The air in several major Canadian cities on Monday smells like burning campfires.
Air quality has plummeted during recent weeks because of wildfire smoke, made worse by the adverse effects of climate change in an “unprecedented” fire season. But as Canada battles environmental emergencies, advocates are asking if the country is ready to play its part in a global crisis of climate migrants.
“We know that people will try to reach here in perilous ways. That’s going to only increase with climate migration increasing,” said Maureen Silcoff, an immigration and refugee lawyer.
She said that Canada needs a broader approach to deal with the question as climate change and natural disasters ranging from fires to droughts to floods such as those that devastated Pakistan last year become more frequent.
“Canada has operated on a little bit of a piecemeal basis. So if there’s an earthquake in one place or hurricane in another, public policies are invoked to ease restrictions. Sometimes visa requirements are eased. Sometimes there’s a broader policy to allow people who are already here to apply for status,” she said.
“We have to think bigger and bolder than that. Because that’s not going to be enough.”
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On June 14, a fishing boat illegally smuggling migrants and refugees sank in the Mediterranean, just off the coast of Greece. A large chunk of those who lost their lives were from Pakistan, still reeling from an economic crisis triggered by last year’s devastating floods.
Unprecedented flooding over five months killed 1,739 people in the South Asian country, causing over $30 billion in economic losses. The resulting economic crisis spurred thousands to leave Pakistan, paying thousands of dollars to traffickers to be help them migrate to Europe.
Hundreds were on board the ship that recently sank off the coast of Greece, with most still missing and 82 bodies recovered so far. The tragedy is spurring renewed questions about climate migrants, including who qualifies as a climate refugee and how the climate crisis will add to the already significant challenges of mass migration in an unstable world.
According to a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) report, 21.5 million people on average are being displaced each year due to extreme climate events. By 2050, the world could have 1.2 billion climate refugees.
While Canada has significantly increased the volume of refugees it has welcomed, a report published by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) said the legal definition of a “refugee” is too restrictive to apply to people displaced by extreme climate events.
“The Refugee Convention is limited by its strict definition of ‘refugee’ as someone outside their country of nationality or habitual residence that cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” the report reads.
Canada’s own Immigration and Refugees Protection Act lays down a similar definition, but the wording in refugee laws is already causing problems for residents of small island nations, such as Kiribati or Tuvalu, trying to claim refugee status in nearby Australia and New Zealand.
“It didn’t have climate migration as its focus,” Silcoff said. “To be a refugee you have to be fleeing persecution.”
Now, she says countries must think more broadly and bring in legislation that focuses on a definition of climate migrants.
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Experts believe that the worst effects of climate change are yet to come.
Entire nations, such as the Maldives, are projected to vanish under rising sea levels by the turn of the century. By 2050, large swathes of major coastal cities around the world such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City, Alexandria and Bangkok may be lost to the sea.
Advocates are concerned that large scale climate migration is inevitable.
Last year, the Climate Action Network Canada (CAN-Rac) wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, urging them to grant permanent resident status to all 1.7 million migrants in Canada, calling it an issue of “climate justice.”
The letter said wealthy countries like Canada were disproportionately responsible for the adverse effects of climate change, which meant they had a responsibility towards those fleeing the global south.
“The climate crisis fuels displacement in a myriad of ways: through disasters, droughts, and famines, loss of livelihood, shrinking economic opportunities, and mass impoverishment,” the letter said.
“Extending equal rights to migrants is a first step towards taking responsibility for the harm our country continues to cause – and it would encourage the sharing of the crucial resilience and adaptability expertise those on the front lines of the climate crisis bring to communities in Canada.”
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Ian Fry, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change, also sounded the alarm just last week.
“The effects of climate change are becoming more severe, and the number of people displaced across international borders is rapidly increasing,” Fry said.
“In 2020 alone, 30.7 million people were displaced from their homes due to weather-related events. Droughts were the main factor,” Fry said in his latest in his latest thematic report to the Human Rights Council.
“We must take immediate steps to give legal protection to these people.”
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His warning comes as Canada faces its own struggles with climate change.
As of this month, Canada is facing the worst ever wildfire season of the 21st century. More than 47,000 square kilometres have burned so far in 2023, with the resulting waves of smoke spurring dangerous air quality warnings across the country and into the U.S.
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A study published last month suggested that 37 per cent of the area burned in wildfires in southwestern Canada and the western United States between 1986 and 2021 was linked to carbon emissions that can be traced back to 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.
That study looked specifically at the emissions produced and the corresponding rise in vapour pressure deficit, which measures how much water vapour is in the air and which researchers described as a key variable in measuring how dry a climate is becoming.
“Through the lens of regional wildfire risk, rising VPD ultimately translates to a greater likelihood that fuels will ignite and carry fire across a landscape,” the study said, urging policymakers to do more to crack down on emissions.
Canadian cities are also at risk of rising sea levels.
According to a recent report from the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, areas along the Atlantic coast, the coast of the Beaufort Sea and the cities of Metro Vancouver are most at risk of rising sea levels.
British Columbia alone is expected to see 311,000 people displaced and seeking shelter by 2100, that report suggests.
As more Canadians experience the impacts of a changing climate firsthand, will their appetite for supporting migrants fleeing climate change from the global south grow or wane?
Silcoff said she hopes the answer will be more empathy — and more willingness to help.
“I think this brings it home,” she said. “We’re not having to flee Canada for somewhere else. But in many other parts of the world, people have no choice, and they have to flee. I’m hoping that people will better empathize.”