As the planet warms, Canada is facing an influx of climate refugees

This story originally was watching Canada’s National Observer and is part of climate desk Cooperation.

As droughts, deteriorating farmlands and rising sea levels force people around the world from their homes, advocates in Canada are calling on the federal government to support those who have been — and are being — displaced by the climate crisis.

In August, the Climate Action Network Canada (CAN-Rac), a coalition of more than 100 environmental groups across the country, sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Secretary Sean Fraser urging them to help all 1.7 million migrants in Canada to grant permanent residency in Canada, including half a million undocumented migrants. This “regulatory” process is key to climate justice, explained Caroline Brouillette, national policy manager for CAN-Rac.

“Tackling the climate crisis isn’t just about reducing our emissions, it’s about how we take care of each other — and that’s why we’re demanding it,” she said.

Climate change is already a factor driving people to immigrate to Canada, said Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), which worked with CAN-Rac to send the letter. But while climate migrants arrive as workers, students or refugees, they “may not even be able to describe their climate change experiences.”

He said that many migrants’ understanding of climate change is that it causes poverty.

“Climate change is indeed closely related to economic deterioration,” Hussan explained.

Take farmers for example. Land degradation is one of the biggest impacts of climate change, he said. Bad soil means bad harvests, forcing farmers to move to cities to find work. But many can’t find work in larger urban centers, he added, leaving them no choice but to leave their home country and seek opportunities in Canada.

In addition to poor harvests, water scarcity and rising sea levels are among the main drivers that, according to World Bank forecasts, will force 216 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050. This estimate does not take into account people in Europe, North America and the Middle East, or small island developing states such as Barbados or Kiribati.

“For a lot of people, the only option is to come here on some sort of temporary permit,” Hussan said.

Once they make it to Canada, many still face significant difficulties – which is why MWAC works to ensure permanent residency for all migrants, including temporary foreign workers. “A person without permanent residence or citizenship does not have the same rights in Canada,” Hussan said.

A recent example is a group of Jamaican farm workers in Ontario who wrote an open letter to Jamaican Labor Secretary Karl Samuda earlier last month, saying they were experiencing “systematic slavery” with extremely poor working conditions, including overcrowded housing and exposure to dangerous pesticides, and verbally abusive employers.

Hussan said MWAC plans to propose a “permanent regularization program” to the federal government in the future, but didn’t say exactly what that would look like, other than that it would “give everyone in the country the same immigration status and rights.”

Creating new migration paths

Meanwhile, some groups are calling on the government to make climate change a valid reason for migrants to gain permanent residency in Canada. Last year, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) released a report outlining several options the federal government could take.

It is not possible for climate migrants to come to Canada as refugees, said Rachel Bryce, associate lawyer at Landings Law and co-chair of CARL. Under Canadian law, refugees are strictly defined as persons outside their home country who have a reasonable fear of persecution because of their race, religion, social group or political opinion.

CARL wants Canada to allow climate migrants to gain status under protected person legislation. This is available to people who are already in Canada and are not considered refugees but would be at significant risk if returned to their home country.

Including climate migrants in the protected person category would pave the way for permanent residency if a person could prove their home country is no longer safe due to the impacts of climate change. While a specific climate protection class for “protected persons” would require a law change, it would also be possible to change the Immigration and Refugee Act to allow climate migrants to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, Bryce said.

Canada is both one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and one of its largest producers of fossil fuels — and bears responsibility for the climate crisis, Brouillette said. CAN-Rac has also stressed the importance of Canada taking action to reduce its emissions.

“It’s about Canada doing its fair share in the global effort to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and taking responsibility for our disproportionate contribution to the crisis,” Brouillette said.

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