The response of the EU to the arrival ‘en masse’ of refugees in need of a safe haven has left much to be desired, and some leaders have used the issue of security threats as an excuse to avoid taking up their responsibilities to provide humanitarian assistance. But until European leaders and citizens join the dots between the complex but interlinked issues of migration and climate change, a secure environment will remain out of reach for all of us. An interview with Bodil Valero, Green MEP for Sweden.
Green European Journal: We hear a lot these days the terms, “climate migration” and “climate refugees”, but it’s not always clear what they refer to. Could you explain the link between climate change and migration, and how you see this developing in the future?
Bodil Valero: There has been a link between the two for a very long time, but the problem is that nobody wants to see it. If you look at what has happened in Syria, for example, they suffered a drought for five years, and during that period 1.5 million Syrians had already migrated because they couldn’t stay where they lived in the beginning. This is the source of many other conflicts, too.
So when we talk about climate refugees, it’s not that they become refugees just after something has happened, like extreme flooding, but it is because there is a series of changes in their livelihood: your crops fail to grow, so you move to the city to find work, where of course you can’t because the city is already overcrowded with others who are in the same situation, and then there you have your predicament. Then, when you cannot make a living in the city, that’s when you look into the possibility of having to migrate to another country. So really it’s a chain of events that make you finally decide to migrate.
But when these people come to Europe, we look at them as economic migrants because they are coming from poverty, but in the beginning it is likely that it would have been caused by climate change, and most people don’t even think that they had to start their journey because of it.
The increased occurrence of natural disasters and extreme weather events are arguably one of the most dangerous climate security threats we are faced with as we have no control over them. How is the EU preparing for the increased frequency of these freak weather events?
The EU hasn’t prepared at all for this. The only thing the EU does is try to stop people from entering it. What the EU should do is help those who are in danger. If you look to Bangladesh’s rising sea levels, for example, it is predicted that they will cover a large part of the country, which will mean that millions will have to leave their homes. We have to help such countries adapt to a changing climate, and it is there that we should be investing massively because the only way to help the migrants is to make it possible for them to stay where they are, if they want to, as most people do. People migrate because of wars, or conflict, or poverty. What we can do is to address the root causes and, when it comes to climate change, the adaptation to it. The European Union could and should put lots of money into adaptation methods so people can stay where they are, because we are not prepared for this at all.
The only country that has an article, as far as I know, to receive environmental refugees is Sweden, and for the moment we aren’t using that article, but it has been part of Swedish law for many, many years – I think it has been used once when there was an earthquake in El Salvador, but I don’t think it has been used in other locations. That is something we should look at. We should also update the Geneva Convention to renew the application to the new flocks of migrants, because the Convention only refers to those who are fleeing persecution or war, so we should work with it so that applies to climate refugees, too.
Reflecting upon the current refugee and migrant crisis the EU finds itself in now, do you think one of the outcomes of the COP21 will be a revised climate refugee policy in response to increased pressures over safe shelter, food and water?
I don’t trust the EU in this case as what we have shown so far is that our solidarity with others is very much linked to our own security. When we look at climate change and security, it’s obvious that when people have to leave their homes they are in an uncertain situation where more people have to fight for the same food, which leads to conflict. What the EU has done so far to counter the migration flows is to close our borders. I hope that this does not continue, but so far with what we have seen, we have to provide much more help and development to other countries. This in turn helps with our security as we can also aid security sector reforms, but the main thing is to develop these countries in need and make it possible for people to live there and to adapt to the climate changes.
The spike in urban populations brings with it more security threats. Stephen Graham in his book ‘Cities under Siege’ talks about security threats to energy supply in the city, where a terrorist network can easily take out a city by simply severing energy supplies running into it. What do you think the proposed security risks are regarding climate change and energy?
It’s not only about technology in the city if we want a secure system. If we want to avoid a terrorist threat, energy methods should be on a small scale system and not a large one, because a larger one is an easier target. And if we also talk about migration in the country, if we have small scale, clean energy supply in rural areas then people can stay and develop in their rural areas and they do not need to go to the city. But when it comes to adaptation, we already know that we are the ones who caused the problem of climate change and the other, smaller countries are not to blame, and they are the ones who suffer the most. Now, in some ways, we are in the same boat, because we have to stop climate change, and they have to contribute. I think we have to work more on small scale energy solutions to produce clean energy, reduce emissions and improve our security.
Do you think the way we talk about security at the moment is problematic, where migrants or refugees are portrayed as potential sources of crime or security threats to the European welfare system, and if so, how do you think we should change the debate so the discourse of security is discussed differently?
What we have seen in many countries now and what we have discussed many times in parliament is the threat of foreign fight. The main discussion at the moment is that we cannot receive people fleeing their countries from war, such as Syria, because maybe in between some of them, in some boat somewhere, there could be one who is the foreign fighter. But this discourse on the foreign fighter threat is very, very narrow and the solutions that we take like going to Libya and sinking boats of smugglers don’t solve problems anyway. People will continue coming and people will die along the way for as long as we have these closed borders.
The best way of creating security for our citizens is to ensure security in Syria, to help the Syrian population with humanitarian aid, to refugee camps, and so on. What is also happening at the moment is that European countries claim they want to stop them from coming, but also stop development and humanitarian aid to the refugee camps because of apparent lack of funding. The UNHCR does not have enough money either so it’s very easy to stay where you are and close the borders, but if we do not help or pay what we should pay, it’s very normal that people try to come.
In Europe some people are afraid of terrorists coming to their countries and the impact of migration but they do not seem to have similar fears about climate change and the consequences of extreme weather. Is this a paradox?
It’s different in different countries. In my country, climate change has been an issue for several years, but at the moment, it is in the background. The media reports are more about the migration crisis than about climate, but in many of our countries we don’t even talk about climate change. The consciousness amongst the citizens is very low in this respect and the parliament or government won’t do anything about it. So yes, it is a paradox. People start to understand only when they can feel it and see it. In Sweden, the winters are not as harsh as they used to be and everything is changing, so I think people will start to understand that something is happening, but they do not link it to migration.