Mitzi Jonelle Tan

Mitzi Jonelle Tan.

Climate justice cannot be separated from migrant justice

Climate change is not just an environmental crisis; it is driven by decades of exploitation of both people and nature.

As a climate activist, I sometimes find myself in foreign countries for conferences, meetings, and campaigns. I often end up meeting Filipino migrants, either by chance or through the Filipino migrant rights groups in the Global North. They would ask me “Kamusta?” or “How are you?” in Filipino and what I’m doing so far away from home. The warmth and openness of these interactions are palpable.

I sense their longing for news from home, the desire to reconnect with their community, and the comfort of people who feel familiar, even though we’re strangers. As I explain my climate justice work, they talk about their families at home who have experienced heavy rains, typhoons, and floods and how they have to send more money from overseas to help stabilise their families’ situation at home. These conversations make the intersections of climate and migrant justice clearer and more concrete to me.

The Philippines has one of the largest diaspora populations, spanning 200 countries. An estimated 10.2 million overseas Filipinos, including both migrants and members of the diaspora, make up about 11% of the Philippine population. Additionally, the Philippines ranks second in the world for new internal displacements due to climate impacts, with 4.4 million people displaced in 2020.

We are also one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, with typhoons and storms worsening with the climate crisis. However, when you speak with Filipino migrants, 'climate change' isn’t necessarily the primary reason for their migration. Often, they state our country's economic instability– exacerbated by extreme weather events. However, after migrating to the Global North with the promise of better working conditions and better pay, they find themselves confronting new challenges.

During a workshop and sharing circle for migrant workers in Berlin organised by Alpas Pilipinas, a Filipino woman explained how the German and Philippine governments have a treaty to bring more health workers from the Philippines to work in Germany, yet fail to adequately prepare or equip them for life there. “Sometimes, it’s something as simple as the weather”, she said. The women’s workshop and sharing circle also talked about struggles to get a job because of racial and gender discrimination, as well as the bureaucracy and language barriers that are built into the system and keep social support inaccessible.

The organisers of Alpas Pilipinas, an anti-imperialist Filipino migrants and diaspora rights group in Berlin, talk about how countries in the Global North, like Germany, who are historically responsible for the climate crisis, respond to the crisis with more exploitation, violence, and border militarisation to protect profit and not people. “They force us to leave our homes and lock us up when we seek safety. How is this just? How is this fair?” 

People have always migrated, yet as climate and global inequality worsen, more people see no choice but to move and leave their homes. Instead of Global North countries paying reparations and investing in climate finance, world leaders are investing billions of taxpayer dollars on more brutal border regimes. According to the Climate Justice Coalition from the UK, the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses spend 2.3 times more on arming their borders than on climate finance.

With the rise of the far right in Global North countries, including the EU, policies are becoming more and more anti-migrant in the countries that were built and rebuilt on the backs of migrant workers. Migration is made out to be the “mother of all problems” (as former German interior minister Horst Seehofer commented in 2018)  and the climate crisis is increasingly classified by governments as a security issue as an excuse to use military force.

In the process of people fighting to protect their land and water, and their chance at survival, many people become activists in different ways. They are either politicised as they fight for the right to stay and survive at home or as they are targeted by aggressive border policies as they try to exercise their right to move because of the exacerbating climate and socio-economic crises. The requirements they need to simply exist push them into resistance in a system that does not care about the needs of the marginalised peoples if it means high profits for the few.

Activists, environmental and climate defenders, and people fighting for their rights all over the world are being criminalised. Climate Activist Defenders, an all FLINTA (Female, Lesbian, Intersex, Non-binary, Trans, A-gender) organisation that works to defend climate defenders on all levels and does emergency response for climate activists, have talked about the large overlap between climate refugees and political refugees.

They cite Afghanistan as an example where after years of extraction, exploitation, and oppression by US imperialism, the country has become politically unstable and unsafe with little to no access to clean water, education, etc., making it hard to survive in the country. As Afghan activists fight for climate justice and access to basic human rights, they are criminalised and sometimes forced to flee their country because of the difficult living conditions and political situation that were caused by the Global North’s extraction.

Climate change is not just an environmental crisis; it is driven by decades of exploitation of both people and nature. Some of the most vulnerable countries and communities are the ones previously colonised or still colonised by the big polluters. The crisis in the Global South is the most yet is the least responsible. Global North nations, through relentless resource extraction and exploitation of our land and our people, have disproportionately led us to this crisis, and in the process also made those more marginalised more vulnerable to the harshest impacts.

All this is why climate justice cannot be separated from migrant justice.

Many refugee movements call for "the Right to Stay and the Right to Move." The right to stay talks about how every person deserves to remain in their homeland, living with dignity in a safe and sustainable environment. In terms of climate justice, this requires us to hold the major polluters accountable, demanding they cut emissions and invest in climate-resilient infrastructure in vulnerable communities. We must push for reparations for climate damages, ensuring that those who have profited from environmental destruction now fund the solutions.

The right to move emphasises that when staying becomes close to impossible due to rising seas, extreme weather, or an exacerbated economic crisis due to other climate impacts, people must have the right to migrate with dignity and safety. Migrants and refugees, including climate refugees, those forced to flee their homes due to climate impacts, often face discrimination and little to no support. We must dismantle xenophobic policies and create pathways for refugees, ensuring they are welcomed and supported. We must champion policies that provide legal protections and resources, ensuring these individuals are not marginalised but embraced as part of our global community.

The same Global North countries responsible for the multifaceted crises the world faces—war, poverty, climate change, etc. — are now closing their doors and putting up walls to keep out refugees. Together, we must dismantle the structures that perpetuate inequality and environmental destruction. It's time for the wealthy nations to take responsibility, transforming their economies towards sustainability and equity. The "Right to Stay, Right to Move" is a call to action. It urges us to unite, collaborate; to come together and build a world where people are free to stay, free to move, and free to live in dignity in a safe and healthy environment.