How child refugees can help solve the climate crisis

How child refugees can help solve the climate crisis
31 October, 2023

Now more than ever, the climate crisis is being labelled as ‘the defining crisis of our time’.

Violence and conflict have uprooted many away from their home in the hope of seeking safety and sanctuary.

This trend can be pinpointed across the globe, exacerbating the refugee crisis; from Syrians fleeing from a brutal war to Rohingya people escaping to Bangladesh due to state violence inflicted by Myanmar's forces, to migrants from El Salvador making difficult journeys to the US.

With the threat of the climate crisis increasing globally, it will only exemplify harsh disparities and already existing inequality around the world.

"Climate change 'hotspots' host 70% of people internally displaced by conflict and violence"

Experts estimate that by 2050, 1.2 billion people could be displaced due to climate change.

However, we do not need to wait another 27 years to see the impact a deteriorating environment has on the planet. The UNHCR currently estimates around 90% of refugees come from countries that are the most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to the impact of climate change.

These same countries, labelled as climate change 'hotspots' host 70% of people internally displaced by conflict and violence. The result of this is years of compounded issues that further intersect the borders of race, class, gender and socio-economic background, painting a very bleak picture for marginalised people across the world.

In a growing movement to diversify the voices of climate migration, The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CDC) compiled an advisory team of children who will contribute to General Comment No.26.

The impact of this is significant; with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) being the most ratified human rights treaty in history, the General Comment will modernise and renew the principles originally signed in 1989, contextualising it to modern-day concerns focused on the environment and climate change.

Each year, extreme monsoons flood hundreds of villages in India and Bangladesh [Getty Images]
Each year, extreme monsoons flood hundreds of villages in India and Bangladesh [Getty Images]

A concluding number of 16,331 children contributed to the working groups, from more than 100 countries and reaffirmed 6 key demands for their governments: a clean and healthy environment; to be listened to, taken seriously and play a role in environmental action; clear and transparent actions from government, corporations and all adults; cooperation across the world; awareness raising and environmental education; spaces to share their ideas for potential solutions.

The diversity of conversations surrounding climate change has always revolved around the lifestyles of those in the global north. A repeated testament is articulated in Radaj’s answer (12 years old from Bekaa camp): “We must create a space to have a conversation between the young people and the government. This space does not currently exist."

Climate change discourse among current displaced refugees seems a farcical topic of discussion when refugees' existence in their host countries is already up for contention. However, looking at these issues in isolation does them an injustice.

When interlinked, they frame a large picture of corporate greed and governmental failures.

In the waterfront Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidieh in southern Lebanon, seawater flows into the camp destroying an already unstable housing structure.

Due to their Palestinian identity, the government sees them as ‘temporary’ refugees hence the structural support required is not available.

Neither housing repairs nor a protective sea wall is permitted, engulfing them in further obstacles or relocation. This raises the question of how many of these refugees are included in international climate solutions.

Refugee children are denied an adequate education, ample housing, and sanitary water systems. 

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The significance of including refugees/displaced people in climate issues, in its very nature, puts into question the profoundly colonial framework in which environmental solutions are set.

If Western countries classify being eco-conscious as recycling clothes, repurposing water supply, and reducing food waste, then we can safely conclude that displaced people are pioneers in green solutions.

Of course, these solutions are not created with the global south in mind. Better yet, we see a pattern of privatising ‘clean consumption’; cars, central heating, clothing. By re-capitalising green solutions yet guilt-tripping the majority of the population who are unable to afford this environmentally-conscious lifestyle, this can explain why many feel excluded from the climate narrative.

"Refugee children are denied an adequate education, ample housing, and sanitary water systems"

By including refugees, it widens the scope of the question surrounding the climate. At the root of it, we shift the discussion to the inequality of consumption as a major obstacle to tackling the climate crisis. This will force institutions to act against larger corporations who have colossal and wide-reaching consumption, rather than allowing a cycle of ‘green-washing’.

Grassroots movements in the refugee camps shine some hope for the future in their contribution to the Children's Rights Committee at the UN.

Wings for Syria, a youth-led group based in the UK tackling issues faced by communities impacted by war and displacement, partnered with GreenHouse for All, volunteers based in Bekaa Refugee Camp, Lebanon who run a near-zero consumption school.

During the two-day working group, we set up multiple activities for the children to understand, explore and contextualise the issues surrounding our environment.

One Syrian refugee in Bekaa camp, Hala (10 years old), contributed to how we got to a declining climate, “We need the government to work twice as hard to repair past mistakes, to repair the natural habitat, and to protect the remaining resources and native animals that we have.”

Another Palestinian refugee, Sami (11 years old), discussed the impact the unexpected climate has on his livelihood, “Sometimes it rains a lot and the food we grow is ruined. Because of rain and mud, our tent is flooded and I find it hard to get to school.”

Due to Lebanon's fragile water system, many families have to rely on taking water from the local river for household needs and to irrigate crops. However, its bodies of water and land have become a dumping ground for sewage, industrial and chemical waste. Despite the impractical advice of consuming bottled water, refugees local to the area have maintained the river's use resulting in an outbreak of cholera.

Ultimately, this serves as an example of how the climate crisis disparately affects those with less capital power and who contributed the least to the underlying causes of the environmental crisis.

Yoshi, a founding volunteer at GreenHouse, has acknowledged the failures of both the government and the international community in protecting those most vulnerable to the climate crisis. and has taken matters into his own hands. In his environmentally-conscious school, has built a ‘sanitation station’ to educate and support children in cleanliness, expressing this as a “small action that the majority of the world tends to take for granted, but that, here, is considered to be a luxury and a privilege”.

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Naturally, the inclusion of refugees in these consultations unleashes a number of questions about the state in which we have left refugees in a cyclical and cynical loop of short-term solutions.

If those who are impacted hardest are not part of the sustainability planning, how can we trust that top-down policies are considerate and inclusive of the most vulnerable in our society?

Despite the continuing difficulties in the camp's condition, Yoshi, Radag, Hala and Sami have reaffirmed one lesson for all; it is the power of the people who will bring about the change.

Rama Hilouneh is a recent graduate of law with international relations and a freelance journalist. She writes on law, human rights, and non-governmental issues. Rama has experience working at the Beqaa refugee camp in Lebanon with the United Nations, as a caseworker and translator at the charity Friends Without Borders which supports asylum seekers in the UK, and as a trustee of the Greece-based NGO "Finding Refuge" which provides a halfway house for asylum seekers & refugees and supports their transition into their new life

Follow her on Twitter: @hilouneh