Mitchell Goldberg on Canada’s moral and legal obligations to climate migrants

Published by Brent Patterson on

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This past January, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts mandated to oversee compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has 170+ parties, including Canada, issued this 16-page ruling on human rights obligations to climate migrants.

Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of New South Wales, has commented, “What’s really important here, and why it’s quite a landmark case, is that the committee recognised that without robust action on climate at some point in the future it could well be that governments will, under international human rights law, be prohibited from sending people to places where their life is at risk or where they would face inhuman or degrading treatment.”

That view is supported by John H. Knox, the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environmental issues, in this series of tweets commenting on the ruling.

Now, CBC reports, “Currently, there are no specific provisions for people seeking asylum on the grounds of climate change under Canadian immigration and refugee law.”

That article – titled Does Canada have a ‘moral and legal obligation’ to allow climate migrants? – quotes Montreal-based Mitchell Goldberg who was a Peace Brigades International volunteer in Guatemala in 1989-1990.

In 2009, he reflected on that time, “We accompanied refugee leaders negotiating a potential return from Mexico and threatened human rights groups inside the country. During my stay two women and I were attacked by death squads. We filed complaints, but we have reason to believe the culprits are found within the Guatemalan military. A glimpse into refugee reality. Yet I have a country of safe haven, and that country is home.”

In 2011, Goldberg co-founded the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

Goldberg tells CBC News senior writer Adam Jacobson that the Canadian government will need to take urgent policy and legislative action in order to account for the “very threatening new reality” of forced migration due to climate change.

Goldberg adds, “Every time the Canadian government provides subsidies to the gas sector, every time it builds another pipeline, we should be thinking of the impact it will have on millions of people around the world living in already precarious situations.”

He says, “There is a very powerful moral and legal obligation, especially for Canada, to step up the plate to take responsibility for our actions and the impacts we have had on millions of people around the world.”

Goldberg also notes that many countries, including Canada, will try to ignore the ruling, that the “rich countries of the world” have been against any expansion of the UN’s refugee convention, and that the UN ruling could lead to legal challenges from people whose asylum status may have been denied because it did not meet Canadian definitions.

The CBC article highlights, “According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people worldwide had to leave their homes in 2019 because of disasters exacerbated by climate change.”

Peace Brigades International has field projects that accompany threatened human rights defenders in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, four countries now being profoundly impacted by the climate crisis.

Last month, the Mexican National Guard and immigration agents stopped a caravan of 2,000 people, predominantly Honduran migrants and asylum-seekers.

The Peace Brigades International-Mexico Project accompanies the Saltillo Migrant Shelter which is located in the state of Coahuila on the Texas-Mexico border. That shelter provides services to hundreds of people each year transiting through Mexico to the United States. With the deepening militarization of the US-Mexico border, the shelter is experiencing an increasing number of security incidents.

Peace Brigades International-Canada will be hosting a visit by a representative of the Saltillo Migrant Shelter to Canada in mid-March. More details on this soon.

Photo of Mitchell Goldberg by CBC News.

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