Chapter 8: “Too Hot to Handle” – Human Migration on a Rapidly Warming Planet

A World in Crisis

I. Voluntary vs. Involuntary Migration

Although there are similarities between the terms “immigrant” and “refugee,” it is important to recognize that there are important distinctions as well. The Canadian Council for Refugees (n.d.) defines a refugee as a person who is forced to flee from persecution, whereas an immigrant is someone who has chosen to settle in another country. In other words, an immigrant is someone who migrates voluntarily and chooses to move elsewhere to pursue a better life, whereas a refugee is someone who is an involuntary migrant and moves because they have to in order to escape harm that is likely to befall them.

However, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration is not as clear-cut as might first appear. For instance, the European University Institute (n.d.) argues that migration is very expensive because the cost of moving across international borders is high owing to the cost of travel, visa and immigration applications, time to do research on potential places to migrate to, and so on. In addition, newcomers often face significant financial hurdles upon arrival in their new communities, such as housing costs, fewer well-paying job prospects, and less-guaranteed social, financial, and/or emotional support from close family and friends.

Consequently, for many non-refugees, the “choice” to migrate may actually be made as a result of the harsh living and working conditions they encounter in their home countries. Although refugees cannot claim asylum in Canada directly to escape dire poverty (Government of Canada, 2021b), the link between extreme poverty and a negative quality of life is well-documented (Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, n.d.). Therefore, it could be argued that even though there may be an absence of immediate danger of persecution and/or death, the decision to migrate in such instances often is not really “voluntary.”

Learning Activity 2: Voluntary vs. Involuntary Migration Case Studies

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: These case studies are best worked through as in-class, small-group work in synchronous learning environments, but they can be modified to facilitate individualized and/or asynchronous learning, and groups can share their plans with their peers.

Examine each of the scenarios below and determine whether the individuals involved would be classified as “voluntary” or “involuntary” migrants. Why do you think so?

  • Case Study A:  Ramona
    • Ramona is a single mother in Argentina. Nine months ago, her wife left to work in Mexico but has since not sent back any money. She has two young children aged three and six.
    • She works as a waitress at a local restaurant, but the money she earns is barely enough to cover living expenses for herself and her children. She has since borrowed money from her friends and family to pay for an immigration consultant who would help her obtain a visitor visa to Canada.
    • Once in Canada, she hopes to find work as a live-in maid through local Latin American diaspora communities.
  • Case Study B:  Emmanuel
    • Emmanuel is a 40-year-old Haitian. He and his wife have a small shop. However, they have trouble covering all their monthly expenses.
    • They have three children aged seven, nine, and twelve, and they live in a home that is not in good condition. They have been planning to change the flooring, roofing, and walls to keep the rain out of their home and keep it cooler during hot days.
    • Emmanuel has decided to engage in temporary work in the agricultural sector in Ontario. Thus, for between four and six months a year, he moves to southern Ontario to work on different farms. When possible, he also takes additional work under the table” in the construction or service industries to earn extra money.
    • He sends almost all his remaining money “back home,” and after five years, they have managed to make the necessary improvements to their house. However, while in Canada, Emmanuel has to endure very poor living conditions—he and the other temporary workers sleep in overcrowded dormitories, eat less food (so as to send more money back home), are frequently subjected to discriminatory comments by their bosses about “immigrants” and “people like them,” and have experienced being cheated by employers who pay them less than they should have earned.
  • Case Study C: Mouna
    • Mouna is a 24 year-old woman currently living in Turkey. She is married and has a five-year-old daughter, and she and her husband had started a small clothing design business. However, most of it was destroyed by the latest earthquake that devastated their home community.
    • The destruction of their business wiped out their modest savings, and the amount of financial aid they received from the Turkish government was not enough to allow them to rebuild. Furthermore, the destruction created by the earthquake decimated the local labour market, and as a result, work is difficult to find across the entire region.
    • Upon attending a local government office, Mouna learned about the potential to find work in Canada as a live-in caregiver. She thought about relocating to Canada for the next two or three years to earn enough money to rebuild their business upon her return.
    • Although it would be hard for her to leave her young family behind, Mouna explored her options. Although she could also find work in western Europe, the United States, and the Persian Gulf countries, she has relatives in Canada. She ultimately decided that her connections in Canada would give her the best chance for success abroad.

II. The Global Refugee Crisis

As noted above, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2022b) estimates that by the middle of 2021, more than 84 million people had been forcibly displaced around the world (a number that includes 26.6 million refugees, 48.0 million internally displaced people, and 4.4 million asylum seekers). The number of people forcibly displaced in the world more than doubled between 2010 and 2020, and that number shows no signs of decreasing anytime soon (Library of Congress, 2021).

It’s also important to recognize that more than two-thirds (68%) of all refugees and displaced persons living abroad migrated from just five countries (Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar) (Almeida, 2022). More disturbingly, over 35 million forcibly displaced people were children under the age of 18, and between the years 2018 and 2020, approximately one million children were born as refugees (UNHCR, 2022b).

Furthermore, almost two-fifths (39%) of all refugees are hosted in only five countries (Turkey, Colombia, Uganda, Pakistan, and Germany), and 73% of refugees and displaced persons living abroad are living in countries that border their countries of origin (UNHCR, 2022b). Interestingly, of the countries hosting the largest number of refugees, only Germany does not border one of the countries that has produced the largest numbers of refugees and displaced persons.

Moreover, the UNHCR (2022b) estimates that close to 127,000 refugees returned to their countries of origin during the first half of 2021, while an additional 16,300 were resettled in hosting countries. However, it must be noted that despite the fact that Canada has generally resettled more refugees than other countries in recent years (Canadian Press, 2019), Canada is not a country that hosts a large number of refugees relative to its population. Aruba, Lebanon, Curaçao, Jordan, and Turkey have been identified by Amnesty International (2019) as the countries that host the most refugees per capita in the entire world.

The severity (and escalation) of forced displacement has led leading humanitarian organizations from around the world to refer to the current state of affairs as a global refugee crisis (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, 2022).

III. The Climate Crisis of the Anthropocene

The world as we know it is currently undergoing a very rapid shift in climate. Although exact epochal boundaries are still subject to intense debate within the fields of climate science and geology, a new scientific consensus over the past two decades has emerged that suggests humanity has ushered in a new geological epoch on our planet—the Anthropocene (Alex, 2021).

This new epoch stands in stark contrast to the Holocene, which is the name given for the past 12,000 years. Whereas the Holocene marked the end of the global ice age and coincided with the rise of humanity as our planet’s dominant species (Waggoner & Smith, 2011), the Anthropocene emerged in the mid-20th century and is the period of time in which the actions of humanity are recognized as having an outsized influence on global climactic patterns (Lewis & Maslin, 2015).

In short, the Anthropocene marks a period in Earth’s geologic history where the rapid increases of carbon dioxide (a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun that would have otherwise been radiated off of the Earth’s surface), methane, and other gases in our atmosphere have significantly altered the natural fluctuations of the Earth’s climate (and the weather that goes with it) (Denchak, 2019; Royal Society, 2022).

When discussing the Anthropocene, it is very important to distinguish between the concepts of climate and weather. Whereas weather refers to immediate and local atmospheric conditions (National Geographic, 2022), climate refers to the average long-term weather patterns of temperature and precipitation of a specific location (Climateurope, n.d.). For this reason, short-term instances of unseasonably cold weather in a particular region do not disprove the overall trend of an increase in the average global temperature.

Adam (2008) argued that at no point in the past 650,000 years (and long before the emergence of humanity) has atmospheric carbon dioxide approached current concentrations. Unfortunately, that number surged to a level not seen in the last two million years at the start of the current decade (IPCC, 2021b, p. 8). As a result, there is no past comparison to use that might help us understand how the Earth’s climate will respond to such rapid changes. However, the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2022) has offered clues into what the future likely holds for humanity on a rapidly warming planet.

When discussing changes to the Earth’s climate, it’s important to recognize that even seemingly small changes in the overall global temperature can have far-reaching consequences. Leading international climate scientists use global temperature records from 1850 to 1900 to determine average temperatures during pre-industrial times. By 2017, the average global temperature had increased by 1°C, and at the current pace of warming, a rise of 1.5°C (the limit to which much of the world agreed to by signing the Paris Agreement in 2015) would be reached by 2040 (IPCC, 2021a, p. 7).

Although it is true that the Earth goes through cyclical phases of global cooling and warming (USDA, n.d.), the staggering pace of global warming during the Anthropocene is a direct result of human activities that have altered natural cycles (Lee, 2020). In other words, as a result of large-scale industrialism, urbanization, and planet-wide transportation networks, humans have altered the chemical and biological makeup of our biosphere and have, in essence, created a new world for themselves, one far more inhospitable for human life (Hope, 2020, p. 123).

Furthermore, McCarthy (2021) explains how seemingly small increases in the average global temperature on our planet can have large consequences. A rise of just 1.5°C, which could be temporarily achieved by as early as 2022–2026 (WMO, 2022) would result in a sea level rise of almost half a metre, an increase in the number of oceanic heat waves by a factor of 16, and an increase of 19 extreme heat days per year. Landmasses would experience either a drastic increase in the intensity of rainfall or a doubling of the average drought, which would lead to increased habitat loss for plants and animals and a subsequent decrease in biodiversity and food production. These impacts become exponentially more pronounced if global warming rises by 2°C or more (Abnett, 2021).

IV. A Convergence of Crises

As a result of the factors discussed above, our current reality requires us to more deeply explore how the global refugee and climate crises intersect and are now dialectically related.

Although beyond the scope of this particular chapter, a few words on dialectical materialism will allow us to establish the link between the global refugee and climate crises. Originating from the works of Karl Marx (1857, 1993), dialectical materialism refers to the interplay between humanity’s thoughts, actions, experiences, and struggles. This interplay allows individuals to view the material (physical) conditions of their daily lives as the result of a productive (or creative) process, one that is intimately related to the construction of social, political, economic, and intellectual life in society (Chatterjee & Ahmed, 2019, p. 370).

As such, important political and historical events arise as a result of the conflict between opposite social forces caused by humanity’s basic material needs (Wambui, 2011). These conflicts are laid bare in relationships that feature great power imbalances such as those in advanced capitalist economies that have a colonialist view of humanity’s relationship to the “natural world.” Consequently, circumstances that produce economic exploitation and marginalization for large numbers of people and widespread environmental degradation are explicitly human creations (Chatterjee & Ahmed, 2019, p. 373).

It could therefore be argued that the global refugee and climate crises are more intrinsically related than might appear at first glance, in no small part because, at their core, they are both products of contemporary human society. More importantly, there are other, more visible links between human migration and climate change.

For instance, the United Nations has estimated that between 200 million and 1 billion people could be displaced by 2050 (Lewis 2015). In addition, if the impacts of climate change occur in an exponential or non-linear fashion (for example, more rapid sea level rise and/or significant alterations to precipitation patterns), the potential for migration under duress is very high in many regions. In a worst-case scenario, billions of people worldwide could experience scarcity of food and/or water (McCarthy, 2021). Even the World Bank (2018) predicted that the climate crisis could exacerbate the global refugee crisis and create a much larger humanitarian crisis, one that threatens economic stability and development.

Unfortunately, current models are predicting that at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, these trends are likely to worsen. With each 1°C increase in temperature, the air’s moisture-carrying capacity increases by 7%, fuelling increasingly severe storms (Climate Signals, n.d.). Sea levels could rise by as much as one metre by the year 2100, submerging coastal areas and inhabited islands (Vaughn, 2019).

Pacific Islands nations are extremely vulnerable, as are more than 410 U.S. cities and others around the globe, including Vancouver, Osaka, Alexandria, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Lagos, Lisbon, and Mumbai (WMO, 2021; Holder, Kommenda, & Watts, 2017). As well, rising temperatures could make parts of West Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America inhospitable to human life, with 700,000 people per year already being forcibly relocated by increasing desertification in Mexico alone (Azhar, 2017).

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (2022) most recent update to its Sixth Assessment Report further argues that climate change is leading to increased food and water insecurity and a decline in agricultural productivity in many communities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as smaller island nations and circumpolar regions (IPCC, 2022, p. 12). Limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C would mitigate the harm experienced by people living in these ecological zones.

Nevertheless, the effects of the climate crisis have already begun to cascade into the global refugee crisis. For example, an increasing body of evidence suggests that a prolonged drought and a lack of access to fresh water and arable farmland may have been a major factor in triggering Syria’s civil war and its resulting refugee crisis (Cramer, 2021). Furthermore, in 2020, there were 55 million people who were forcibly displaced by extreme weather, a number that represents the first time in recorded world history that the number of people whose lives were disrupted by climate change exceeded those disrupted by armed conflict (Lombrana, 2021).

As such, given the fact that human activities are solely responsible for the creation of the global refugee crisis, and that human activity has resulted in the climate crisis being experienced in the Anthropocene, it is apparent that these twin crises are dialectically related human creations. It is therefore imperative that solutions to these twin crises be similarly viewed in a mutually constitutive manner. The next section will discuss current national and international protocols and regulations governing human migration, the contexts in which they have been created and used to shape our understandings of forced displacement in our world, and how these protocols (and the theoretical and empirical understandings of human migration they inform) must be updated if they are to be reflective of the reality of life in the Anthropocene.


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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