Climate change has and will continue to force people all over the world to leave their homes. Climate stressors such as rising sea levels, flooding and changing rainfall patterns are increasingly making different areas of the world inhabitable. The World Bank predicts that Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could have more than 140 million people displaced by 2050. Many of the people currently being displaced are migrating within their own countries; however, as more people are forced to leave their homes, there will be far more international movement.
The United States is not immune from the effects of climate refugees. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to flee the island, most of which came to the U.S. mainland. The United States cannot pretend this problem is not imminent. However, the United States has done little to prepare for the influx of asylum-seekers.
Under current United States law, the definition of a refugee is extremely limited. In order to be a refugee, one must be “unable or unwilling to return to […] that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” This definition of refugee completely ignores the growing levels of displacement due to environmental factors. The term “persecution” only applies to those who are forced to leave their country due to violence by other people; and does not include the possibility of their homes becoming inhabitable because of the climate conditions.
The U.S. must be a leader in preparing the world for handling the large numbers of people who will be forced to find a new home. The first step in that process is changing how we define the term “refugee” in U.S. law to include those who cannot return to their countries of origin due to the impacts of climate change. If we do not make this change, we will have an increase in illegal immigration and, more importantly, we will be contributing to the devastation that faces people who are already forced to leave everything behind.