The Who, What, and Why of Climate Refugees

By Rebeca Camacho, Tenzin Chomphel, and Jasmine Moheb

While the science of climate change remains a heated debate at the forefront of international policy agenda, the reality of people being displaced from their homes due to environmental conditions is a hardened fact. The World Bank has concluded that by 2050, 143 million people will be displaced directly due to climate change. Countries that are especially susceptible to environmental disasters are those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as they will lack the technology and preparation necessary to overcome challenges that are brought forth by environmental changes, such as rising sea levels and water scarcity.

In face of the increasing evidence that climate change has led to the displacement of populations, it is surprising that even basic definitions for the concept of a “climate refugee” are still contested to this day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that although the term “climate refugee” is one that can be used in the media and has great support in evidence of migrating individuals, it is not legally recognized in international law. This is due to its contrasting definition to the standard interpretation of refugee as someone who has been displaced specifically due to persecution based on identity or discrimination. The lack of legal definition in international law for “climate refugees” leads to some confusion regarding the legal framework of how they can be dealt with by countries with pre-existing refugee sanctuary policies. 

Despite this, in light of increasing climate refugees, the UNHCR established an Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility, allowing for the organization to take part in helping victims of environmental disasters although it does not necessarily directly fall under its jurisdiction. Additional steps are being taken at the international level as the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference also led to the creation of a task force that would map human migrations and produce policies that address gaps in international law regarding climate displacement. Furthermore, countries around the world are taking the responsibility upon themselves to provide shelter for climate refugees. The Nansen Initiative is a program adopted by Switzerland and Norway in 2012 that attempts to govern cross-border migration due to displacement resulting from environmental disasters.

In conjunction with the rise of these displaced populations, we have seen a pullback from the United States on any action towards addressing climate change or its effects. The largely symbolic yet hugely consequential pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, exemplified this distaste for any international collaboration. Having the largest country in terms of GDP, and the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases out of the agreements presents a critical obstacle from both creating and encouraging a multilateral response to climate change. Not only does this convey the message that the United States does not prioritize global climate refugees, but it also ignores those experiencing the exact same conditions domestically.  The disastrous effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico for example, have displaced thousands of U.S. citizens, leaving them homeless and at the mercy of diminishing federal aid. With substantial evidence to indicate that Maria’s storm was greatly strengthened by the effects of warming water temperatures, the impacts of this global environmental change and political inaction in response, are unsurprisingly inescapable.

With all of these factors considered, Prospect Journal of International Affairs aims to shed some much needed light on the rise of Climate Refugees, and the various perspectives from which this rise can be viewed in our Fall 2019 Global Forum on Climate Refugees. From the perspective of international law, Professor David Victor will discuss the possibility of climate change becoming a matter of National security. Postdoctoral researcher Marena Lin will discuss adaptation through labor and immigration rights, specifically in the context of Pacific Islanders. Lastly, Professor Milton Saier will discuss the impacts of the human population both overall and on an individual consumer basis, towards the refugee crisis. 

Dissemination and discussion is a critical first step towards addressing any widespread issue. Prospect, No Lost Generation and I-House hope that through this Global Forum, we are able to play a small role in expanding and engaging the minds of the UC San Diego community towards a collective action. 
Featured image by Marco Verch



By Meredith Anderson
Staff Writer

On January 25th, local artist Trinh Mai, a second generation Vietnamese American, discussed her artwork pertaining to her family history at the University of California, San Diego. Mai began by explaining that she was always curious about her family’s history of escaping Vietnam in 1975.

“Curiosity is our spirit showing us that we need to learn more,” Mai said.

In an attempt to learn more about the Vietnam War and its effect on her family, Mai began creating art to tell their story. In 2013, Mai created her “Begins with Tea” series. This collection features portraits of 52 of Mai’s family members encapsulated by used tea bags and embellished with traditional Vietnamese ingredients. Mai explained that stumbling across old family photos in her Grandma’s house “invoked this need to know more [about the people depicted]” and inspired her to honor each person by creating their own tea bag.

While working on this series, Mai had her grandmother, Bà Ngoại, save her used tea bags from the afternoons that they spent sharing family memories. Additionally, she used Vietnamese ingredients, such as saffron and dried noodles, taken from her grandmother’s pantry to symbolize the traditional Vietnamese recipes passed down through her family for generations. When Mai finished the portraits, she shared them with her family. She said that her art “opened up this channel for conversation” within her family, thereby allowing her to learn more about her family.

Then, in 2014, Mai’s beloved grandmother passed away. Mai recounted her experience and explained that after her grandmother’s death, she came across an identification card with her fingerprints. This inspired Mai to use fingerprints in her art. Mai described how in less than an hour, she created Bà Ngoại (Grandmother), a fingerprint portrait of her grandmother.

“When inspiration calls, it moves so swiftly,” Mai said.

She explained that art is a spiritual practice that she has been able to use to heal. In addition to using art for self-healing, she employed this technique on a larger scale to benefit entire communities. Mai’s installation Quiet is an example of this. Quiet was inspired by the letters Mai found at the University of California, Irvine library from Vietnamese families pleading for their lost loved ones to be found. These letters contained photos of individuals, mostly children, who likely never saw their families again.While reading these letters, Mai reflected on the fact that they had been filed away in boxes and virtually forgotten. Mai was so dismayed by this thought that she decided to undertake a project in honor of these lost individuals.

The Vietnamese believe that “if [someone] is not given a proper funeral, their soul can’t rest,” she explained, which is why Mai worked to emulate a traditional funeral. Mai began painting their portraits on large sheets of white cotton fabric, symbolizing the mourning bands worn during Vietnamese funerals.

Although this installation was mainly intended for the Vietnamese community, others experienced healing as well. Mai recounted a conversation that she had with the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, who explained that many American military families resent the war because it took husbands and fathers away.  The woman continued to explain that after hearing stories of  Vietnamese refugees and the losses they are still suffering that “[she] will no longer recount her memories [of the war], but instead will recount [theirs].” Viewing Mai’s work opened this woman’s eyes to the trauma Vietnamese refugees endured and caused her to see her husband’s involvement in the war as a “worthy cause.” This interaction clearly demonstrates the profound influence art can have on shaping the perspective of individuals.

Throughout the course of her presentation, Mai used her family’s story to explain the impact that art and creativity have had on herself and others. Art in of itself is a form of storytelling that uses mixed media rather than words to convey a message. As Mai’s work proves, art can be therapeutic and spark conversations that would not otherwise be had. Specifically, Mai’s story illuminates the impact of the Vietnam War on those who carry on its legacy today.

Photo by Trinh Mai