Myers (2005) argues for official recognition of what he calls 'environmental refugees' and suggests 'there would be a handsome payoff on investment to foster sustainable development in developing countries' as a means of reducing the need to migrate. This assumes that migration is a problem that requires a solution rather than understanding human movement as a basic feature of human society from prehistoric times. People always have and always will move, and projecting it as a taboo word, as increasingly many societies do, is to try to control an irrepressible and positive force.
Pointing out the futility of their cause, Saskia Sassen and others have exposed the largely failed border security policies and other so-called 'smart solutions' employed by American and West European nations in an effort to restrict immigration (Hayter, 2000; Sassen, 2006). These policies have not only been unsuccessful in their stated goals, but they have had the unintended effect of encouraging underground people trafficking, while pushing people into permanent settlement rather than circular migration patterns.
Such 'restrictivist' policies therefore reflect a misguided and incomplete understanding of migration. Distinguishing migration into neat 'economic', 'political' or 'environmental' categories is misleading and detrimental to the cause of such vulnerable people. Migrants can be all of these things and more, and the extent to which they can be pigeon holed as 'forced' or 'voluntary' is not always clear since people move for a multitude of complex and multilayered reasons. The migrant experience can be both out of compulsion (e.g. fear of political persecution as well as economic deprivation due to natural disasters and so on) and a degree of choice (although the extent to which that choice is meaningful depends upon the immediacy and scale of the threats faced by migrants).
For example, the legal understanding of the term 'refugee' as it currently stands is misguided. As Kate Romer explains, the Refugee Convention does not protect people displaced by environmental factors: 'Use of the term without any legal expansion of the definition gives governments grounds to disregard advocacy on behalf of the environmentally displaced' (Romer, 2006). Gaim Kibreab suggests that this is already happening as 'the concept of the environmental refugee is increasingly used by states to justify restrictive refugee policies' (Kibreab, 1997). This explains why Richard Black objects to the use of the term 'environmental refugee', as it not only suggests a less pressing humanitarian reason to grant asylum, but also denies individuals any legal recourse for claiming refugee status (Black, 2001).
This is not to say that people are not or could not, in future, be displaced because of climate change. There is overwhelming evidence to support the significant danger that climate change poses, especially to developing countries. For instance, scenarios where small island states risk being submerged due to sea-level rise are certainly feasible. Equally, a scenario where people escape water or food shortages because the land upon which they depend can no longer sustain them is also possible. People fleeing such peril no doubt require protection - although it should not come to a matter of life and death before they are offered the choice to migrate.
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