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Words, laws, and what it really means to be a refugee

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Activists hold a demonstration in support of the South Sea island of Tuvalu as delegates arrive for a meeting at the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Activists hold a demonstration in support of the South Sea island of Tuvalu as delegates arrive for a meeting at the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong, courtesy

When you write for a living, you get kind of obsessed with words: the way they sound when linked together in a sentence; the rhythm of them clanging together in a song; their meanings and various evolutions.

I was thinking about the power of words while reading a story from Mother Jones about the island nation of Tuvalu. The article described how the people from the fourth-smallest country in the world are losing their battle with climate change. Rising seas are swallowing their shores, forcing a fifth of the country’s inhabitants to flee, mostly to nearby New Zealand. They are “climate refugees,” communities forced to flee their homes because of environmental change.

“Climate refugees” is a powerful term, but one that carries with it some controversy. International law defines “refugees” as people who fear persecution in their homeland because of their race, religion, nationality, social category or political beliefs, or people who have no nationality because, for example, their nation no longer exists. While the consequences of climate change — such as storms, floods, droughts, conflict, or disease — might actually force communities to leave the countries of their birth, and represent fears for their ability to survive there in the future, these effects are not enough to mark these groups as refugees under UN conventions; therefore foreign governments are not required to let them in or protect their basic human rights and physical security even if they do accept them.

“The existing international system grew from the upheavals of World War II, crafted to react to violent conflicts whose existence is obvious and whose victims are reasonably easy to identify,” Rachel Morris writes in her Mother Jones article. “But people displaced by environmental change fall through the cracks of that system … because resources for such exiles are already strained, there is enormous resistance to broadening the definition. The apolitical, indeterminate effects of climate change, which require action in advance, not after the fact, may be beyond what the existing humanitarian regime can handle.”

In this way, language – and maybe even international law — has failed the people of Tuvalu. Even as their country diminishes – in physical, social, and cultural terms – much of the international community casts only a pitying glance. Because their needs do not figure into discussions about conflict or genocide, and because redefining what it means to be a refugee would force countries to discuss the resources they are (and are not) willing to share, the people of Tuvalu don’t make it onto the world’s agenda.

Until now. This week negotiators from around the world are gathering in Copenhagen to discuss the next international climate treaty. There will be much debate around setting binding greenhouse gas emission standards to reduce the pollution that causes global warming. But the negotiators will also discuss how much money the international community should set aside to address the consequences of climate change that are current and inevitable – and already hurting people like those fleeing Tuvalu. Oxfam is calling on the US to commit a total of $3 billion per year in public climate finance in the near term (2010-2012), of which $1.5 billion would be for to help poor communities build up their resilience by constructing seawalls and other infrastructure, diversifying their livelihoods, and establishing early warning systems activities.

If the negotiators agree to this – what we at Oxfam are calling a truly fair, ambitious, and binding deal — they could make a real difference in the lives of poor people from countries like Tuvalu. I hope the stories from this tiny island nation bubble to the top of the discussions in Denmark. And if the term climate refugee gets tossed around a little, perhaps the negotiators will respect it and understand the spirit in which it is intended. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+