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Prepare for climate refugees, says Bangladesh official

While most of the Copenhagen policy coverage has focused on greenhouse gas reduction targets to mitigate climate change, there's also a considerable amount of discussion around how to handle what's already coming down the pipe. For the leaders of developing nations, this means drought, famine, severe storms and rising sea levels -- and potentially millions of refugees.

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Republic of the Maldives -- an island nation that sits a precarious two meters above sea level -- has emerged as an important voice on the immediate threat of climate change to low-lying countries like his. He made a splash in October when he held a underwater cabinet meeting, and even announced plans to find a new homeland for his people if their islands are submerged.

On the weekend, a senior official in the Bangladesh government made news with a public plea for wealthy nations to accept climate refugees. He told the Guardian that 20 million people could be displaced from his country by the year 2020, and called on the United Nations to redefine laws around refugees to include people who flee circumstances related to climate change.

It's an issue that's gaining serious attention, says Joel Charny, acting president of Refugee International.

"If you cross an international border fleeing a natural disaster, you're not considered a refugee," Charny said. "That's a potential gap in the international legal system. The question is, is it right to fill that gap and if so, how to go about doing that."

Last week Refugee International posted a job opening for program director of its newly established Ken and Darcy Bacon Centre for Climate Displacement. Part of the director's job is to help identify strategies to prevent displacement, through shelters or sever storm warning systems, Charny said.

"Look at cyclone Nargis which hit Burma in May of 2008," he said. "That was one of the biggest storms ever to hit Burma. Is that due to climate change, or is that just a freak storm? We're saying that that's probably an example of the kind of natural disaster that you're going to see as a result of climate change."

That's what the Environmental Justice Foundation is saying as well. In November it issued a report warning that as many as 100 million climate refugees will migrate in the next 40 years.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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