Dorian Shows Us the Bleak Future of How the US Will Treat Climate Refugees

The hurricane survivors barred from coming to Florida won't be the last desperate people the government turns away.
September 9, 2019, 6:25pm
A group of people carrying their possessions away from a badly damaged town.
People carry their possessions in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty

On Sunday evening, hundreds of Hurricane Dorian survivors boarded a ferry from Freeport, Bahamas, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, relieved to finally escape the storm's destruction—at least 45 people are dead, hundreds are missing, and nearly 70,000 have been left homeless. Suddenly, however, an announcement was made: Those without the proper paperwork would be refused entry to the United States.

"Please, all passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark," a crew member announced over the intercom in a video posted to Twitter by reporter Brian Entin. Something had changed: The evacuees had been told when they boarded that they would only need a passport and a certificate proving that they had no criminal record to gain entry; now, they needed a visa as well. More than 100 people were forced off the Baleària Caribean ferry, including children.

Baleària did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE. While the precise details of this story are still being clarified, the incident points to an emerging dynamic: the systemic inability of countries like the United States to welcome the growing number of climate refugees in a just and humane way.

The UN Refugee Agency has not settled on a definition of who qualifies as a "climate refugee." But while it's impossible to blame individual natural disasters on climate change, a warming planet means decidedly more extreme weather events, and scientists warn that climate change has made hurricanes more powerful and dangerous. Just as drought is helping fuel the mass migration of Central American farmers north, it seems likely that as more storms devastate the Caribbean, residents will find themselves seeking refuge in the nearby U.S.—and at least under Donald Trump, it seems that the government will do what it can to deny entry.

According to the Palm Beach Post, rumors have spread through the devastated island nation that the U.S. was waiving travel requirements for refugees. Hundreds of displaced people gathered at an airstrip on Treasure Cay hoping to catch a ride on a private plane, only to be turned away. "I don’t know where the rumor surfaced," Terrece Bootle-Laing, a local official, told the Post. "But when most people aren’t prepared to cope with the difficulty of lack of water and lack of electricity, the news more or less spread quickly."

Even so, many Bahamanians have been able to make their way to Florida since the storm abated last week, including nearly 1,500 aboard the Grand Celebration humanitarian cruise ship. According to the Washington Post, hundreds have been processed with only a passport and police certificate—so it's not evident what changed aboard the Baleària ferry on Sunday.

For its part, Customs and Border Protection claims that it would have processed the evacuees and blames the company for having made a "business decision" that hurt Bahamanians: Baleària "raised the expectations of these poor people who have been through an unimaginable situation with the hurricane," CBP Florida spokesperson Michael Silva told Newsweek. "They raised their expectations only to then leave them terribly disappointed." What's more, Silva said, the company charged evacuees $150 per person, unlike Grand Celebration, which had provided passage for free.

Whoever is at fault, the expectation that people whose roofs are being ripped off should keep track of passports and police reports—a requirement that is transparently rooted in the racist history of U.S. immigration policy in the first place—is absurd on its face. And while cruise companies might be stepping in to fill the logistical gaps in humanitarian aid for now, how many charity missions will a for-profit cruise company have to run before deciding to act like a business again? After all, desperate people can be a great source of revenue. As climate change spreads crises around the world, some are going to see it as opportunities.

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Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.