(contemplative piano music) - [Narrator] Refugees are individuals unable to return to their country of origin or habitual residence because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
This definition does not include provisions for those affected by environmental disaster or climate change.
- Our immigration policy prioritizes three groups of people: those who have skills that are necessary to the US economy, those who seek to be reunified with their family members here in the United States, and those who are political refugees and asylum seekers.
Those are the three general tracks for admission to the United States.
But it makes it very difficult for people who have been displaced because of environmental factors to qualify for an immigration visa to the United States.
- [Narrator] Studies have shown that climate change has a disproportionate effect on developing countries.
Rising sea levels, extreme weather, and unprecedented drought all contribute to the displacement of people and the dispossession of their livelihoods and lands.
Migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Central and South America who attempt to enter the US at the southern border are mostly turned away or detained regardless of what country they're arriving from or their reasons for fleeing.
They are often denied the opportunity to request asylum even if they are fleeing persecution and violence or have been displaced as a result of natural disaster in their home country.
Migration and displacement prompted by climate change point to a gap in current immigration and asylum systems.
Climate migration is not a formal legal category and displacement due to climate change is not recognized as cause for asylum or refugee status, according to the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees.
This means that many people make risky journeys towards the US Mexico border where they may hope to claim asylum, but where shifting and restrictive policies make that process complex and uncertain.
- So let's say that you are a farmer in Honduras and your farm has been affected by hurricanes every single year or every other year.
And finally, you decide to give up the land and move into the cities.
In the city, you might encounter political or criminal violence or you might en encounter economic hardship and you might decide to, as a consequence of that, undertake an overland journey through Mexico to the United States or Canada.
By the time you reach the US Mexico border, our politicians or our journalists might have labeled you an economic migrant, somebody who's come in in search of economic safety.
So that person who reaches the US Mexico border, yes, is in search of economic opportunity, but the original source of his displacement is environmental.
Migration is multi-causal.
Even though we tend to separate within our immigration policy, we tend to separate people into these discreet categories, migration is always multi-causal.
People migrate for a whole host of reasons.
- [Narrator] The 1990 Immigration Act created the statutory provision known as Temporary Protected Status for people unable to return to their countries of origin because of an ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary and temporary conditions.
People who receive TPS could under some circumstances remain and work in the United States until it was safe to return to their home.
TPS has traditionally been granted to migrants coming from countries with whom the United States has an interest in maintaining political relations.
Not all migrants coming to the US seeking TPS are treated the same.
And the renewal of TPS for certain groups of people is often dependent on what the US can gain from the transaction.
Political capital as a determining factor for a person's immigration status leaves certain groups of people vulnerable, specifically those displaced as a result of climate change and natural disaster.
And what happens if those temporary conditions become permanent?
On July 18th, 1995, a previously dormant volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat suddenly became active.
Eruptions on the southern part of the island between 1995 and 2000 destroyed towns, homes, and infrastructure within an exclusion zone that now occupies more than half the island, rendering it uninhabitable.
2/3 of the population were forced to flee to the United Kingdom, the United States, and neighboring islands.
Though small in number, those who came to the United States received Temporary Protected Status.
But by 2004, the Bush administration, seeing no end in sight to the ongoing situation, decided against extending the Temporary Protected Status of approximately 300 Montserrat nationals living in the United States and the Virgin Islands.
Despite some having lived in the country for almost a decade, they were ordered to leave without being offered a path to citizenship.
Today, the Soufriere Volcano is still considered active.
The affected area remains uninhabitable and access to the exclusion zone is heavily restricted.
- Many of them, they settled in other countries.
Others remained in the United States living with unauthorized status.
But the whole experience just demonstrates how Temporary Protective Status is not a long-term solution to climate driven migration.
- [Narrator] Beginning with colonization and continuing through modern political policy, which neglects to recognize the struggles of primarily Indigenous people and those living agrarian societies, the global migration of people as a result of climate change and natural disaster has largely been ignored by developed nations.
As extreme weather events become more common and larger numbers of people become dispossessed, the need for global policy reform will become greater.
- When you look at immigration policy say over the past 50 to 75 years, you see that the United States has responded to environmental disasters on an ad hoc basis, and we've accommodated particular groups of people that were displaced and needed either temporary or permanent resettlement, but we don't have a short or long-term response to climate driven migration.
- [Narrator] While policies like TPS do not yet provide a specific and permanent solution for migrants displaced by natural disasters, members of the United Nations are laying the groundwork to address these priorities.
The United Nations Network on Migration formed in 2018 to coordinate adaptive human rights-based policy in tandem with international efforts to limit global warming and create clean energy solutions.
These goals aim to offset the environmental changes caused by industrialization, and by extension, recognize the responsibility of world leaders to mitigate its disproportionate impact on developing nations and people fleeing the consequences of climate change.
- And so there are some people who feel that we should redefine who or what a refugee is, that we should create a more expansive definition of refugee status that takes into account the multiple reasons why people are forced to flee.
There are others who feel that we shouldn't tamper with the refugee definition, that instead what we should do is create a complimentary track for admission for those who are environmentally displaced.
But this is a burden that the United States should not take alone.
I think all the nations of the region will need to work together to help accommodate those who in the decades to come will be permanently displaced from their home.
(contemplative piano music)