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World Refugee Day: How about recognising environmental refugees?


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

The UN has declared 20 June World Refugee Day, to honour “the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence”. While commonly associated with those fleeing political persecution in terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in recent years there has been increasing realisation that those escaping climate change-induced poverty and destitution could be called “environmental refugees”.

The challenges facing refugees have a direct impact on aspects of international and national politics, human rights, development and policy-making. The retreat from progressive human rights policy approaches, encapsulated by Donald Trump (and the fantasy of the Mexican Wall), and the European shift to the right which preceded him, has “focused on strengthening borders, (with) less attention … paid to what happens behind them”.

Refugees everywhere are by-products of war, military coups, massive human rights violations, political instability, and environmental change. Refugees, as forced migrants, have suffered displacement under conditions not of their own choosing, rather from a lack of choice, finding themselves in new settings, new places and with new hardships. Refugees live in a divided world: between countries in which they cannot live and countries in which they may not live. When refugees abandon their own home, community and country, they do so because there is a probability of losing all of their rights.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has criticised countries, politicians and media for failing to communicate the challenges faced by migrants and the inability to integrate multicultural societies in the modern era of globalisation. The lack of such integrated and coherent responses from all concerned bodies exacerbates the current rise of populist anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric.

In terms of the 1951 Convention, the UNHCR defines a refugee as a “person fleeing from individual persecution, generalised human right violations, or armed conflict in their country of origin”. The 1951 Refugee Convention does not recognise those displaced by environmental factors. However, in 2002, the UNHCR acknowledged “the common elements between refugee definitions and environmental migrants and the forced nature of their flight, their need for assistance and permission to reside elsewhere”. However, there is no mandate for the rights and protection of environmental refugees.

There is compelling evidence that millions of environmental refugees are displaced by climate change induced events, and the majority of victims are from the developing world. However, there are no legally binding mechanisms of protection or support for those affected, who are “governed by immigration, not refugee law”. A key contention is that 66 years since its initial promulgation, the 1951 Convention should be revised to include environmental refugees.

Africa, a continent plagued by long-standing conflict, famine and war, is a primary refugee-producing and refugee-receiving region, in terms of internally displaced people (IDP), and produces nearly a third of all refugees. According to the 2016 Africa Internal Displacement Report, there were “3.5-million new displacements linked to conflict, violence and disasters in 47 African countries in 2015. That is an average of more than 9,500 people a day being uprooted from their homes, communities and livelihoods”. There is also concern that “internal displacement has been sidelined in recent global policy processes and is overshadowed by the current focus on refugees and migrants”.

As the 2017 Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) argues, this also has implications for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals: “The pledge to ‘leave no one behind’ at the heart of the 2030 Agenda recognises that the continued presence of vulnerable groups, including displaced people, affects the development prospects of the communities that host them and of societies as a whole. Unless more targeted and concerted efforts are directed at addressing internal displacement, the goal of significantly reducing numbers by 2030 is likely to recede further into the distance.”

One of the many challenges facing the refugee protection regime is that of determining who is a genuine refugee. Due to the close relationship between political conflict and economic and social problems, it proves difficult to distinguish between refugees and migrants. The complicated relationship between voluntary and forced migrants challenges all asylum systems worldwide.

Refugees are a product of massive human rights abuses, and not only in their country of origin but too often in the country of refuge. South Africa is one of the major destination area for refugees in Africa, due to economic and political crises, continued conflict and insecurity across the continent. South Africa has been praised for its progressive human rights policies, yet actions show that this has not progressed beyond rhetoric.

As the Report of the Special Reference Group on Migration and Community Integration (RGM) in KZN (Chaired by former United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navi Pillay) notes: “The Refugees Act, which is amongst the most progressive of its kind throughout the world, is not supported by the necessary administrative capacity to regulate, monitor and protect all who seek refuge … There is also a lack of an explicit policy for integration within the Refugees Act.”

According to Judge Pillay, “the closure of the Refugee Reception Offices (RROs), as part of the government’s campaign to root out corruption, has produced unintended difficulties for refugees and asylum seekers to comply with the laws, who now have to travel long distances”.

A critical issue is that a state driven xenophobic discourse emanates from within the ANC government. This is encapsulated, for example, in the following comments in June 2011 from Maggie Maunye, who is Chairperson of Parliament’s oversight committee on Home Affairs: We have never enjoyed our freedom as South Africans. We got it in 1994 and we had floods and floods of refugees or undocumented people in the country … for how long are we going to continue with this as South Africans? Is it not going to affect our resources, the economy of the country? You know, we see on TV Spain turning refugees back to their countries, and here you will be told of human rights laws; you know the Constitution is against that and all sorts of excuses … (emphasis added)”.

As World Refugee Day is commemorated by the international community, GroundUp reports that “refugees struggle to renew papers at Home Affairs (and) asylum seekers from Somalia face unexplained delays and shabby treatment at the foreshore office” in Cape Town.

In South Africa there are tensions between “the state prerogative to exclude and the human rights imperative to include” refugees and undocumented migrants. Majority groups with precarious socio-economic circumstances often view refugees and undocumented migrants as threats. The escalating incidents of xenophobia, racism, ethnic chauvinism, corruption, cronyism and the celebration of mediocrity threaten the foundations of South Africa’s rights-based constitutional democracy for which so many made the ultimate sacrifice. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.


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