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

Recognizing Canada’s Ecological and Humanitarian Obligations

In this final section of the chapter, we will discuss Canada’s current refugee program, how Canada has responded to recent waves of the global refugee crisis, and what, if anything, could and should be done by the Canadian government to support the growing numbers of environmental and climate refugees in the world.

I. Canada’s Immigrant and Refugee System

In Canada, the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program applies to people who need protection from outside Canada, and the In-Canada Asylum Program is open to people making refugee claims from within Canada (Government of Canada, 2019).

For the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, the United Nations, along with private sponsors, identifies refugees for resettlement. A person cannot apply directly into this program; they must be approved by the UN. Private sponsors are organizations who have signed agreements with the government of Canada to help with the settlement of refugees, and Groups of Five are groups of people who have come together to help refugees with the resettlement process.

For the In-Canada Asylum Program, individuals in Canada may be eligible to apply if they have a well-founded fear of persecution and/or are at risk of torture if they are deported. The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is an independent board that oversees all refugee matters, and ultimately decides if a refugee’s claim is accepted or not. Grounds for persecution that can render a person a refugee include the following:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Political opinion
  • Nationality
  • Being a part of a gender or sexual minority group

At the moment, the Government of Canada does not recognize climate or environmental refugees, so does not accept claims for asylum from individuals who are displaced by climate change and/or extreme weather events. Individuals who wish to immigrate to Canada must apply via other streams for admission to the country (Government of Canada, 2022c).

II. Recognizing Canada’s Ecological and Humanitarian Obligations

The science around human-induced climate change has been settled, and Canada continues to exert a disproportionately large per-capita ecological footprint in the world (World Population Review, 2022). It may therefore be reasonable to suggest that the Government of Canada bears a responsibility to demonstrate global leadership in providing pathways to permanent residency via its refugee programs for individuals displaced by climate change.

Canada has the opportunity to play a pioneering role in adding climate-change based displacement to the criteria that the federal government uses to accept claims from asylum seekers. It could also use its considerable influence on the international stage to lobby for the inclusion of environmental and climate refugees to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Moreover, other scholars have argued that it is difficult for people to remain in their home countries if their traditional territories are no longer conducive to the right to life, while also noting that the term “migrant” does not sufficiently describe the plight of those who have involuntarily moved from their countries of origin (IPCC, 2021b). Using the term “migrant” has the added effect of focusing more on the resourcefulness of migrants and less on the reasons why individuals migrate in the first place (Akbar & Preston, 2019, p. 15).

Furthermore, Canada is a signatory to the Paris Agreement. Enacted in 2016, the Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change with the overall goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions as quickly as possible, thereby limiting the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC, 2022). In order for signatories to meet their obligations, they must engage in broad-based economic and social transformations, with mechanisms in place for financial assistance for poorer countries and a commitment to share technological innovations that can help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions on a global scale. Despite these lofty ambitions, and a further commitment by the Canadian government to reduce its share of greenhouse-gas emissions at the COP26 Conference in 2021 (Government of Canada, 2021a; United Nations, n.d.a), Canada’s response to the climate crisis has been underwhelming at best (Zimonjic, 2021).

As a result, the refusal to formally recognize climate change as grounds under which a person could apply for asylum would absolve countries like Canada from the responsibility it must bear for its part in contributing to a rapidly warming world. Such a refusal would further ensure that poorer countries, which are already feeling the effects of human-induced climate change more acutely, would continue to disproportionately face the consequences for our collective failure to adequately address climate change without having recourse to flee those consequences (McCarthy, 2020). This in and of itself could be seen as an act of persecution and is contrary to the global image of Canada as a multicultural country that is a world-leader in environmental protection.

III. Canada’s Most Recent Responses to Waves of the Global Refugee Crisis

Although beyond the scope of this particular chapter, the Canadian government unfortunately has a long history of weaponizing immigration policy to restrict the flow of migrants from non-Western regions of the world (Caldararu, 2021). Although there have been some positive developments in Canada’s responses to more recent waves of the global refugee crisis, the overall response from the government has been decidedly mixed. Consider the refugee situations described below.

A. Syrian Refugees (2015–2021)

The Syrian Civil War started in 2011 as a peaceful protest against the Syrian government by protesters angered by what they perceived to be authoritarian rule by the country’s leadership (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022b). Inspired by the Arab Spring, a series of populist uprisings aimed at securing more political freedoms for people living in North African and Middle Eastern nations (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022a), the situation in Syria quickly degenerated into a tragic and brutal civil war. As of this writing, this war has displaced more than 13 million people and resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 others (BBC News, 2022).

Public opinion in support of refugees from Syria was galvanized following the widely publicized image of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy whose lifeless body was found washed up on a beach in Turkey after the boat he and his family were fleeing in capsized in the Mediterranean Sea (NPR, 2017). Many countries from around the world were moved to take action, and Canada in particular committed to taking in 25,000 refugees in 2015-16 (Government of Canada, 2022a); by 2021, more than 73,000 Syrian refugees had resettled in Canada (Kalata, 2021).

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the reaction to the Canadian government’s response was not universally positive. Many instances of Islamophobia were reported in Canada following the federal government’s commitments to Syrian refugees, with petitions and public events decrying the alleged influx of “Muslims” into Canada, despite the fact that Syria itself is a very multi-ethnic nation with considerable religious diversity (Kanji, 2016). In addition, the government was also criticized for not developing the infrastructure needed to support Syrian refugees upon their arrival in Canada quickly enough and for creating a “two-tiered” refugee system that fast-tracked Syrian applicants at the expense of others (Molnar, 2017).

B. Afghan Refugees (2021–Present)

The situation in Afghanistan has also deteriorated in recent years, with a noted increase in the number of individuals fleeing the country as a result of the official withdrawal of the remaining military personnel from Western nations engaged in the country’s occupation (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Canada, in particular, played a leading role in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which was launched by the United States in retaliation for the events that occurred on September 11, 2001 and relied very heavily on the supports and assistance provided by local allies who acted as translators and interpreters for the Canadian military (Azzi & Foot, 2009; Editors, 2022).

Although the Canadian government has committed to resettle 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan as quickly as possible and has settled 11,300 as of this writing (Government of Canada, 2022d), the Canadian government has been accused of and heavily criticized for abandoning its Afghan allies in their most desperate hours of need (Debusmann Jr., 2022). In particular, the federal government’s biometric requirements of Afghan refugees and refusal to fast-track applications for asylum for Afghans (Goodyear, 2022) stands in stark contrast to the approach taken to support refugees from Ukraine (Beauchemin & Jones, 2022).

C. Ukrainian Refugees (2022–Present)

In early 2022, the Russian military launched a full-scale military invasion of neighbouring Ukraine (Center for Preventative Action, 2022). The result of the conflict has been the largest refugee crisis on European soil since the Second World War, with more than 5 million people having fled Ukraine (Vierlinger, 2022). As tragic as this latest refugee wave is, it is important to recognize that the response to the refugee crisis in Ukraine has been very different than the reaction to the refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

On a global scale, Western media has been guilty of shocking instances of racist double-standards in their coverage of the conflict and of refugees themselves. For example, Polońska-Kimunguyi (2022) argues that although the ongoing conflict in Ukraine continues to dominate news headlines in Europe and North America, lesser-known conflicts in Yemen, Palestine, Somalia, and Ethiopia seem forgotten. Other major news networks went further, indicating their disbelief that such devastation could occur in “civilized” places such as Ukraine, as opposed to places like Iraq or Afghanistan that have seen conflict rage for decades, places where the victims look like any European family that could be one’s neighbour (France 24, 2022; Lambert, 2022; Al Jazeera Staff, 2022).

These examples illustrate how refugees from Europe fleeing an aggressor who invaded their country are favourably described in other Western countries, whereas refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who are fleeing crises are seen as potential terrorists (Tahir, 2022).

Unfortunately, we see evidence of a similar type of bias in recent Canadian government policy towards refugees from Ukraine (Hwang, 2022). In response to the escalating conflict, the federal government quickly announced that an unlimited number of people fleeing the war in Ukraine will be eligible to apply for new temporary visa categories. These categories waive most of the processing and biometric requirements for applicants and make it easier for employers to hire Ukrainian refugees (Tasker, 2022; IRCC, 2022). The Government of Alberta went one step further, announcing detailed plans to assist Ukrainian refugees but remain decidedly non-committal to providing similar supports to refugees from other countries (Tran, 2022).

However, despite the divergent approaches to supporting refugees from different countries, the above examples demonstrate that when the political will is apparent, governments do have the capacity to make significant changes to existing refugee policy and to make those changes quickly. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the Canadian government has the ability to legally recognize the right for environmental and climate refugees to claim asylum in Canada.

Learning Activity 5: Test Your Knowledge

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: Although this activity can work well as an individual activity followed by a large-group discussion, it could be combined with Learning Activity 1 in this chapter (where learners are asked to do the same quiz) and work well as an online discussion forum topic.

On your own, take a few minutes to revisit the questions asked of you at the beginning of this chapter. Take note of how your answers may have changed and what the significance of these changes may mean for your future professional practice as a settlement worker.

LEARNER NOTE: Compare and contrast your responses to the same set of questions that you were first asked in Learning Activity 1. How did your answers change?

Learning Activity 6: Leading By Example: Working Towards “Eco” Settlement Work (Part 1)

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity would be optimal as a face-to-face, think-pair-share activity but could be effective as a topic in an online discussion forum as well.

The enormity of the challenges presented by the global refugee and climate crises can feel overwhelming. Nevertheless, imagining potential solutions to these crises is well within the scope of what any one individual (or group of individuals) can do.

Settlement workers often play the role of advocates in their communities. Imagine that you have an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister of Canada on the topics discussed in this unit. Create a list of five or six key questions that you would like to ask that are based on what you have learned in this chapter. What might responses to those questions be? How would you respond to those responses?

Learning Activity 7: Leading By Example: Working Towards “Eco” Settlement Work (Part 2)

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity lends itself best to an in-person small-group breakout or think-pair-share but could also work in a synchronous online learning environment or as an individual reflection.

Take 10 minutes to think about how discussions on climate change and migration are important for effective settlement work. As you think about this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is climate change disrupting our understanding of human migration?
  • What must settlement workers do to address this new reality through their work?
  • What must settlement workers do differently if they are to be effective at meeting the needs of environmental and climate refugees?
  • How can the settlement sector in Canada play a leading role in advocating for environmental and climate refugees?


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