“The Century of Migrating Peoples”

Antonio Guterres (Wikipedia page), Un High Commissioner on Refugees, gave an interview to Le Monde at the occasion of the UN General Assembly meeting to discuss the question of climate refugees, a status yet not legally recognized.

If there is a debate on climate change (big "if"), there is, according Guterres, no debate concerning the implications of climate change on forced migration. For lowering of every centimeter of the oceans, one can expect one million displaced people. Such an impact will be direct (as in droughts, natural disasters, the disappearance of islands. Or it will be indirect, such as the increased competition for access to water.

So, we can already start discussing the question of hunger refugees and climate refugees even though these have no legal recognition. Victims of war are already protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention, but hunger and climate change have now to be treated as sources of forced displacement. And the processes that cause such displacement will only accelerate. The 21st Century, as Guterres puts it, will be the Century of Migrating Peoples… or Peoples on the Move and the international community is not ready for it. The only measures that nations have taken so far is to increase border controls and restrict access. It is all in vain if the causes of such displacements are not addressed.

In the absence of clear legal status, there exists mechanisms of cooperation with the UN system but there is a need for more systematic protection of these population. What is the solution when island-states disappear? These people cannot become stateless. They have to be placed somewhere with some degree of protection of their culture and identity.

The problem is even worse when governments do not let humanitarian agencies help internally displaced people, as is the case in Darfur, but also in Myanmar. For Guterres, it is a scandal that these governments have to be begged to let humanitarian agencies help their citizens. And all the talk of humanitarian intervention and of the "responsibility to protect" has been damaged by the war in Iraq as more countries have become suspicious that the "responsibility to protect," recognized by the UN General Assembly, is just a coverup for Western domination. This concept of protection need to be reactivated.

In addition, the current food crisis have not improved the situation. There are currently 11 million refugees and 27 million displaced people because of conflicts. These people need food air, mostly provided by the World Food Program, which, we know, is already struggling because of high food prices. Guterres notes that it is profoundly immoral to not have too much trouble finding $700 billion to save the financial system, but it is incredibly difficult to fin just $1 billion to support agricultural production on the poorest countries. This really shows where the priorities.

[My editorial comment] The poor can starve, but Wall Street gamblers have to be bailed out.

Back to the question of refugees, Guterres insists that nation-states have not only the responsibility for the security of their citizens but they also need to define their own migration policies and have an obligation to provide protection to those in need; this includes refugees and asylum seekers who need to be able to physically access the territories where they seek protection. And as countries tighten their border controls, it is more and more difficult for these people to exercise their rights under international statutes.

Now, up until 2006, there have been a reduction in the annual number of refugees as some conflicts, such as Sierra Leone or Liberia, finally came to an end. But since then, there has been an intensification of conflicts, either in less visible parts of Central Africa (DRC), or in very visible areas, such as Afghanistan, Somalia or Sudan. As these conflicts intensify, the numbers of IDPs and refugees increase again.

Now, where have these people gone? There is no European invasion. The vast majority of refugees live in the Global South: Pakistan, Iran or Syria, for instance. Their goal is to go home when the security situation permit it. The racist and ethnocentric rhetoric of invasion in core countries is not supported by facts and reality. However, such fears of global migration (especially from South to North) fuel global nationalistic ideologies that certain political parties in the North can tap into to build a social basis of support.

4 thoughts on ““The Century of Migrating Peoples”

  1. You might be interested in the latest issue of our free magazine – went online on Friday at http://www.fmreview.org/climatechange.htm
    Thirty-eight short articles by UN, academic, international and local actors explore the extent of the potential displacement crisis, community adaptation and coping strategies, and the search for solutions. (published by the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford)

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