Refugee Week 2020: We must fight the causes of displacement

At just 15 years old, Hassan was targeted by an armed militia group in war-torn Aleppo, north-west Syria. They wanted to recruit him as a child soldier. Scared for his life, his parents found a way to get him over the Turkish border. From there, Hassan was forced to make his way across Europe to seek a better life in Wales where I met him as a local MP. Hassan is one of many millions of casualties – uprooted by conflict, climate disaster and political instability, displaced from their communities and any semblance of normality across the world.

Covid-19 has ground daily life to a halt everywhere and nobody can be faulted for feeling like they are living on the edge. But that feeling is the everyday reality for so many around the world who live on the constant edge of conflict, climate change and destructive weather, disease, poverty or gender violence. For millions of refugees and displaced people the future is bleak with many struggling to protect themselves and their loved ones. Refugee Week is a reminder that we must show leadership and take responsibility for ensuring that a just, fair and sustainable future stretches beyond our shores and includes the warmth of our welcome at home.

The UN Refugee Agency reported recently that there are now over 30 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children, and millions more who are internally displaced or stateless. Statistics from Amnesty International show that many refugees who have fled conflict, persecution or disease remain in volatile environments. Millions of Syrian refugees live in dire conditions on the border with Turkey – millions more refugees live in overstretched camps and face daily exploitation in Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Greek islands. Even refugees who sought a better life and made the extremely dangerous journey to Europe face open hostility and daily injustices.

Historically, our interventions across the world and the need for refuge at home has been driven by conflict – but we are now seeing people flee for many different reasons, many of which are interconnected. Whether through conflict and climate change, poverty or health, many of the decisions we make at home may have weakened a community or nation’s resilience to change and we must take on that responsibility.

By failing to recognise the escalation in the number of climate refugees we fail to prepare for the future. The International Panel on Climate Change reported that there could be as many as 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Following hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, 20-year-old Tammy fled to the UK from Antigua and Barbuda to seek a new life. Tammy told me about her experience shortly after I became shadow minister for international development, to help further my understanding of what life is like living on the edge of climate change and how our changing climate is driving displacement. Whilst Tammy’s experience differs from that of Hassan, they are both casualties of global inaction and instability, whether it is climate inaction or conflict. In many settings these two issues combined cause displacement – look no further than in north-east Nigeria, where many have fled to sought refuge after droughts and starvation led to conflict and a violent race to control fertile land.

The UN World Metrological Organisation concluded in January that the last decade was one of the hottest, with receding ice and record sea levels driven by carbon-intensive industries. Widespread drought has heightened food insecurity and water accessibility and exceptional rainfall, hurricanes and flooding have destroyed agriculture, housing and infrastructure. In 2019 alone, over 24 million people were newly displaced by climate disasters – compared to 8.5 million by conflict.

Often overlooked, climate change is a driver of migration just as much as conflict or disease, and in many places they combine to drive displacement. Climate and social justice must be at the heart of government intervention. We need a post-coronavirus plan that properly addresses climate injustices and displacement through strategic use of our development programmes and investments overseas. The UK must show leadership to prevent even more people being uprooted from their communities.

Our planet is shared, and so too are our successes and failures, so we must play our part in supporting those living life on the edge. As Covid-19 has shown, in our modern interconnected world, we must look outward to the world and play our part in repairing injustices and inequalities – whether they be climate, conflict, health or economic. Without recognising how global displacement issues are interconnected and understand our responsibility in mitigating emerging risks, refugees like Tammy, Hassan and many others will continue to be displaced and face discrimination and injustices – despite it being no fault of their own.

We need a rapid shift in how we respond to these global risks – by taking responsibility for the carbon-intensive industries that only speed up climate change, and by increasing our global leadership role as peacekeepers, which impacts on people’s lives across the world. Business as usual cannot continue. Refugee Week is a time for us to reflect on the impact of our actions and commit to ensuring that we protect the most vulnerable.

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