As of today (8 October), the death toll from the sunken refugee boat stands at 232 people but, with another 200 still missing, it is expected to rise.
The boat was mostly carrying migrants from Eritrea, which the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says “has suffered greatly from the negative effects of climate variability” since 2000, and now suffers drought every three years.
Pa Ousman Jarju, the chairman of the Least Developed Countries group at the UN climate change negotiations told EurActiv that while it was still unclear whether the dead were climate refugees, there would be “serious consequences” if the rich world continued to emit greenhouse gases and ignore climate aid promises.
“There will be more refugees coming to your countries looking for greener pastures,” he said. “Look at what is happening. Almost every month you hear about a tragedy involving people from this part of Africa or Asia: This is the consequence.”
“People are almost destitute in their own countries,” he added. “I think the international community needs to come to the aid of the refugees in the developing countries.”
EU justice ministers will today discuss the Lampedusa tragedy and the bloc's President José Manuel Barroso will tomorrow visit the island of Lampedusa.
But three European Commission departments contacted by EurActiv - Development, Climate Action and Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response - all declined to comment on links between climate change and migration, each referring the request on to the other.
Several diplomats from the developing world saw the issue as indicative, expressing dismay to EurActiv that "laggards" in the EU might be obstructing the bloc's long-standing leadership role in international climate talks, due to begin in Warsaw in November.
Evans Davie Njewa, an environmental officer in Malawi, said that the “calamity” in Lampedusa was only one of several that global warming had influenced. Indeed, climate change was already causing annual flooding in his country’s lowland areas.
“People have to be relocated and given materiel to survive because they have lost their crops, livestock and houses,” he said. “Climate change contributes to the number of refugees. Because of the rises in temperature, their numbers will continue to rise in Africa and around the world.”
Climate refugees 'a certainty'
In a report last year, the UN’s special rapporteur on migration, François Crépeau, warned that global migration caused by climate change in the years ahead was now “a certainty”.
A warming planet was likely to exacerbate the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like storms, floods and heat waves, while gradual processes of environmental degradation such as desertification and soil and coastal erosion would intensify, his report found.
For those affected, “one natural response will be to migrate,” it said.
Scientists estimate that by mid-century as many as 15 million people could be displaced in Bangladesh by climate change. India has built a 2,100 mile-long high-tech fence along its border to try to keep them from entering.
But Dr Mohammed Asaduzzaman, the leader of Bangladesh’s climate change negotiating team told EurActiv that international migration was still very possible.
Shelter from the storm
“Migration takes place from coastal districts even in normal times,” he said. “But after the Cyclone Aila in 2009, we found that there were areas which were almost devoid of males. All of them had migrated to the nearest town or city, leaving the women and children behind.”
Tropical Storm Aila killed 330 people – some 8,000 are still missing – and left about a million people homeless. Such phenomena seem to be be happening more often.
Earlier this year, Monsoon floods in northern India left more than 5,700 people missing, presumed dead.
Shailesh Nayak, India’s Minister for Earth Sciences commented that: “Extreme weather is becoming more common. The June 17 rains might be read in the context of climate change.”
Yet these disasters could be abated to some extent by storm-proof housing and infrastructure in areas likely to be affected by future extreme weather events.
Without that, displacement would become “almost permanent,” Asaduzzaman said.
“Internal displacement has taken place in a big way and international climate refugees might also become a problem,” he added. “We have to agree how to handle it so that it doesn’t.”
A report by the NGO DARA last year estimated that climate change was responsible for about five million deaths in 2010, and said that it cost the world economy about $1.2 trillion.
US policy establishment
The US policy establishment certainly sees climate change as a ‘serious threat’ to national security, more from a fear of the chaotic waves of migration it could bring than a genuine sympathy for its victims, critics say.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan letter signed by former US secretaries of state, defence and homeland security, several generals and a former director of central intelligence warned of “millions upon millions of hungry, thirsty neighbours to the south [of the US], looking for somewhere to go.”
If precautionary steps were not taken, the letter warned that “climate change impacts abroad could spur mass migrations, influence civil conflict and ultimately lead to a more unpredictable world.”
But Michele Levoy, the director for Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) said that moves to build bigger walls against migration were themselves a primary cause of tragedies such as the one at Lampedusa.
“With increased securitisation, migrants are resorting to very dangerous means to try to enter Europe and with a lack of regular channels, the routes they take are becoming more dangerous,” she told EurActiv.
“This makes it inevitable that tragedies will continue to occur,” she said.