‘We Have to Get This Right’: Historic Bill in US House Would Create Specific Protections for Climate Refugees

“If we are going to meaningfully discuss comprehensive climate equity and climate justice, we must inject security assistance and resettlement opportunities for climate-displaced persons into our conversations.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 10-24-2019

A group of Syrian refugees arrives on the island of Lesbos after traveling in an inflatable raft from Turkey near Skala Sikaminias, Greece on July 15, 2015. (Photo: UNHCR/Andrew McConnell)

Rep. Nydia Velázquez on Wednesday introduced historic legislation in the Democrat-controlled House that would establish formal federal protections in the United States for refugees fleeing impacts of the human-caused global climate crisis.

“If we are going to meaningfully discuss comprehensive climate equity and climate justice, we must inject security assistance and resettlement opportunities for climate-displaced persons into our conversations,” the New York congresswoman said in a statement.

The Climate Displaced Person’s Act of 2019 (H.R. 4732) would create protections for climate-displaced persons (CDPs), or “individuals who have been forcibly displaced by climate change or climate-induced disruptions, such as sea-level rise, glacial outburst floods, desertification, or fires,” according to Velázquez’s office.

Specifically, the first-of-its kind House bill (pdf) would establish a new humanitarian program that would allow a minimum of 50,000 CDPs to resettle in the United States beginning in the next fiscal year. It would direct the secretary of state to create a climate resilience position at the federal department and work with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator to develop a “global climate resilience strategy.”

The bill would also direct the president to collect and maintain data on climate-related displacement and empower the president to provide assistance to programs and initiatives that promote resilience among communities facing the impacts of the climate emergency.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—who co-sponsors the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—introduced companion legislation (S. 2565) to Velázquez’s bill last month. However, unlike the House, Republicans control the Senate.

Even if the bill passed both chambers of Congress, it likely would not be signed into law by President Donald Trump, who has pursued several initiatives to severely limit all forms of migration to the United States—from separating migrant families and caging children to his recent proposal to slash the refugee cap to 18,000 for the next fiscal year, which would be a historic low for a country that has taken in an average of 95,000 people annually.

Although the CDP Act faces seemingly insurmountable barriers as long as the GOP has a majority in the Senate and Trump remains president, “the bill lays the groundwork for how a future administration could deal with what’s already forecast to be among the greatest upheavals global warming will cause,” noted HuffPost, which first reported on the measure Wednesday.

“Despite this administration’s efforts to strip the world’s most vulnerable populations of refuge, America will continue to stand tall as a safe haven for immigrants,” said Velázquez. “This legislation will not only reaffirm our nation’s longstanding role as a home to those fleeing conflict and disasters, but it will also update it to reflect changes to our world brought on by a changing climate.”

As HuffPost reported:

Since 2008, catastrophic weather has displaced an average of 24 million people per year, according to data from the Swiss-based nonprofit Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. That number could climb to anywhere from 140 million to 300 million to 1 billion by 2050. The World Bank estimated last year that climate change effects in just three regions―sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America―could force 143 million people to flee by the middle of the century.

Yet little to no legal infrastructure exists to classify and process climate refugees. Last December, leaders from 164 countries formally adopted the U.N. Global Compact for Migration, the first major international document to recognize the role of climate change in causing displacement. But it’s a nonbinding and voluntary accord, and the United States, Australia, and several European Union members refused to sign.

In an interview with Common Dreams last month, author and activist Naomi Klein specifically noted the failure of governments—especially wealthy and powerful ones like the United States—to respond properly to the intersection of the world’s refugee crisis and the calamity of climate change.

“We need to be talking more about immigration and what the future of the border looks like in the context of a crisis that was created in wealthy countries,” Klein explained, “but is impacting the poorest people in the world first and worst. And those connections, I think, are still not being made nearly enough.”

When Markey introduced the companion bill in the Senate in September, he warned that “the climate crisis is fueling an humanitarian crisis around the world, and without intervention the crisis will become a catastrophe.”

“Women, children, Indigenous people, and people of color are the most likely to be affected by climate migration, making them even more vulnerable to conflict, violence, and persecution,” he said. “The United States needs a global strategy for resilience and a plan to deal with migration driven by climate change.”

The CDP Act, according to Markey’s office, is endorsed by Foreign Policy for America, Human Rights First, Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Church World Service, Refugees International, International Refugee Assistance Project, National Partnership for New Americans, and Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

RAICES, the largest immigration legal services non-profit in the border state of Texas, welcomed the bill in a series of tweets Wednesday.

“This is a first step,” the group tweeted, linking to HuffPost‘s report. “Climate issues are immigration issues.”

“We have to get this right, now,” RAICES added. “If we cannot ensure our immigration system is set up to welcome climate refugees today, we’ll have little hope of doing so in the future.”

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