Paris 2015

UN Climate Change Conference 2015 - “It is impossible to distinguish between political and climate refugees”

As part of the 21st UN Climate Change Conference, the exhibition EXIT at the Palais de Tokyo explores various aspects of worldwide migration using spectacular animations. | Photo (detail): E. Elias

Today, in addition to political refugees, there are climate refugees. At the 21st UN Climate Change Conference leading politicians have raised a new question: Are these terms perhaps not so different, but rather inextricably linked?

It is about an old woman who, because of flooding in her native Bangladesh, has had to move nine times. Each time she moves a bit farther away. Each time the water catches up with her. And then suddenly the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, tells her story before 150 heads of state, who have gathered for the opening of the 21st UN Climate Change Conference in Le Bourget.

Climate change has already driven millions of people from their homes. They live in various continents, but their fates are often similar: a natural disaster, falling revenues, then moves into nearby surroundings to escape the now hostile environment. Even if their homes are destroyed, it is rare that weak sections of population manage to leave.

Climatic, hence political

The Belgian scientist François Gemenne, a specialist for immigration flows, has observed how his research subject has become more and more a serious political problem. He began to be interested in the question of climate refugees in the early 2000s when he was an intern at the UNO and accidentally found himself stuck in a lift with the ambassador of Tuvalu. The ambassador told him of a Polynesian archipelago that was in danger of sinking under rising sea levels. Gemenne was fascinated; he could not take his mind off the subject and wrote his PhD thesis on it.

Back then climate change seemed almost like science fiction. It was spoken of only as a distant, highly abstract threat. But since 2004 a tsunami and several storms have altered the situation and tens of thousands of people have been driven to flee. “Gradually, a discussion about climate-induced migration has developed”, notes Gemenne with emphasis. “For a long time it had a dramatic, even an apocalyptic character. Then we began to see migration differently, as a conscious adaptation strategy of specific populations. In the last two years a series of more critical studies has appeared: are we perhaps in the process of de-politicizing the causes of migration?”

Pixelated refugees

Across the world moves a swarm of tiny green dots. Countless pixels that incessantly form and re-form the same map, the flow of migrations. Visitors of the exhibition EXIT at the Palais de Tokyo sit cross-legged in the dark directly on the floor. Around them a 360° screen a video shows the flows of refugees and the rising sea levels.


Trailer of the exhibition EXIT at the Palais de Tokyo

“In reality it is impossible to distinguish between political and climate refugees. This is why it is important to think about a global approach!” stresses Gemenne, who is also scientific advisor to the installation. “In future more and more conflicts will be connected to the environment, because everything is dependent upon resources. Put bluntly, you could say that all conflicts, even the Syrian conflict, are environmental conflicts!”, says the researcher with deliberate provocation. He seems to place no great hopes in the results of the Climate Change Conference.

A status for climate refugees?

Desertification, destruction of forests, rising of sea levels: the phenomenon of climate-induced migration is just beginning. When heads of state are confronted with the problem, they still often try to evade it. But how can we help the refugees who already exist if even the Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations (UNHCR) refuses to deal with the issue? Some people have already called for the creation of an international legal status for climate refugees, as has existed for political refugees since the Geneva Convention of 1951.

For Gemenne this only seems to be a good idea: “A status is often ineffective. The status of political refugee exists, but it doesn’t prevent immigrants from dying en masse in the Mediterranean. It’s no patent remedy that cures everything!”

From the point of view of this scientist, who is also participating in the Climate Change Conference, real progress would consist in letting both those who want to immigrate because of climate change, and those who want to stay, do so. Utopian? “Not if we manage to negotiate a bilateral, regional or international agreement such as already exists between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands”, says François Gemenne in defense of his proposal. But even if the issue will be addressed at certain events of the Climate Change Conference, it is not among the priorities.

François Gemenne is a political scientist at the University of Liege (CEDEM) and the University of Versailles (CEARC) and research associate at the Centre de Recherches Internationales de Sciences Po.
Clémence de Blasi
is a freelance journalist at France 3, Le Quatre Heures Heures and other French media. She studied journalism at the École Supérieure de Journalisme in Lille.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Frankreich
December 2015

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