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Either victims or terrorists


Just before this year’s Bonn climate talks, New Zealand announced that it is considering a new climate refugee' visa system. This is only the latest way New Zealand has attempted to deal with climate-linked migration from the Pacific.

This was a hot topic in the country before, when, in 2014, when an immigration tribunal in New Zealand decided the Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota would not become the world’s first ‘climate refugee’. His case is emblematic of the way media coverage of climate migration has misrepresented and over-simplified a complex phenomenon.

Climate change will re-shape patterns of migration. But people who move due to climate change impacts will find themselves in a legal limbo. There is no officially recognized legal status of ‘climate refugee’ or ‘climate migrant’. Teitiota’s court case was an attempt to change this.

In 2014 a New Zealand immigration tribunal decided the Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota would not become the world’s first ‘climate refugee’

His argument was that because of the deteriorating situation in Kiribati, it was impossible for him to return. Climate change had created a situation on the islands that was a form of persecution, and he should therefore be officially recognized as a refugee in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s courts had other ideas. The Refugee Convention has a tight legal definition of persecution – and the impacts of climate change are not part of it. The tribunal recognized the humanitarian situation in Kiribati, and acknowledged that it was indeed the impacts of climate change that had caused the situation, but denied Teitiota refugee status.

Currently, the Refugee Convention requires that to become a refugee someone must be persecuted because of their race, religion or political views. It is not possible to fit climate-linked displacement into this definition without serious legal gymnastics.

In the end this was the position of New Zealand’s courts too. It was not the place of the courts – the judge argued – to alter the definition of the Refugee Convention. Teitiota’s case was thrown out – and he was eventually deported. In another similar case, a family from Tuvalu had their refugee claim dismissed on similar grounds – but was then granted permanent leave to remain on humanitarian grounds.

The Teitiota case became one of the major stories about climate-linked migration in the English-speaking world. Teitiota and his lawyer as well as one of the court representatives became the most quoted sources in media coverage about climate-linked migration over the last decade.

Recent research by the Climate and Migration Coalition set out to look at coverage of climate-linked migration. We carried this out to understand who gets to talk about this issue in the media, and how those voices are shaping the public and political debate on migration and climate change.

We carried out an exhaustive review of all of the UK print news coverage on climate-linked migration and displacement. Through a painstaking process we identified each person or organization quoted in the media in all of those new stories. We built up a picture of who was represented, and whose opinions and perspectives were granted space.

Then we used data from tens of thousands of online news stories and blog posts to identify which places were reported on the most in relation to climate-linked migration. The research is published as part of a volume by other researchers looking at migration and climate change - the Research Handbook on Climate Change, Migration and the Law.

Press and bloggers remain focused on three key locations: the Pacific islands, the Arctic and Syria

The results reveal that the media seem obsessed with a small number of geographic locations, which move in and out of favour as the media move from disaster to disaster. The real problem however is much bigger.

Climate-linked migration is already a global phenomenon, impacting places all over the world, and will become a bigger one – last year 23 million people were displaced by weather and climate related disasters across the world. However, the press and bloggers remain focused on three key locations: the Pacific islands, the Arctic and Syria.

The most quoted sources in press reports were people connected with the Teitiota court case, followed by representatives of the US government talking about relocations of First Nations people in Alaska or refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. The same is revealed in our analysis of the online content.

The way people from these places are characterized by the media fits into two opposing narratives. People moving around the Pacific as a result of climate change are characterized as victims. People fleeing Syria as a result of climate change are characterized as a security threat – a source of violence, chaos and even terrorism. After new research connected the start of the Syrian conflict with prolonged drought and climate change, there was an explosion of media coverage on the topic.

Neither narrative represents the full diversity of what people from these places actually experience when they move. And clearly, the reporting of climate-linked migration from Syria follows many of the problematic ways refugees and migrants are written about in the English speaking media.

Many people who move from the Pacific islands due to climate change actively dislike the idea of being cast simply as passive victims. But as climate change begins to make life harder on many islands, communities are beginning to migrate.

Their desire is to do this in an organized and dignified way that keeps their communities together – as expressed by Kiribati’s policy of Migration with Dignity. Or to migrate legally and become part of new communities. Some are even beginning to see migration as a climate adaptation strategy.

The situation in Syria is complex, too. There is evidence pointing to a connection between climate, drought and the start of the Syrian conflict (I have written about this for New Internationalist previously). In 2015, new research laid out the connections for the first time, and the media exploded with apocalyptic headlines.

Their desire is to do this in an organized and dignified way that keeps their communities together – as expressed by Kiribati’s policy of Migration with Dignity

As well as reporting on the research, many outlets also took the chance to talk more generally about the links between climate, migration and security issues. Some painted troubling visions of Europe overwhelmed by refugees and climate-driven violence and chaos across the world.

Although these news stories were pointing to the grave impacts of climate change, they had also adopted a negative narrative about migrants and refugees. Although there is some evidence linking climate change and armed conflict, none of it points to climate-linked migration as a source of violence. Media coverage about climate-linked migration remains trapped within one of two competing narratives, of either victimhood – or security threat.

Neither of these ways of looking at the issue reflect the reality and diversity of climate-linked migration. The media must play a key role in changing this, covering climate-linked migration wherever it takes place, and speaking to real people about their experiences.

They should allow those experiences to shape their coverage, rather than relying on the tired narratives they are using at the moment.

Header image: (c) Bill Huntington / US Air Force

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