When home is stolen: stories from the frontlines of climate migration

Increasing numbers of people are forced into migration from climate change – but lack legal protection as refugees

Six months after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, its devastating effects were far from reversed. Lesley Wright, UNDP Philippines
1 November 2021
1 November 2021

Before 7 November 2013, climate change felt like a far-off prospect for Filipino teenager Marinel Ubaldo. The 16-year-old youth leader was already involved in climate change education in her isolated coastal hometown of Matarinao in the Eastern Visayas region – a group of islands on the Pacific edge of the Philippines archipelago. “Back then, it felt like something that would happen in like 50 or 100 years,” she says.

But that day, everything changed. Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful tropical storms ever recorded, hit the Philippines. At least 6,300 people died in that country alone, and around 4.1 million were displaced. The Eastern Visayas were hardest-hit, with the highest death rate of any region. The country has always experienced typhoons; climate change, however, is making them more powerful, and more dangerous

Ubaldo and her family made it to an evacuation center, but their home was destroyed, and most of their belongings were washed away by waves. The village was cut off from communications, electricity and fresh water for weeks, and the villagers survived on whatever they could forage amongst the ruins until they were spotted by a passing helicopter. 

Since then, life has been challenging for many of Matarinao’s residents. Fisherpeople, like Ubaldo’s father, lost their boats in the storm, and marine life was severely depleted by the disaster. Soil fertility in the area dropped, too. “So it was really hard for fishermen and farmers to maintain their livelihoods,” said Ubaldo, “and some of them are now migrating to other places, because there is no way for them to make a living here.”

Ubaldo’s family rebuilt their home, but then on Christmas Eve last year, another typhoon destroyed it. 

“My parents became homeless again,” she said. “It wasn’t just us, either – there were so many others in the same situation. It’s such a terrible feeling, when you’ve been trying to rebuild, and then the typhoon comes to wash everything away again. Whenever there’s a climate disaster, we go back to zero.”

“My parents became homeless again … Whenever there’s a climate disaster, we go back to zero.”

Marinel Ubaldo, 16-year-old climate activist

Ubaldo has now moved to metropolitan Manila and is a world-renowned activist for climate justice, in large part advocating for people who have faced similar tragedies in their own families. Whether it’s from wildfires or rising seas licking at yards and houses; storms battering formerly-safe havens; or droughts evaporating hopes of harvest, up to a billion people could be forced to relocate due to climate change, a phenomenon known as climate migration, by 2050. Addressing this reality is a critical piece of steering our way through the climate crisis, and one that Ubaldo wants to see taking top priority at COP26.

An installation to raise awareness on climate migration in Dublin, Ireland, 2009, when there were already an estimated 26 million people displaced due to climate change. Oxfam International
An installation to raise awareness on climate migration in Dublin, Ireland, 2009, when there were already an estimated 26 million people displaced due to climate change. Oxfam International

A gap in the law

Despite the fact that climate migration is now widespread, there are currently no regional or international legal frameworks catering specifically to these migrants’ protection. While ‘climate refugees’ is a term increasingly heard in the media and amongst activists, “there’s actually no such thing in legal terms”, says Ole Ter Wey, a master’s student in international law and human rights at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, and a correspondent for legal climate migration think-tank Earth Refuge

“The Refugee Convention is from 1951, and it states that you have to be fleeing persecution [to be considered a refugee],” he explains. “Climate change doesn’t quite fit that definition.”

That hasn’t stopped climate migrants from trying. In 2015, Ioane Teitota of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati tried to claim asylum in New Zealand as a climate refugee. The archipelago’s land area sits at an average of two meters (six feet) above sea level, and two of its islands have already been completely submerged, causing overcrowding on the land that remains. Rising sea levels have also contaminated groundwater and killed off many agricultural crops. The entire country is likely to become uninhabitable in coming decades. 

“The entire country is likely to become uninhabitable in coming decades.”

Teitota’s case was rejected by New Zealand’s High Court. The following year, he brought it to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), which created a global precedent by ruling that governments are in breach of their human rights obligations if they deport asylum seekers back to countries where their lives are at risk due to the climate crisis. 

However, the HRC concluded that the current situation in Kiribati does not yet meet those criteria, which Ter Wey finds troubling. “How far does it have to go? What has to happen to people in order for governments to recognize them [as refugees]?” he asks. 

Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati. Most of the country's atolls and coral islands rise no higher than 2 meters above sea level. European Space Agency, Flickr
Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati. Most of the country’s atolls and coral islands rise no higher than 2 meters above sea level. European Space Agency, Flickr

Readying systems, centering migrants’ voices 

Meanwhile, others in less-vulnerable countries are turning their attention to supporting those who will inevitably come. 

Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, co-head of the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, is leading a three-year study exploring how the country could ready its health system to best support the mental health needs of Pacific climate change migrants, using case studies in the Cook Islands, Tuvalu and New Zealand. 

For those forced to relocate to countries like New Zealand, practical support with things like housing, language-learning and employment will be important. Culturally-appropriate mental health support will also play a critical role. “When your land starts to erode, lots of things erode with it: the traditions, the stories, the histories, the burial grounds of your loved ones, the spiritual connection,” says Tiatia-Smith. “And the livelihood, too: as one would pass on a home to their children, much of that land has been passed through the generations, and there’s mana [prestige, status, spiritual power] around it.” 

“When your land starts to erode, lots of things erode with it.”

Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, co-head of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies, University of Auckland

“So when you don’t have the ability to do that because of climate change, that’s a massive missing piece in your family’s history,” she says. “And then going to lands that are foreign to you and confronting all the challenges associated with that – obviously that will have an impact, directly or indirectly, on your mental health.”

Supporting climate migrants through these kinds of issues requires placing them at the center of the process. “We know that different populations look at climate change and mental health with different lenses,” says Tiatia-Seath. Too often, Pacific peoples’ experiences are sensationalized, or given narratives from outside that may not actually fit. “We need to ask ourselves,” she says, “are we empowering people to be the decision makers and solution drivers in their own environments?”

Often, we’re not. Many young Pacific climate activists, for instance, have been extremely vocal about the particular challenges they face due to climate migration, but “as much as they’re painted as the poster children for climate change, they’re not finding themselves at the decision-making tables,” says Tiatia-Seath, “even though they have so much to say.”

Biases towards Western and university-educated ways of speaking and behaving also contribute to this gap in representation and participation – as well as structural issues such as poverty. “There are so many climate migrants in the Global South who have been forced out of advocacy work because of their economic circumstances and needing to prioritize providing for their families,” says Ubaldo. 

“Let’s not forget about them, because they are truly the ones on the front line.”

To hear more from Marinel Ubaldo and Ole Ter Wey, tune in to the GLF Climate conference’s Youth Daily Show ‘Beyond borders: migration and the climate crisis’ on 5 November, 10:00 CEST. You can register for the whole event here


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