With climate change making many regions of the world less hospitable, immigration experts in Canada are urging the government to begin considering ways to open its doors to a potential flood of climate refugees.
"Environmental disaster and degradation will inevitably cause many climate migrants to relocate internationally, including to Canada," says a report issued late last year by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. "Out of both moral obligation and self-interest, Canada must develop a thoughtful and proactive response."
VOA asked several experts whether Canada and other nations more associated with winter sports than with palm trees might become meccas for climate refugees as the world warms over the next 50 to 100 years.
"The time frame of 50 years, I don't think we can imagine," said Harald Bauder, the director of the graduate program for immigration and settlement studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"Thinking in terms of the next 10 years, we're already going to have enough on our plate," Bauder continued. "Even in the next 10-15 years, migration will increase dramatically due to climate change."
Bauder told VOA that even Canada — a traditionally welcoming country for immigrants with a pro-immigrant administration under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — is not admitting new immigrants proportionate to the need created by climate change.
"We're not increasing the number of people we allow to immigrate to Canada or anywhere in the Global North, even though the pressures are increasing," he said. "We're hardening the border. What I can imagine is there would be more political pressure in Canada to shut the border down instead of accept more immigrants."
Idil Atak, an associate professor within the Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Ryerson University, pointed out that Canada, like most countries, does not have a legal category to allow for the admission of climate refugees.
"Forced migration is usually linked to armed conflicts, political unrest and lack of democracy," she explained. "It has considerably been exacerbated by climate change and struggles for scarce resources in the last few decades. This trend will become more marked in the future."
Looking into the future, she said, "one can wish for a fundamental legal and ethical shift" that would entail legislative changes and proactive policies to accommodate people whose homelands have become uninhabitable, whether from droughts, floods or increasingly violent weather.
"In keeping with its objectives of saving lives and fostering respect for human rights, Canada should acknowledge the pressing need to protect those who are forcibly displaced by climate change and environmental factors."
While the lack of a legal category for climate refugees means there are no official statistics, there is anecdotal evidence that climate change is already driving some people to seek a new home in Canada. Residents of Nigeria, who asked that their names not be used, told VOA they know of people who have made the move because of drought and drought-induced banditry in their homeland.
Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, a senior researcher at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, pointed out that even as climate change eases the bite of Canada's notoriously bitter winters, it will also bring problems.
"There's a huge range of possible outcomes, especially when it comes to things like the cost of climate change, which we experience in terms of extreme weather," Mertins-Kirkwood told VOA. "You can't predict a wildfire or a flood; we just know we will have those more frequently."
Weather already tends to be more extreme in the northern latitudes, he said. "So it's sometimes hard to tell what the impact of climate change is when we're already used to the extremes. Instead of three-day heat waves, we have five-day heat waves. Instead of a flood every six years, we get a flood every three years."
In 2016, the entire Canadian city of Fort McMurray had to be evacuated because of a severe forest fire. In 2021, parts of British Columbia were cut off for many days by extreme flooding.
Some Canadian cities will fare better than others. Mertins-Kirkwood said that historically, western Canada is most affected by climate-sensitive natural disasters, while central Canada — from Saskatchewan through to Ontario — is more likely to be spared.
Atlantic Canada will be largely spared from the impact of sea level rises because of its high coasts, although the region will face more severe storms, Mertins-Kirkwood said. "Nova Scotia's not going to be underwater. That's not in the cards, certainly for the foreseeable future."
Melting brings security threats
While no one anticipates Canada's Artic and subarctic regions becoming fertile farmland in the foreseeable future, the prospects of easier navigation and resource extraction at the top of the continent are already turning once-theoretical issues into real concerns.
"Canada's future national security concerns in the Arctic are certainly going to become more complex as the ice melts," said Adam Lajeunesse, an assistant professor specializing in Arctic marine security at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.
"Today, the country is facing growing safety and security threats stemming from more ship traffic and economic activity. In an ice-free (or reduced) future, those unconventional security threats will proliferate, and it is easy to see many new threats emerging as well."
Lajeunesse said the Arctic may become more attractive to China's "rapacious" fishing fleets "and the maritime militias and more formal state security assets that Beijing uses in other waters to defend them."
Russia, meanwhile, "will certainly expand into the central Arctic, if for no other reason than to reassert Russia's self-proclaimed position as the dominant Arctic power," he said.