Climate change, displacement and Australia’s punitive immigration system

In Australia, deadly fires have been devastating the country since September 2019. Bushfires have destroyed homes, habitats, and have claimed the lives of more than 30 people so far. It is estimated that over one billion animals have died. The total area of land affected by fires across Australia is now comparable to England’s land area of 13 million hectares.
The severe conditions this year have been fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and months of severe droughts, creating ideal conditions for blazes to start and spread. In December 2019, Australia experienced its hottest temperatures to date – and a state of emergency was declared in New South Wales.

According to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, temperatures in Australia have risen over the last century. The country’s climate is changing and is exacerbating the conditions for bushfires to occur. While natural causes can also trigger these, scientists stress that climate change is a major factor in why the recent fires have been so destructive.

A global issue

In New South Wales, which has been hardest-hit, bushfires have destroyed more than 2,000 houses and forced thousands to seek shelter elsewhere. In Kangaroo island, over half of the 50,000 koala population has been killed. The fate of endangered species remains tentative, while tens of thousands of farm animals have also perished.

Within this vital narrative on Australia’s bushfires, however, the subject of those likely to be affected the most by the climate emergency has been notably absent.

Forcibly displaced

Since 2008, an average of 25.3 million people per year have been forcibly displaced due to weather-related disasters. The 2019 Global Climate Risk Index demonstrates that 80% of the countries most affected by these are so called developing nations.

The injustice of climate change, however, is very much systematic. China and the US, for example, are the world’s largest economies. They are also the world’s biggest polluters. The countries with the least economic development, meanwhile, suffer the brunt of this – such as Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, amongst some of the world’s poorest countries and those most affected by extreme weather and human-induced climate change.
Economic wealth, however, continues to precede the health of the planet and its people. The US is the world’s biggest oil producer. China’s economic growth has primarily been powered by coal – one of Australia’s biggest exports. Just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions. This places huge significance on individual accountability.

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis, meanwhile, has included dismissing the links with climate change. Perhaps predictable, given Australia – which has one of the highest per capita emissions in the world – recently overtook Qatar to become the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and coal mining is one of its most lucrative industries.

The fossil fuel industry is profitable. Those who profit most have incentive to downplay the effects of climate change, dictating the fate of poorer nations, while at the same time strengthening their borders against them – despite the inextricable links between climate change and displacement; and their responsibility.

Internal displacement

Now, Australia is facing its own mass internal displacement and its first ‘climate refugees’ (a term that has only recently been given legal acknowledgement by the UN). Australia now joins the millions of people internally displaced across the Middle East, Africa – including the 800,000 people recently forced from their homes by floods and fighting in Somali – as well as the Aboriginal people who have been internally displaced in Australia since the beginning of European colonialism, living as refugees in their own country, and widely ignored.

New South Wales, the worst-affected state by the bushfires, is home to the largest population of Indigenous people in Australia. Hundreds of important cultural sites belonging to the Indigenous group the Yuin people – whose cultural identity derives from the land – have burned. Climate change may be attracting more attention than ever, but the impact on minorities and indigenous groups continues unseen.

As people across the globe rightly express concern for those displaced by the bushfires, this same sympathy and combined calls for action often dwindles when such displacement-inducing crises strike developing nations.

Seeking safety

For years, Australia (like much of the West) has capitalised on criminalising refugees. Forcibly displaced people, however, do not migrate by choice. They are not simply looking to join a family member or to take up employment – as can be the case in conventional circumstances of migration. They are fleeing persecution, war, violence. Hundreds have died making the dangerous journey to Australia. Yet Australia – which has shielded itself from the global refugee crisis – has punished them for it, sustained by the longstanding, discriminatory view of those arriving by boat as “bogus” refugees and a security threat.

In 2001, the Australian government was condemned as inhumane for turning back a rescue ship carrying 434 asylum-seekers, including sick people and children. More recently, a boat carrying 20 asylum seekers – which had left Sri Lanka not long after the deadly bombing attacks on 21 April – was intercepted and turned back.

Refoulement, however, is illegal under international law. Australia has obligations to protect asylum seekers yet continues to ignore these – instead spending millions on advertising to deter asylum seekers and millions more to illegally detain them in offshore detention camps (on Nauru and Manus Island) indefinitely – in inhumane conditions condemned by organisations such as the UN.

The controversial Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre currently holds just four occupants, two of them small children, all under the watch of 109 staff.

As the last few months have shown, however, disaster can strike any corner of the world – there are no hard-line borders – forcing people to seek safety elsewhere. This does not make them a criminal. Climate change may unduly discriminate against the poorest, but it is the richest nations who continue to dictate the terms without hindrance, sanction, or compassion. Their economic wealth is a product of loss, and we will all bear the price.

Lubnaa Joomun


Lubnaa Joomun is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers providing free advice and support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse.

Image by Meganesia, CC BY-SA 4.0