Pastoral Care for Climate Displaced People

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Camillo Ripamonti, SJ

 Camillo Ripamonti, SJ / Mission / 17 June 2021


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After the Pastoral Guidelines for Refugees (2013) and those for Internally Displaced Persons (2020), it is the turn of a new document, a tool for awareness and action, Pastoral Orientations on Climate Displaced People.[1] As Pope Francis recalled on the occasion of Earth Day, April 22, 2021, “the things that we have been saying to one another must not fall into oblivion. […] Time is pressing and, as Covid-19 has taught us, yes, we have the means to rise up to the challenge. We have the means. It is time to act, we are at the limit.”[2] But first we must see, and in this Pastoral Orientations on Climate Displaced People helps us. The alternative, as the pontiff reminds us in the preface to the document, lies in “to see or not to see”: it all begins with our view of reality, “mine and yours.”

First of all, we must acknowledge that there is an ongoing climate crisis. In fact, although scientists have been sounding the alarm for over 40 years since the first World Climate Change Conference in Geneva in 1979 (and periodically renewing this heartfelt appeal: Rio 1992; Kyoto 1997; Paris 2015), there is still a long way to go to address climate change effectively. It is necessary to see the human face of this crisis, that is, to understand that it has both an immediate or long-term impact on people, and often on the most vulnerable. Moreover, it is necessary to see in order to understand that the climate crisis also has links with displacement: many people, because of it, are on the move. We read in a recent report published for Earth Day 2021 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): “The climate emergency is the major crisis of our time and displacement is one of its most devastating consequences. Whole populations are already suffering the consequences, but vulnerable people living in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected countries are disproportionately affected.”[3]

Who are the climate displaced?

Climate Displaced People (CDPs from now on, as they are called in the document), also called climate migrants, environmental refugees, or eco-refugees, are people or groups of people forced to leave their usual place of residence because of a climate crisis (UNHCR recommends the expression “people displaced in the context of disasters and climate change”). Technically they are not a category identified by the 1951 Geneva Convention on the recognition of refugee status. The Convention considers a refugee to be a person who crosses an international border due to a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Therefore, CDPs are not always considered a vulnerable group. However, according to the UNHCR, “despite not being an officially recognized expression, many of those we call ‘climate refugees’ are entitled to the forms of protection recognized by the international community.”[4] Legislation – both national and international – is also beginning to go beyond a single perspective.[5]

Today, migration flows are often mixed, with women, children and men traveling for different reasons: economic inequality, conflict, violence, loss of rights and climate change. They find themselves side by side in desperate journeys, sometimes in the same boat. In many circumstances, these different reasons reside simultaneously in the same person, or in the same household, in more or less explicit ways. For example, the climate crisis is one of the reasons that leads to displacement, because it involves the depletion of natural resources with a consequent impoverishment of the population, and on many occasions triggers conflicts or aggravates ones that already exist. If one takes into account the environmental component of migration, it is estimated that by 2050 the number of CDPs could reach about 143 million.[6]

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