Yanking up the refugee welcome mat

As the first anniversary of hurricane Katrina approaches, it is clear that one thing has changed — refugees will never be as welcomed as those in the Katrina disapora a year ago. In fact, as disaster overload settles in with hurricanes to come plus the usual round of human misery, I suspect that American public sentiment will shift from sympathy to contempt, and future refugees may discover that they literally have nowhere to go.

The first indicators of this trend appeared last March with a Houston poll conducted by Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg. His survey revealed that Texas hospitality was wearing thin in the face of perceived strains on public services, increased crime and evidence that many of the refugees were in fact settling in to stay in their new refuge. Klineberg’s early research is supported by a major Gallup poll released this month indicating that the majority of Katrina evacuees were in Texas to stay.

This is not good news for future refugees. Katrina was a blockbuster disaster, but in an age of global climate change, it is certain to be dwarfed by future storms. Maybe New Orleans draws the short straw again, but Miami and New York also are on FEMA’s short list of megadisasters waiting to happen. Will Americans welcome new evacuees with the same open arms that Houston welcomed their New Orleans neighbors? I doubt it.

Will the Federal government help future refugees? I doubt it. Just look at the Federal response so far. Billions need to be spent to fix the sinking wetlands that once protected New Orleans, but in fact less than half a billion is being spent merely to reinforce levees certain to fail again in some future, larger storm. Fingers have been pointed at New Orleans’ failings when the underlying problem was national in source and consequence. If the federal government can’t rouse itself to protect new Orleans from future Katrinas, it certainly won’t rise to the challenge of dealing with future refugees.

The same will increasingly be the case globally. New Zealand has generously offered to accept global warming refugees from Tuvalu when that island monarchy (max elevation 15 ft above mean high tide) eventually slips beneath the waves of the rising ocean level. But Tuvalu’s population is under 12,000 people, a fraction of the millions that will be displaced by sea level rise projected to reduce Bangladesh’s land area by 15 percent before century’s end. Which countries will accept the vast unhappy refugees from Bangladesh and coastlines world-wide? Add in the fact that global climate change will create problems beyond sea level rise, and I fear the answer is that refugee fatigue will yield to a global lifeboat mentality in which everyone is so preoccupied with their own problems that there is little compassion left for others yet worse off. For all the problems they still face, the Katrina evacuees of 2005 are likely the lucky ones,and merely the first in what will become a flood of climate refugees worldwide.