany immediately responded to the unprecedented influx of migrants into Italy — double last year’s figures — by strengthening their border controls “until further notice”. And the problem could expand massively in the years ahead.

Satellites now show that the sea ice surrounding Antarctica is well below any previous recorded winter level. The melting of sea ice exposes dark areas of ocean, which absorb sunlight where ice-sheets reflect it. The sun’s energy is absorbed into the water, melting more ice in a way that, scientists fear, will transform Antarctica from a refrigerator into a radiator, raising global sea levels.

Such melting has already contributed to a 7.2mm rise in sea levels since the 1990s, exposing coastal communities to dangerous storm surges. The melting of Antarctic land ice could have a catastrophic effect on millions of people all around the world.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR reports that an annual average of 21.5 million people were forced to quit their homes every year between 2008 and 2016 by weather-related events, such as floods, storms, wildfires, and extreme temperatures.

Half of the population of Bangladesh live less than five metres above sea level. Scientists predict that the country will lose 17 per cent of its land by 2050, owing to flooding induced by climate change. The result could be as many as 20 million climate refugees from Bangladesh alone, with similar numbers from India and the Philippines. Most will probably move elsewhere in their home country; but many could become international refugees.

Political solutions are possible. The South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has struck an agreement with a fellow Commonwealth member, New Zealand, to home its entire population in the event that rising sea levels overtake the country. But Tuvalu has only 11,600 citizens. The World Bank has predicted that the climate crisis could drive more than 200 million people to move by 2050.

The shift from deterrence to co-operation by the European Union and the Labour Party is a welcome development. But the response of Germany and France to this latest influx — and the knee-jerk Conservative opposition to Sir Keir’s proposing a returns agreement of which Mr Sunak himself previously gave intimations — shows that today’s refugee crisis needs a far more imaginative and compassionate response. Tomorrow’s, even more so.

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