Climate visas could give victims of natural disasters safe route to UK, says thinktank

  • Author(s): Heather Stewart

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Report also suggests migration could help ensure UK has necessary skills to meet government’s 2050 net zero target

New climate visas should be created to allow victims of natural disasters to come to the UK, and to bring in skilled workers needed for the transition to net zero, a Conservative thinktank has argued.

Onward, whose co-founder Will Tanner recently became Rishi Sunak’s deputy chief of staff, is urging the government to prepare for the likely increase in global migration as a result of the climate crisis.

The authors of the report call for the government to prioritise financial support for climate adaptation in developing countries, but also to open up new legal migration routes.

“We cannot allow climate-related migration to become the defining crisis of the 21st century. The government needs to act now to build climate resilience in the most vulnerable regions on the planet and open up safe and legal visa routes for those fleeing environmental disasters,” said the report’s co-author, Ted Christie-Miller.

Despite the hardline rhetoric on the illegal immigration bill by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, the authors suggest that welcoming a limited number of climate refugees would be consistent with the government’s approach.

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The United Nations high commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that an average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced each year by sudden onset extreme weather events between 2008 and 2016.

Citing the UK’s recent acceptance of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and Hongkongers through bespoke visa routes, the report calls for the introduction of a natural disaster visa scheme.

With major floods and droughts already becoming more prevalent as a result of global heating, the authors suggest such a route could allow for a limited number of people displaced by climate events to flee to the UK.

These refugees could be permitted to stay temporarily in the UK to earn money to rebuild their lives – or potentially to remain permanently. The report does not specify how many such visas could feasibly be issued.

Polling carried out for the thinktank suggests such a measure might find only limited support among the public, however: 29% of people agreed the UK has a moral obligation to host people displaced by the climate crisis, against 41% who did not. Among 2019 Conservative voters, support was just 21%, with 55% against.

Separately, Onward suggests migration could form part of the answer to ensuring the UK has the skills necessary to meet the government’s target of hitting net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The report recommends a new environmental resilience visa scheme, which would involve the UK establishing partnerships with climate-vulnerable countries.

The authors suggest that under such a scheme, the UK would help to fund training in skills including “clean energy, construction, and disaster preparedness”, and could then allow some of those trained under the scheme to come and work temporarily in the UK.

Alex Chapman, senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation (Nef), agreed that the UK has a “profound moral responsibility” to support climate refugees whose predicament was ultimately set in train by emissions from developed countries over decades.

But he said bringing in workers from developing countries was not the right solution to plugging green skills gaps.

“A better approach would involve a wholesale rethink and expansion of the UK’s own upskilling system, which has been left broken and neglected. Over the course of the 20th century the UK established one of the strongest upskilling systems in the world, but successive reforms and funding cuts have seen the rate of adult participation in education crash, and our national productivity stall.”

A NEF report suggested that something between 4.5m and 8.5m cumulative years of full-time training were needed to bring the UK’s workforce up to the level needed to shift the economy to net zero.

But Chapman suggested that could be achievable by 2030, if adult participation in training returned to levels last seen in 2001, before funding cuts.

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