The climate change asylum joke

Last Friday I was listening to a local radio station when the presenter made a joke about a certain man in New Zealand who was in court appealing against refusal to grant him and his family asylum. What seemed funny to the presenter was that this man was basing his asylum application on the threat of sea rise in his home country an island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean and so he did not want to return after his visa expired.

There is this African tale about a young baboon that laughs itself silly on the sight of a burning forest forgetting it won’t have home for the next foreseeable future. Funny as it sounded to him, the presenter forgot the fact that in his own country Uganda in a place called Bududa thousands of people were driven out of their homes by landslides and others were buried in their houses by the mud. Also, floods in the western district of Kasese recently washed out homes and the infrastructure leaving hundreds stranded.

Apparently, according to Reuters the 37 years old Ioane Teitiota was denied asylum on the grounds that his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.

The international legal regime on refugees did not anticipate climate refugees but those displacements by war and bad political regimes. It’s ironic that at the time Nations were pre occupied with rebuilding from the disastrous world wars; their activities were busy causing Global warming.

It is hardly five years when my fellow country men and women in the Northern part of the country have returned back to what used to be their homes from IDPs as a result of the war of the bloodthirsty warlord Joseph Kony. Now a new regime of IDPs as a result of climate change has set in. Women with their toddlers spread the Capital city Kampala running away from hunger and prolonged droughts in their home lands of Karamoja.

A week hardly goes by without news of floods and torrential rains washing away people’s homes and whatever they own or prolonged droughts killing livestock and plantations. What is always important at that stage is whether the countries are able to manage and cope with the situation. Sometimes even the mightier are unable to deal with the problem as we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

While delivering lectures in Swiss schools, students kept asking me and my colleague why countries cannot just make laws and policies to cub global warming. The answer is simple; lack of political will. This reminds me of the fact that most of the legal and political rescue tend to come after an overwhelming disastrous situation.

Whereas IDPs as a result of climate change are increasingly becoming common, the population in the Oceania may actually have nowhere to run to in their own countries but to seek refuge in the neighboring countries incapable of being swallowed up by tsunamis or floods.

It may generally be seen as ingenious for one to seek asylum basing on climate change threats just like the presenter at the local radio station interpreted it. But the most important focus must be put on how to integrate the existing refugee laws to also cater for people displaced not only wars but also climate change. Besides, it is already clear that the “merchant of death” is no longer the likes of Victor Bout with their weapons business but the human activities that increase global warming.

By Mugisha Moses, Uganda