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Climate 'Refugees' In The Caribbean

By Lisa Benjamin and Adelle Thomas

THE region is still in recovery mode from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The 2017 hurricane season is not over yet, but already it has been declared one of the top 10 most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record.

Financial estimates of the damage caused by these extreme events are preliminary, but extend into the billions of dollars. Millions of residents in the region took refuge in shelters during the storm, and to date thousands of people are still displaced. Many residents, particularly in Barbuda and Dominica, may be displaced for some time as their homes are no longer habitable. In Puerto Rico, vast numbers of residents are still without power, and may be for some time. Across the region, many people have lost everything, and may not be able to afford to rebuild.

Many residents of affected countries such as Puerto Rico, Dutch St Martin, and the British Virgin Islands are either citizens of, or protectorates of, larger more developed countries, and therefore have access to funds and expertise to rebuild their countries. However, other countries such as Cuba, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda, have no such patrons, and are at the mercy of donations and the generosity of their neighbours. To this end, the Bahamas has accepted a number of Dominicans into the country, particularly students, seeking refuge.

The ferocity and intensity of these hurricanes are linked to the drivers of climate change and the region is highly likely to experience increased intensity of hurricanes in the future. As global temperatures continue to increase and impacts escalate, there will necessarily be further migration and displacement of residents. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that by 2100 there will be significant changes due to climate change, including more intense hurricanes, greater damage from flooding and more serious implications for human health and livelihoods. The Caribbean is on the front lines of these changes and is expected to experience these impacts in advance of other regions.

Climate-induced displacement refers to populations which have been forced to move. Climate-induced migration refers to people driven by special circumstances to move on a voluntary basis. In the instance of climate change, it is often difficult to clearly distinguish between these two circumstances. In both circumstances, affected people would not be classed as "refugees" under international law, as in most cases there is no element of persecution involved. As a result, at the moment there is no international legal framework governing climate-induced displacement.

A recently published peer-reviewed paper found that few Caribbean and Pacific island states currently have policies in place governing climate-induced migration and displacement. Given the increasing impacts of climate change, migration is likely to be a strategy used by these states to adapt, but current efforts are largely temporary and ad hoc. Ad hoc approaches to migration and displacement are likely to result in increased vulnerability of residents. Comprehensive data and policies are needed to ensure planned relocations and increased resilience to climate change. As a result, the development of comprehensive national policies on migration and displacement is becoming a policy priority in the region.

For more information on climate-induced migration and displacement, see 'Policies and mechanisms to address climate-induced migration and displacement in Pacific and Caribbean small island developing states' by Adelle Thomas and Lisa Benjamin (2017) International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/IJCCSM-03-2017-0055. For more information on climate change see The Climate Change Initiative's website at www.climatechangebahamas.org. The Climate Change Initiative is collaborating with Bahamas350.org's climate action week from October 23-27 2017, see https://www.facebook.com/bah350/.

• Lisa Benjamin and Adelle Thomas are assistant professors at The University of The Bahamas, and co-founders of the Climate Change Initiative (www.climatechangebahamas.org).

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