Hundreds more died off the coast of Libya today, on the heels of 71 deaths of migrants trapped in the back of a truck near Vienna, Austria. At the same time, NASA officials just warned that rising global sea levels from climate change could affect coastal regions, including 150 million residents in Asia who lived “within a meter from the sea.”
While news organizations and policymakers around the world wrestle with calling displaced persons “refugees” or “migrants”or “asylum-seekers,” a far more dangerous precedence of denial over a looming global shift of populations largely from climate change is taking place.
There is not a migrant or refugee crisis. We’re in the midst of a global migration shift. While its unrelenting realities of forced displacement, whether from war, persecution or economic despair originate from disparate causes, they all share a singular fact: The nascent stages of this historical migration shift require long-term planning, not short-term designation.
Standing on the shores of Sicily two summers ago, the jagged remains of a shattered boat at our feet, I listened to an Italian villager describe the voyage of “migranti” across the Mediterranean. The survivors of the boat crash, which had been launched from Libya, included Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, and Syrians, among others.
Framing the issue as part of a cycle of migration, on an island whose ruins and current ways betray millennia of migration realities, the Sicilian fisherman understood better than anyone of what the United Nations refugee agency recently termed a “paradigm change” in unprecedented levels of forced displacement.
Nearly 60 million people fled their homes in 2014, according to a recent UN report. Within a generation, according to estimates by numerous climate scientists and the international organizations dealing with migration, 150-200 million people could be displaced by the fallout of severe drought, flooding and extreme climate.
As the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted in a recent study, “the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought,” which has triggered some of the largest displacements of refugees across the Mediterranean, are a significant part of the roots of the Syrian civil war itself.
“This is just the beginning,” the Sicilian told me, who has watched the shifting populations over the years. In fact, nearly 200,000 travelers have been rescued attempting to cross “mare nostrum” in 2015.
The real crisis is denial: Of inaction by Europeans on the seas to meet the immediate urgency of rescue; and on land, to recognize a historical cycle of transition and migration that requires integration, regeneration of communities and climate action.