Syria: The world’s first climate change refugees

Of the 19.5 million refugees in the world today, only about 100,000 can be resettled each year


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VANCOUVER, B.C. Nov. 29, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Canada has an opportunity to once again be known as a nation of small towns with big hearts greeting the world’s first “environmental refugees”.

Get ready Canada for a reinvigoration of the Nanaimos, Medicine Hats, North Battlefords, Selkirks, Thunder Bays, Rimouskis, Monctons, Dartmouths, Summersides, and Ganders as choice destinations for displaced persons fleeing chaos around the world.

Clearly, large segments of the global population are on the move, and some of them are being displaced by climate change.

A sea of displaced walkers and boaters arc north-westward to Europe from northern Africa, Syria and Iraq. The U.S. leadership debates leading up to the primaries discuss the tens of thousands of Mexican nationals who are seeking an American haven. And a stream of youth from Central America are hitch-hiking up through Mexico to the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California borders.

There are 19.5 million refugees in the world today, according to Citizenship and Immigration. Their homelands are characterized as “war-torn countries,” and many are said to have experienced “unthinkable horrors.” The government website’s underlying premise is that political conflicts create refugee movements.

Only about 100,000 can be resettled each year, and Canada has recently been taking about 10,000 of those. As of Sept. 15, Canada has resettled 22,405 Iraqi refugees since 2009. We have resettled 2,563 Syrian refugees as of Oct. 5, but now we are committing to resettle a further 25,000 by early 2016. This is a noble goal.

As Canadians, we should be proud of our values of compassion and fairness that underlie our actions of both refugee protection and resettlement assistance. We should also be aware that the causes of refugee status are changing.

No less a humanitarian than Prince Charles (Reuters: Nov. 23) is signalling that we should consider that the Syrian civil war is caused by climate change: to wit, a six-year drought that has dislocated farming families and forced them into cities like Aleppo, Damascus and ultimately Amman and Beirut.

Here, they found little work suited to their traditional skills; young men fell prey to sectarian brain washing. Their younger brothers and sisters have had nearly five years of no (or inferior) schooling. Under these conditions, caring parents will act in their children’s best interests.

In Charles’ analysis, “We never deal with the underlying root cause which regrettably is what we’re doing to our natural environment. I mean the difficulties in 2008 with the financial crash – that was a banking crisis. But we’re now facing a real possibility of nature’s bank going bust.”

The current cohort of Syrian and Iraqi refugees may be the first group of environmental refugees to move to more hospitable climes in large numbers. If indeed they are, the Canadian refugee system will inevitably have to be amended to deal with “environmentally torn countries,” whose inhospitable climates have set the stage for mass urban migration from rural villages and farms.

To such populations, Canada is a kind of Promised Land. Underpopulated, potentially benefitting agriculturally from the early stages of global warming, and predisposed to middle-power diplomacy and decency, Canada is the kind of country people everywhere would like to raise their children.

Consider the choices a young Syrian family faces today in a Beiruti refugee camp, perhaps a repurposed concrete parking garage in the city’s core. To stay is to accept an uncertain fate at best, cooking dinners on an open fire and hoping for charity or marginal employment in the city’s street-side markets. Educational opportunities for children will be severely limited. To decide to move is to embrace hope of redemption in another system – in another world. To such parents, Canada is the dream destination.

Facing this uncertain world, Canada needs seriously to plan for a growing tide of refugees. Expensive real estate and a high cost of living will bar some traditional recipient cities like Vancouver and Toronto from playing a key role.

It is time for the smaller, less costly regional centres to move to the fore.

Troy Media Columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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