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Climate Refugees: People and the Environment Treated as Disposable

As part of our “Displaced and Disposable” series, social researcher Bruna Kadletz meets a Malawian family displaced by the impact of climate change and explores the failure to protect them and other climate refugees.

Written by Bruna Kadletz Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Malawi madonna
U.N.-backed development projects in the small village of Manga are helping local farmers to grow maize and start fish farming. About 2.8 million Malawians, nearly 20 percent of the population, face food insecurity, making the country one of the worst hit in southern Africa. AP/Karel Prinsloo

JOHANNESBURG – Melina was only three years old when she left her home in southern Malawi with her parents. In her remote village, the subsistence farming that had ensured the community’s livelihood for countless generations had become unfeasible.

They could no longer grow maize, the most important form of nutrition for the family. Mashed into a thick flour, the grain is usually cooked with water in a traditional dish called “nsima.” In some African countries, this basic meal is often served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Following several years of drought and crop failures, Melina’s family migrated to South Africa in 2008, hoping to find stability.

Melina is now 11 years old and her legal status in South Africa remains undefined. Her family live on the outskirts of Johannesburg, reduced to an unsustainable existence. Because they entered the country irregularly, they have become trapped in a cycle of poverty and lack access to the legal system. As a girl, Melina is less of a priority for her parents and her society. Without residency, she cannot enroll in a public school or access healthcare.

Malawi has been particularly vulnerable to climate change, ranked the third most affected country in 2015. Since the late 1990s, extreme oscillation between flood and drought has intensified the scarcity of food, making the country the worst affected in southern Africa.

Millions of small-scale farmers in the poorly developed African country are suffering from, or have been displaced by, the impacts of extreme weather patterns. In a region where around 90 percent of people rely on agriculture for their survival, climate is not an external concern, but an integral pillar of existence.

Women and children separate grain from soil in the forest in Machinga, north east of Blantyre, Malawi, Tuesday. (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Women and children separate grain from soil in the forest in Machinga, north east of Blantyre, Malawi, Tuesday. (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Melina’s mother, Charmaine, believed that the land on which they lived would always provide their bodies with nutrients and give their souls meaning. She started tilling the earth and working in the fields when she was a little girl, like her mother, grandmother and several generations before them. The land connected their past ancestors with their present traditions.

But years of extreme weather patterns have broken this chain of cultural heritage. Unable to grow food, many farmers have become displaced within Malawi itself, while others have entered neighboring countries in the search for survival.

Melina’s family are among millions of people from agrarian communities across the world who are experiencing the wrath of rapid ecological change. Their lives and livelihoods are increasingly constricted by the failures of governments and the global community to protect their environment, or ensure their safety when they are forced to leave.

Once displaced, they become invisible, as Zygmunt Bauman, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Leeds, recently wrote in the New York Times:

The Malawian family’s story highlights the dysfunction of the current migration system that makes climate refugees particularly disposable – including institutional, legal, gender, education and informational deficiencies that lead to a lack of protection for these people.

Amjad Miyah, 36, stands in a field in the island district of Bhola, Bangladesh. Three years after the sea swallowed his home on the Bangladeshi coast, he still has no property or possessions and survives only by tending others’ fields in exchange for daily meals. (AP/Shahria Sharmin)

Amjad Miyah, 36, stands in a field in the island district of Bhola, Bangladesh. Three years after the sea swallowed his home on the Bangladeshi coast, he still has no property or possessions and survives only by tending others’ fields in exchange for daily meals. (AP/Shahria Sharmin)

The Climate-Displacement Connection

While the latest global climate talks [COP22 in Morocco last month] coincided with accelerated migration flows from North Africa to Italy, little attention has been paid to the toxic combination of these two issues: climate change and migration.

Climate talks and agreements have lacked action on displacement – a disparity that is alarming given the massive scale of displacement projections.

How will governments and societies protect the estimated 200 million future “climate refugees” when political leaders are failing the current, much smaller figures? Despite the urgent need, sustainable solutions for people displaced because of climate change have not yet been envisaged, let alone implemented.

The current asylum regime does not view people fleeing the effects of climate change as asylum seekers. Even when government policies lead to uninhabitable conditions in countries such as Malawi, Bangladesh or Haiti, international legal protection is not an option.

While not legally recognized as “climate refugees,” people seeking refuge from changing climate patterns already exist in large numbers. Ironically, they often come from countries with low carbon dioxide emissions and few resources to respond to climate change.

Although 2016 is set to be the hottest year on record, we still lack the political will and legal frameworks to recognize and protect those escaping drought and desertification in the African Sahel, rising seas in the Pacific Islands, floods in Bangladesh, and hurricanes and storms in Haiti.

Somali refugees wait outside a UNHCR processing center outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya. Human-induced climate change contributed to low rain levels in East Africa in 2011, making global warming one of the causes of Somalia’s famine and the tens of thousands of deaths that followed, according to latest studies. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

Displaced Hence Disposable

In this series “Displaced and Disposable,” I have outlined our disposable approach to life and how it has led to human displacement. Climate refugees are emblematic of this fundamental crisis triggered by our disposable approach to ecology and those displaced by it.

In contrast to communities that recognize ecosystems and climate as integral to human existence, disposable societies often turn a blind eye to the ecological and social consequences of deforestation, extensive mineral extraction, mechanized agriculture and oil pipeline construction. We have arrived at a juncture in human history where “disposable” communities far overpower ecologically conscious communities.

Disposability is embedded in most of our collective consciousness to an extent that we are yet to recognize. We have normalized the use of disposable items. We have normalized the endless production of material and social waste: disposable cups, plastic bottles, cheap clothes and throwaway technology are incorporated in our daily lives. We cannot imagine our days without the comfort of such items.

Our materialistic, fossil fuel-addicted and resource-depleting culture has trashed the very ecosystem that sustains our existence on this planet.

In the process, communities have been displaced. Wars have been fabricated. Violence has been deployed. Inequality has become amplified. Modern slavery has been reinforced.

Syrian refugees are seen crossing into Iraq in harsh weather conditions. Top scientists, as part of U.N. climate panels, are saying that climate change will worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars and strife between nations and lead to more refugees. (AP/Hadi Mizban, File)

Syrian refugees are seen crossing into Iraq in harsh weather conditions. Top scientists, as part of U.N. climate panels, are saying that climate change will worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars and strife between nations and lead to more refugees. (AP/Hadi Mizban, File)

If we are to restore justice and ensure protection for those displaced by ecological disasters, we must reassess – individually and collectively, economically and politically, psychologically and pragmatically – our throwaway approach to life.

We can no longer afford to deem the lives of communities impacted by climate change in Malawi or Bangladesh or Haiti as avoidable hindrances. The same issues will inevitably reach our doorsteps as they have begun already, in the form of intense migration influxes.

In Bauman’s words: “Humanity is in crisis – and there is no exit from that crisis other than the solidarity of humans.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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