Time for BC to start preparing for climate migration: A question of justice

November 5, 2014

The world is already witnessing severe impacts of climate change on lives and livelihoods. Global damage from climate change and fossil fuel development was estimated at $1.2 trillion in 2010, or 1.6 per cent of world GDP, and is projected to rise to 3.2 per cent by 2030. Over the past several years alone, the severity of extreme weather events impacted millions of lives. In some cases, changes in climate will induce permanent or temporary displacements, and the forced movement of people will only increase over the coming decades.

In 2010, Canada ranked ninth among all nations in greenhouse gas emissions. As a wealthy nation, Canada has resources that will assist in adapting to future climate-related stressors domestically, and it is well positioned to help other countries respond to climate change. Given Canada’s contribution to climate change, and our status as a wealthy nation in part due to fossil fuel extraction, we are morally obligated to assist migrants compelled to move because of climate change.

Climate change is one factor that interacts with many others to drive population movements. Estimates of the number of climate-influenced migrants range widely, but most projections agree that in the coming years climate change will compel hundreds of millions of people to relocate.

Industrialized countries like Canada have benefitted enormously from the extraction and sale of fossil fuels, whereas others who have contributed least to climate change will disproportionately feel its impacts. Despite our obligation to correct this injustice, at present, the federal and provincial governments show little interest in reducing Canada’s carbon emissions. Furthermore, both levels of government have yet to define our responsibilities to those displaced by climate change.

We surveyed existing immigration service-providers, revealing that there are serious gaps in current policies and understanding when it comes to climate migration. Despite Canada’s historical emissions, neither our senior governments, nor the leaders within our core service systems, are comprehensively planning for what climate migration will require of our social and cultural services or infrastructure. We must begin a conversation about how to develop and direct this leadership.

Despite Canada’s reputation for being open to immigrants and enjoying a diverse and multicultural society, our immigration policies are not welcoming of the most vulnerable people, exposing a core justice gap at the root of our immigration system. We admit about 250,000 immigrants per year, an amount that has changed little since the early 1990s. The percentage of immigrants who are admitted under ``refugee status`` has fallen from a high of 23 per cent in 1991 to just 9 per cent in 2012. Current policies stack the odds against the most vulnerable people and draw a false distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants.

There are three existing areas of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that could be used to accommodate climate migrants. First, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration may temporarily suspend removal orders for people who become displaced while in Canada. This occurred for Haitian visitors following the 2010 earthquake. Second, climate migrants could be granted permanent residency on “humanitarian and compassionate grounds”. Third, refugees situated outside of Canada may apply to immigrate if sponsored by certain private groups.

Greater support and certainty and a specific answer to our moral obligations would be provided if Canada created a new immigration class of “climate migrants” along with targets and programs to ensure Canada absorbs its fair share of those migrants. Those admitted under this new category should be additional to our existing immigration numbers.

Key services should be made accessible to climate migrants. Settlement counseling and health services are both currently available, but already stretched thin. All immigrants and refugees could benefit from better co-ordination of those services and access to other services including legal, housing and education. We do not suggest reducing current programs, rather an increase in funding specifically for this new designation.

Additionally, given that most climate migrants will remain in the Global South, Canada should substantially increase its support to developing countries shouldering the burden of climate displacement. Canada owes a “climate debt” to the nations bearing the greatest impacts, including countries that will assist and settle climate migrants. This is not a matter of charity or generosity but one of justice and reparation, which was codified in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties agreement in 2013.

The Canadian government must take seriously its responsibility to help accommodate climate migrants, reassure the public that all levels of government are taking steps to address the impacts on social services involved, and invite society as a whole to the conversation on how Canada can undertake this ethical responsibility.


Stephanie Dickson, Sophie Webber and Tim Takaro are co-authors of a new report, Preparing BC for Climate Migration. The report is part of the Climate Justice Project, a five-year research project led by the CCPA–BC and the University of BC.