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November 9, 2016

Responding To: The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

Migration with Dignity: A Global Responsibility

Aaron Silberman

On Monday, October 17, I had the distinct honor and privilege of taking the stage with former President of Kiribati Anote Tong to discuss climate induced displacement, international climate policies, and the personal effects of forced migration. Of the subjects we touched on, none strike me as more important than “migration with dignity.”

Migration with dignity is a concept that President Tong has touted for a number of years. Migration with dignity is predicated on the free ability of people to move abroad prior to the worst effects of climate change being felt; this contrasts with situations wherein people are rendered refugees by sudden or onset events and are robbed of the freedom to choose where, when, and how they move.

While the applicability of migration with dignity may seem far-flung to citizens of the United States, examples of climate-induced displacement, both home and abroad, are beginning to occur with disconcerting rapidity. In Louisiana and Alaska, for instance, communities are taking the first steps toward planned, orderly, dignified relocation in the face of sea level rise and the deterioration of vital natural resources. The New York Times recently featured coverage of “ecological migrants” in China, forced to move because of mass desertification, industrialization, and ineffective policies. It is “the world’s largest environmental migration project.” Many speculate that systemic drought in Syria precipitated the current Syrian civil war by displacing large numbers of rural Syrians and forcing them to move into overcrowded cities. In the Marshall Islands, where U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 50s already caused some displacement, both drought and rising sea levels are causing huge numbers of Marshallese to move to the United States.

At the same time that the number of Marshallese being forced from their homes by climate change (predominantly caused by industrialized nations) is rising, the compact of free association between the United States and the Marshall Islands that allows for easy migration will require renewal in 2023. This tension, between likely increases in the number of people displaced by climate change and a lack of national and international policies to support such people, begs interrogation and serious attention.

In order to ensure migration with dignity, be it in the United States, Syria, or Kiribati, global leaders are responsible for working together on proactive, ethical policies. Those nations that most contributed to climate change, including the United States, are particularly responsible for providing support to those who will be displaced by desertification, sea level rise, and other factors. An alternative wherein developed nations do not provide such support is unethical and unthinkable.

Aaron Silberman (SFS '18) is the founder and a student member of the Environmental Future(s) Initiative.

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