Why the green movement can’t turn its back on refugees

The climate crisis is set to make huge parts of the world near-impossible to live in, while the government ramps up hostility towards refugees. We need to stand up for their rights.



“We are sinking”

In November 2021, Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe spoke to world leaders by video feed at the COP26 climate talks. He was standing knee-deep in the ocean, to show how his Pacific island nation is one of many under threat from rising seas.

“[People crossing the channel in small boats] possess values which are at odds with our country.”

In April 2023, British home secretary Suella Braverman went on national radio to drum up support for her ‘illegal migration bill’. This new law would make it much harder for people escaping disaster and persecution to get protection in the UK.

These speeches happened two years and 15,000km apart. But if we want the environmental movement to win, we need to understand how they’re connected.

Right now, the climate crisis is contributing to making entire regions of the world near-impossible to live in. Droughts, floods, food shortages and dwindling water supplies are forcing people to migrate because they can no longer live on their land.

Climate change (usually combined with other factors) is already displacing millions of people. And even if we ramp up our carbon-cutting efforts, the situation will get worse before it gets better.

How will we treat those whose homelands have been made unliveable? This isn’t a question that UK environmentalists can ignore.

No matter how much the government tries to deny it, this country has a responsibility to welcome vulnerable people seeking safety. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the ruler of a vast empire, the UK led the world into the fossil fuel age. Many in this country got immensely rich, even as they sowed the seeds of the climate crisis. That includes companies which still operate here today. 

The exploitative mindset that sent ships out to plunder India and Africa is the same one that fuels the fires of climate change today. The environmental movement needs to challenge that mindset, and work to build something better.

The illegal migration bill, explained

People seek asylum when they fear they are unable to live safely or freely in their own country. People who are threatened or persecuted have a right to leave their country and seek refuge elsewhere.

Under the new illegal migration bill, almost all asylum-seekers, including their children, who do not have a safe or legal way to get here are likely to be blocked from seeking asylum in the UK.

If the bill is approved in parliament, it will give the government new powers to detain people – including pregnant women and children – for coming to the UK in small boats. They can then be put on a plane and removed from the UK.

In practice, this will mean sending victims of violence, conflict, or climate disasters either back to the danger they’re fleeing, or to third countries that may send them back. It will also affect asylum claims and stop people without ID documents getting protection from modern slavery.

The bill currently allows for the detention of pregnant women indefinitely, ending the current 72-hour time limit that was put in place as a safeguard in 2016.

“Fighting the climate crisis is about more than just emissions reduction. It's also about fighting for a safe and fair world for everyone. By opposing these attacks on asylum seekers, we’re rejecting the idea that someone can be discarded.”
Tweet this

For someone to claim asylum in the UK, they have to be on UK soil. The current system favours certain nationalities, like people fleeing from Ukraine. But people from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Sudan often have no safe way to get here. Instead, they have to risk their lives crossing the Channel in small boats to reach the UK.

According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), “there is nothing in international law that says it is illegal to cross a border in order to claim asylum. In fact, the Refugee Convention states that people should not be criminalised for crossing borders to seek safety – but that’s exactly what is happening at the moment,”

“Migration is key to the story of human history. We move for love, for work or study, or because we cannot stay in the place we grew up in,” JCWI says. The government is intending to persecute and effectively imprison people fleeing violence and oppression, leaving the most vulnerable of them at risk.

Migration and the climate crisis

As the climate crisis worsens, so will the displacement of people globally. “Human movement caused by climate change is not a crisis – it’s a symptom of other, very real and interconnected, crises. Migration is part of the solution. As the impacts of the climate crisis accelerate, people will need to move to find safety,” JCWI explains.

JCWI is not the only organisation working on this issue. Grassroots groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM) are hoping to fight this bill. “Despite being a relatively ‘friendly’ LGBTQIA+ nation now, we know that it wasn’t long ago that the government and right-wing media were targeting us the same way they are targeting migrants currently. Scapegoating minorities to create a culture war is not and never will be okay,” LGSM explains.

A safe world for everyone

Displaced people are often presented as a border security issue, while climate change and green solutions continue to not be prioritised. The climate emergency is at our doorstep and could be the biggest driver for displacement.

Rather than prioritise honouring climate pledges, the government appears to be distracting attention through pushing a policy that would turn away people who are seeking safety.

We are all deserving of humanity and compassion. Right now, goods that are destroying our planet can go across borders but human beings fleeing persecution may not. Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak are trying to stop people escaping conditions that the UK helped create. 

Fighting the climate crisis is about more than just emissions reduction – although this is vital too. It’s also about fighting for a safe and fair world for everyone. By opposing these attacks on asylum seekers, we’re rejecting the idea that someone can be discarded.

Showing a united front means that we are in this together, taking care of both people and the planet.

Ways to help

What's next?