Climate Change Is Creating an Entirely New Kind of Refugee
Boats facilitate everyday Kuna life, from fishing to trips to the mainland to moving between islands. Image: Emma Sarappo


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Climate Change Is Creating an Entirely New Kind of Refugee

Island communities will soon be forced to flee their watery homes. But will they be offered the legal rights of refugees?

Diwigdi Valiente has spent his whole life balancing two worlds within a very small isthmus.

Valiente's mother is Panamanian, but his father is Kuna, an autonomous people with origins in present-day Colombia who live in an archipelago of over 300 islands off of Panama's Caribbean coast. Growing up, Valiente, now 27, would spend about three months a year living with his father's parents on their native island—a world he describes as deeply "communal"—and the rest of his time on the mainland.


The region, known as Kuna Yala to residents, and as the San Blas Islands to the thousands of tourists who visit each year, looks like paradise. But the islands have a creeping expiration date. By 2050, the 50,000 people currently living in the archipelago could be counted among the millions of "climate refugees" expected to surge across the globe.

The islands already experience a sea level rise of about three millimeters, according to Matthew Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. But an increased vulnerability to storms will push the Kuna off the islands before the archipelago slips completely underwater.

"You can imagine if you were on one of those little islands during a storm in which waves were six, seven, or 10 feet high or greater, the island would be extremely vulnerable," Larsen told me. "People would have to leave."


Beyond the realities of climate-related disaster lies a more technical problem: The definition of "refugee" in international law does not offer explicit guarantees, such as legal protection and social rights, to people whose situations would otherwise offer them the label "climate refugees." The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) acknowledges the realities of coastal communities like the Kuna, but in light of the legal complexities of the term "refugee," the agency chooses to use the phrase "persons displaced in the context of climate change."


Whether or not international law is ready, though, climate refugees are coming. For many, it is a question of if, not when.

Valiente. Image: Emma Sarappo

Larsen called the Kuna's move inevitable—and indeed, for Kuna of Valiente's age, it's a familiar story. Today, Valiente lives in Panama City, where he works for the Ministry of Finance in addition to being an Indigenous climate change activist.

"My generation," Valiente told me, "we have grown up listening about climate change all the time…I was always thinking somebody was working to solve it. But then I realized that nobody was working on it, especially in Panama, with the Kuna people."

"How do you explain to these people that they have to move because of something that they didn't cause?"

Aresio Valiente López, Diwigdi Valiente's father and the environmental lawyer for the Kuna, said that the Kuna are more or less on their own. He has spent the last 15 years working to create laws that protect the environment here and autotomize the Indigenous peoples.

In September 2016, Panama ratified the Paris Agreement, the United Nations' climate change treaty that aims to keep temperature rise below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. The country, which is roughly the size of Los Angeles and home to some 3,700,000 people, established efforts to deal with the effects of climate change in March 2015, reshaping the National Environment Authority into the Ministry of Environment in an effort to give the government greater authority in environmental issues.


The Ministry of Environment has been working with the Kuna's congress since 2007 to assess the region's physical, socioeconomic and biotic vulnerabilities, according to Rosilena Lindo, the ministry's climate change director. This year, Lindo said in a translated written statement, the agency is hoping to focus on developing a National Adaptation Plan that emphasizes priority areas, including Kuna Yala, as the coastal nation works to respond to rising tides.

Lindo added that the ministry is also working with Panama's other Indigenous populations.

But Larsen points out that the Panamanian government, as well as most of the world's countries, face overwhelming costs when it comes to climate change. The Kuna will likely receive little outside assistance as they face the destruction of storms and relocate to the mainland simply because of the task's astronomical costs, López and Larsen noted.

"Most countries—the US, Panama, you name it—are not going to be able to be proactive in adapting, for the most part," Larsen said. Miami is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to raise roads and install water pumps to fight off increasing sea levels.

"What we're likely to see happen is tragedies like Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans: almost 2,000 people died in the Gulf Coast, thousands were displaced, about a quarter of the population of New Orleans never came back after the evacuation," he noted. "If one of the most developed countries in the world, the United States, can't do better than that, then imagine what a country with limited means will have to do."


Larsen expects that people will end up having to move on their own without significant government support due to the "astronomical" costs.

The Kuna have had territories on the mainland since their 1925 fight for independence, but land alone is not the solution. Valiente points out that the Kuna will eventually need funds to transport entire communities off the island and set up new water supplies, electricity and sewage systems. Additionally, the Kuna still on the island tend to speak only their native tongue, a barrier to employment on the Spanish-speaking mainland. And of course, no funds will make up for the potential loss of cultural heritage.

"How do you explain to these people that they have to move because of something that they didn't cause?" Valiente said. "And who should be responsible for funding these movements?"

The Kuna people aren't alone. They are among other populations, from Canada to the South Pacific, forced to look for land elsewhere.


In 2014, Kiribati, an island state in the Pacific, purchased several thousand acres of land on neighboring Fiji for agriculture, as rising sea levels depleted freshwater sources that fed the nation's crops. As Motherboard reported in 2015, that land might have to serve as a relocation space for the nation's entire population.

Fiji, breaking with most countries at a time when 65 million people around the world are displaced, welcomed the Kiribati. President of the Republic of Fiji Ratu Epeli Nailatikau said in 2014 that his nation and others have a responsibility to not stand back and watch another country "sink slowly beneath the waves."


Nailatikau continues to pressure other international leaders to increase their commitments to climate refugees, but the country has also pressed on in its actions without a global consensus. Fiji itself has already started to relocate its own communities in response to climate change, according to the Fiji Times.

The Kuna tend to cluster on islands close to shore, which are safer during storms and allow communities to build schools, medical centers, and stores. Image: Darby Hopper

One of the problems is the fact that the term "climate refugee" is still ill-defined. The UN 1951 Refugee Convention and the following 1967 Protocol spell out the legal status and protections the international community provides for refugees. This framework offers five grounds for refugee status: fear of persecution relating to one's race, religion, membership of a particular social group, nationality or political opinion.

As it currently stands, the definition hinges on "persecution." While climate change can force migration just like violence does, climate change is indiscriminate in its damage. Nobody is individually targeted and "persecuted" by rising sea levels the way they could be for their skin color or religion.

Read more: How to Lead a Nation That Will Be Swallowed by the Sea

"There's not really the same level of protection for people who cross borders as a result of other factors than persecution and war, which are the people who are protected by the refugee convention," said Benjamin Schachter, who serves as the focal point on climate change for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Each incremental increase in climate change will be substantial from a human rights perspective."


When the Convention was published in the early 1950s, nobody thought to expand the definitions. At the time, there was simply no need.

That is no longer the case. A 2015 report from the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found an average of 26.4 million people have been displaced because of natural disasters every year since 2008. It is 60 percent more likely for a person to be displaced by natural disaster today than it was 40 years ago.

In July 2015, the Supreme Court of New Zealand chose not to review the Court of Appeal's ruling in the world's first climate change refugee case, which found that Ioane Teitiota, from Kiribati, did not qualify as a refugee under the narrow scope of the international refugee convention—a definition that the court said did not fall under its jurisdiction to expand. The question of who does have the authority to make this call remains at large.

"Each incremental increase in climate change will be substantial from a human rights perspective."

The UN and other international actors recognize the holes in the refugee laws, with various initiatives and platforms dedicated to studying climate-induced displacement, but there are no immediate solutions.

UNHCR, along with the Platform on Disaster Displacement, is currently working on a project to study the gaps in protection when it comes to forced migration from the effects of climate change. Schachter, the UN human rights officer, said that the "scoping study" should be finalized in time to include its findings in the 2018 Global Compact for Migration.


The purpose of the study is to better interpret how the international frameworks can be applied to migration caused by the "indiscriminate" conditions that come with climate change, which has effects that can range from warmer temperatures to wildfires to of course, flooding.

"If there's a really severe sudden onset disaster, we can say, 'These people were displaced because their homes were swept away by the flooding.'" Schachter said. "In other cases—for example, gradually changing precipitation patterns or gradual sea level rise—it's quite a lot more complicated."

In short, the study is one small step toward making "climate refugee" a legitimate legal term.

The Kuna aren't the only residents of the archipelago. Scientists are also concerned with the future of the region's unique biodiversity. Image: Emma Sarappo

Bureaucracy might move at a glacial pace, but climate change does not. Current estimates as to how many people will be displaced by 2050 range from 25 million to 1 billion, though most fall around 200 million—equal to two-thirds of the population of the United States.

Valiente, the Kuna-Panamanian, told me his grandchildren and possibly even his children will never get to see the islands of his youth, let alone live on them. "Thinking about that made me so depressed," he said.

Though the majority of the Kuna population already lives on the mainland, their culture's way of life is inherently tied to the water. A massive loss of biodiversity matches the threat of cultural loss, as it's unclear if and how unique island ecosystems could adapt to sea level rise. And Valiente's identity reminds him every day of who carries the burden of climate change: the world's poorest (and often Indigenous) communities long settled in low-lying areas.

"For many years we [Indigenous people] have been taught that we are useless," Valiente said. "And this is not only Panama. This is everywhere."

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