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The Lost People: Why It’s a Problem for Women That Climate Refugees Don’t Legally Exist

As the world increasingly sees the effects of climate change in massive death tolls and property losses caused by wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, it’s become yet another media phenomena that the world is shocked by, yet for the most part numb too. According to the United Nations, climate change is currently the number one cause of global displacement with over 80 per cent of those displaced being women.

When people think of refugees, the automatic cognitive response is overfull rafts and the United States building a wall to keep them away. The reality, however, is that refugees can be internal as well as external, everywhere from wealthy, first world countries to the most rural areas, climate disasters don’t discriminate. In Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is defined as “an individual who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality of habitual residence due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Rather than functioning legally as an immigrant, being defined as a refugee makes it easier for displaced persons to receive asylum and support from other countries, as they reasonably are unable to return home.

Despite the absence of climate in the internationally recognized definition of refugees, it is the leading global cause of internal and external displacement. Hurricane Katrina, which impacted the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, initially displaced over a million people and destroyed over 850,000 homes. Years later, the population of Louisiana remains thousands of people lower than before the disaster and homes and structures are still being rebuilt. Furthermore, In the three most vulnerable regions (sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America), over 143 million people are at risk of becoming displaced due to the effects of climate change by 2050. As well as being the most at-risk areas for climate displacement, these are also some of the world's most impoverished, lacking the local or federal resources to support their populations through the loss of their homes and livelihoods.

While the impacts of climate change can be, and often are, devastating, they are particularly harmful for women. When women are displaced, they are exposed to a higher risk of sexual and physical violence as well as sex trafficking and forced marriages. Furthermore, lack of access to proper sanitation products can cause health risks and physical impediments that can also impede women’s abilities to migrate. In many countries with high levels of climate displacement, women already suffer from a lack of educational opportunities and overall rights. When climate disasters strike, many refugees are forced to convene at emergency shelters or migrant camps where the risk of sexual violence massively increases.

Furthermore, Save the Children has reported that women and girls make up more than 40 per cent of the agricultural labour force and are responsible for 60-80 per cent of food production. With heat waves, droughts, and floods destroying crops, as well as wage gaps and other factors of exclusion women must work harder and longer to obtain income and resources for their families. They have to go farther to find drinking water, putting them at risk of sexual violence and trafficking. This also means that any chance they might have had to attend school or live independently is lost. Struggling to survive the impacts of climate change removes any chance of these women achieving financial independence. Forced marriages or rape can also cause unwanted pregnancies meaning that these women must also support and care for a child in addition to themselves.

In addition to the risk and implications of sexual violence and human trafficking on women, misogyny and a lack of education means that many women have different levels of access to information, resources, and employment opportunities in destination communities and countries. Because of this, many women are left behind in dangerous environments to care for family members and household responsibilities, while men migrate to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Socio-cultural expectations and gender norms can hinder a women’s ability physically and financially to move without the consent and/or support of a man, putting them at higher risk to environmental disasters and their consequences.

While the biggest issue with the lack of inclusion of climate induced disasters in the international definition for refugees is the obstruction of aid that it causes, the impacts on women are also large. Without an internationally recognized definition, it is difficult for states to create policy surrounding displaced people whether that is internally or externally. This means that climate refugees are forced to go through the complicated and lengthy immigrant process which is often discriminatory and harmful. Furthermore, if states were to establish a climate refugee policy, laws could be set in place to better support and protect women who are displaced by climate disasters. This would have broad economic benefits as well as massively help move towards gender equality by providing women with more opportunities to receive an education and make their own living.


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