As the planet warms, Canada faces an influx of climate refugees

This story originally Appeared on National Observer of Canada and is part of the Climate counter collaboration.

As droughts, deteriorating farmland and rising sea levels drive people from their homes around the world, lawyers in Canada are calling on the federal government to support those who are — and will be — displaced by the climate crisis.

In August, Climate Action Network Canada (CAN-Rac), an organization of more than 100 environmental groups across the country, sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Secretary of Immigration Sean Fraser requesting that permanent residency be granted to all 1.7 million migrants in Canada, including half a million undocumented migrants. This “regularization” process is key to climate justice, explains Caroline Brouillette, national policy manager for CAN-Rac.

“Fighting the climate crisis isn’t just about reducing our emissions, it’s about how we take care of each other — and that’s why we’re asking for this,” she said.

Climate change is already a factor causing people to immigrate to Canada, said Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), which partnered with CAN-Rac to send the letter. But while climate migrants come to the country as workers, students or refugees, they “may not even be able to describe their experiences as a result of climate change.”

He said many migrants understand that climate change causes poverty.

“Climate change is actually closely linked to economic decline,” explains Hussan.

Take farmers for example. Soil degradation is one of the biggest impacts of climate change, he said. Poor soil means poor harvests, forcing farmers to move to towns and cities to find work. But many fail to find jobs in larger urban centers, he added, leaving them with no choice but to leave their home countries and seek opportunities in Canada.

In addition to poor crops, water scarcity and rising sea levels are among the key factors that the World Bank predicts will force 216 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050. This estimate does not take into account people in Europe, North America, the Middle East, or developing small island states such as Barbados or Kiribati.

“For many people, the only option is to get here with a temporary permit,” Hussan said.

Once they arrive in Canada, many still face significant hardships – which is why MWAC is advocating that all migrants, including temporary foreign workers, be given permanent residency. “A person without permanent residence or citizenship does not have equal rights in Canada,” Hussan said.

A recent example is a group of Jamaican migrant farm workers in Ontario who wrote an open letter to Jamaican Labor Minister Karl Samuda earlier last month saying they were dealing with “systematic slavery”, with extremely poor working conditions, including overcrowded homes, exposure to dangerous pesticides and verbally abusive employers.

Hussan said MWAC plans to propose a “permanent regularization program” to the federal government in the future, but did not say exactly what this would look like, other than that it would allow “everyone in the country to have the same immigration status and the same rights.”

Create new migration paths

Meanwhile, some groups are calling on the government to make climate change a viable reason for migrants to reside permanently in Canada. Last year, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) published a report listing several options the federal government could take.

It is not feasible for climate migrants to come to Canada as refugees, said Rachel Bryce, an attorney at Landings Law and also co-chair of CARL. Under Canadian law, refugees are strictly defined as people outside their home country with a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, social group or political opinion.

CARL wants Canada to grant climate migrants status under protected persons legislation. This is available to people already in Canada who do not qualify as refugees but are at significant risk if they return to their home country.

Adding climate migrants to the protected person category would pave the way for permanent residency if a person could prove that their home country is no longer safe due to the effects of climate change. While a specific climate change class for “protected persons” would require a change in the law, it would also be possible to amend the Immigration and Refugee Act to allow climate migrants to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, Bryce said.

Canada is both one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and one of the largest producers of fossil fuels — and has a responsibility for the climate crisis, Brouillette said. CAN-Rac has also stressed the importance of Canada taking action to reduce its emissions.

“It’s about Canada doing its share of the global effort to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and taking responsibility for our disproportionate contribution to the crisis,” Brouillette said.