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U.S. ill equipped to deal with mass migration of refugees

Guest Commentary


Since the beginning of this year, more than 50,000 children, mostly teens, but others as young as nine or 10, some younger, have swarmed across America’s southern border. Officials expect the number to exceed 70,000 by yearend.

They are escaping from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico; countries in turmoil, where drug lords terrorize neighborhoods and whole regions, bribe officials, force kids into gangs, and brutalize and kill anyone who opposes them.

The kids are escaping from terror, abuse, abject poverty and hopelessness. For all practical purposes, they are refugees. They come without parents or guardians, some clutching hand-scrawled notes with the telephone number or address of someone, somewhere in the U.S. who might help.

It is a humanitarian crisis. The United States has shown itself ill equipped to deal with it.

Think now of what could happen when climate change forces hundreds of millions, even billions of people to leave regions and countries where conditions will no longer support human life, places like Darfur, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Southern Sudan, the Republic of Maldives, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and other low-lying island states, some of which will disappear altogether, submerged under rising seas. In Bangladesh alone, it is estimated that 20-to-30 million people will be forced to migrate as a result of global warming-driven sea level rise.

Having fewer resources and options for adaptation in place, children, women, the poor, older persons, and other vulnerable groups experience the greatest pressures to migrate as a result of environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change.

These are people very much like those streaming over America’s southern borders now.

The U.S. Navy is already planning for increased humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) as a result of climate change.

The Navy believes that mass migrations precipitated by climate change will not only stretch its HA/DR capabilities, but could also result in instability and regional conflict requiring U.S. military assistance for the evacuation of U.S. citizens, and the quelling of unrest.

The International Organization for Migration says that, “climate change is expected to trigger growing population movements within and across borders.”

The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees said that by 2050 up to a billion people globally could be forced to migrate.

Where will they all go? Some studies suggest they’ll come here, to America. Mass migration to the United States from countries south of our border, like Mexico, may be triggered by climate-caused crop failures, in addition to the factors playing out now.

And yet America itself will not be immune to climate change and internal migration, such as happened during the Dust Bowl era, the largest migration in American history.

By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states. They did not receive a warm welcome in places like California, where city police were sent to the border to repel the “invaders.”

Internal and cross-border migration driven by climate change will test America’s infrastructure, its mettle, and its morality.

Will the tired, the poor, the homeless, the tempest-tossed be met at the borders with flags waved in welcome, or, as in Murrieta, California, and Oracle, Arizona, with xenophobic contempt?

How will this ‘nation of immigrants’ prepare for and greet the multitudes displaced by a changing climate that we have done much to cause and little to abate? The answer will define forever who we are as a people.

Richard Badalamente was a senior analyst at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA, from 1981-2006. During this time he was detailed for two years to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. Before joining PNNL, he was a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. He has his bachelor of science from University of Southern California and his master’s of science and doctorate from Texas Tech. He is currently a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby.


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