Refugees gain hope from Latin American example

Whiling away the hours: Migrants wait to try to cross from France to the UK. Image: By VOA − Nicolas Pinault  (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

The UK’s new plan to control immigration has alarmed human rights groups. A Latin American example could offer hope instead.

LONDON, 31 March, 2021 − A year after Covid-19 began its devastating planetary spread, most of the world is still searching for ways to return to normality, however countries define it. A more far-sighted approach could be to rebuild better, using this global upheaval to avoid the errors of the past − including the treatment of refugees. A Latin American example could show the way.

Earlier this month the UK government unveiled its New Plan for Immigration, intended, it said, “to build a fair but firm asylum and illegal migration system”. Its proposals are novel, and not reassuring for those fleeing persecution: the Refugee Council, for example, dismissed them as “shaming Britain”.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says one per cent of the world’s population have fled their homes as a result of conflict or persecution: 79.5 million people. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.

Many seek safety within more peaceful parts of their own countries. The British Red Cross says the vast majority of asylum seekers flee over their nearest border, where they’re likely to live in camps. The proportion of the British population who are refugees or asylum seekers − not the same thing − is 0.26%.

In 2015 a prominent British politician, the late (Lord) Paddy Ashdown, said the world faced a humanitarian crisis on an immense scale if millions of people had to flee the impacts of the climate crisis.

Security on offer

He told the Climate News Network: “The numbers we now have of refugees fleeing battle zones are going to be diminished into almost nothing when we see the mass movement of populations caused by global warming.”

Perhaps prophetically, Lord Ashdown, a former marine and diplomat, said: “The idea of Open Europe is now under threat. We have to discuss how we can manage the future. Can you imagine what is going to happen? The Syrian crisis is simply a dress rehearsal for an immense climate-fuelled disaster.”

Climate-induced migration is already occurring; in 2018 climate and weather-related hazards led to 16.1 million newly displaced people.

Research from the World Bank indicates that by 2050 there will be 143 million internally displaced people due to slow-onset climate impacts, if there is no significant climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One Latin American country, though, has taken a bold step which promises limited security to those seeking safety within its borders, and which could be a model for other states thinking of following suit.

“The numbers we now have of refugees fleeing battle zones are going to be diminished into almost nothing when we see the mass movement of populations caused by global warming”

In February this year the Colombian leader, President Iván Duque, granted what is known as Temporary Protection Status to Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in Colombia, giving them a decade of legal residence.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, hailed the surprise decision, calling it “historic.” Former US president Bill Clinton said: “This decision will save lives.” But while it may prompt some of Colombia’s neighbours to follow its lead, there are fears that rising regional xenophobia could prove a deterrent to others.

Within Colombia itself, however, the decision has been broadly welcomed. Until February fewer than half of the 1.7 million Venezuelans living there had enjoyed legal status. The president’s decision offers security to refugees, including access to basic services such as education and health, as well as to Colombia’s Covid-19 vaccination plan.

The latest figures show 5.4 million Venezuelans have left their country because of political and economic instability under the authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro, which  has led to shortages of food, medicine, and fuel. The UNHCR calls the problem of Venezuelan migration “one of the largest displacement crises in the world.”

Colombia has set an example for how to set about defusing tensions and misinformation over the links between migration and the climate crisis something that was growing urgent in Europe well before President Duque’s move. The UK’s latest initiative shows little sign that British politicians have yet been swayed by the Latin American example they have been offered. − Climate News Network