An interesting piece that was emailed to me:

March 23, 2009
Migrant or refugee — what’s in a name?

HARINAGAR, Bangladesh — Environmentalists call the two young men who sneaked into India from this coastal village “climate refugees.” Government officials call them “migrants.”
Shumitra calls them her sons.

Squatting on the porch of her mud and thatch home, Shumitra clutches a photograph of 15-year-old Topon and 27-year-old Jogodish and wonders if she will ever see them again. Unselfconsciously, she lets her orange headscarf fall away as she describes how her eldest left two years ago as work in the rice fields dried up. The other boy followed after a devastating flood in July drowned the year’s crops.

She is not aware that her sons and others like them are subjects of a fierce war of words. At issue is not whether climate change will be responsible for displacing millions of people this century. It’s what to call the victims.

The distinction is not just academic. Experts say it can have real-life implications for national budgets, international law and immigration policies of nations from America to India.
“What do you call these people? Are they refugees? That’s a very sticky issue,” said Koko Warner, who heads the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation Section at the U.N. University in Bonn, Germany.

‘There’s a lot of defensiveness’
“Other countries don’t want to be responsible for more people. There’s a lot of defensiveness,” she said. “It can be a very contentious, threatening political topic.”

Environmental and aid organizations prefer “refugee,” evoking powerful images of men and women driven from their homes with only the clothes on their back. Activists and government leaders in vulnerable countries also insist it is accurate.

“If a family lost his house or capital, if he doesn’t have any place to get housing or buy food, he should go some other place. He’s a refugee. If it happened because of climate impact, then he’s a climate refugee,” said Sarder Shafiqul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies in Dhaka.

“It’s not war with a gun. It’s war against climate calamity by local communities, so it’s a fight,” he said.

Opponents of “refugee” come from several corners. Western governments have shied away from the phrase for fear they will be called upon to pay a hefty price for the impact of decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The moment you say there are ‘climate refugees,’ a set of obligations come up, and that, I think, is a problem,” said Rabab Fatima, regional representative for South Asia at the International Organization for Migration in Dhaka.

“Some countries would like to push it. But then, the international community is still not in a position to address those politics,” she said.

‘Refugee’ puts the burden on developed nations
Human rights leaders also bristle at the term “refugee.” They argue that the word has a precise legal definition under the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees as someone who must flee because of persecution or a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Cécile Pouilly, a spokeswoman at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, said that convention was hard-fought. She argued that any attempt to play fast and loose with linguistics, no matter how sympathetic the victims of climate change, would do a disservice to the world’s 11 million refugees fleeing brutal dictatorships, violence, repression and civil wars.

“What we fear is that by misusing the term, we will weaken the definition of ‘refugee,'” Pouilly said. “We’re already struggling.”

Pouilly and several researchers said they understand the desire to use vivid language rather than colder, more academic terms like “migrant” and “climate-induced migration” to describe the wrenching specter of 200 million people being forced from their homes by midcentury. Besides, they acknowledged, it’s hard to get politicians to act on intractable issues like reducing emissions until they are confronted with the stark human implications of ignoring the issue.
“Refugee” puts the onus for reducing emissions — and the responsibility for compensating the millions displaced by climate change — squarely on the shoulders of developed nations like the United States and members of the European Union. Ultimately, activists said, it challenges them to act.

“The idea that [other countries] would have a legal obligation to admit 150 million Bangladeshis or migrants from other nations … I don’t think that is fruitful. I think that will scare governments that are capable of responding,” said Kathleen Newland, who directs refugee policy at the Migration Policy Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

Added Pouilly, “The word is used by environmentalists to push rich countries to do something on climate change, to use this ghost of millions of refugees on rickety boats arriving on the shores of their country. But there are others who say this is backfiring, that it is causing countries to build walls,” Pouilly said.

In India, which is busy constructing a fence along its porous, 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, that is already happening.

Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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David Creech