Environmental migrants breathing easier in Canada
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Mar 11, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Environmental migrants breathing easier in Canada

Canada is home to a growing number of environmental migrants — people leaving behind horrendous pollution or climate change — to seek a better life. Share

OurWindsor.Ca

The enemy they were fleeing was pollution — not persecution.

For Irene Parvin, it meant leaving behind her family’s huge mansion in Bangladesh, two cars, two drivers, a cleaner, the nanny for their two boys, and successful careers — she was a university professor and her husband, a pediatrician.

What Parvin, 44, has gained, however, is freedom from being forced to rely on an inhaler for her severe asthma, an illness she developed as a result of the horrendous air pollution in Dhaka and one that has virtually vanished since moving to Toronto in 2010.

“It’s a real concrete jungle there . . . It’s so smoggy you can’t even see the sky,” says Parvin, who now works as a program and evaluation co-ordinator at an organization that helps youth in low-income communities stay in school. “We decided to start over again in Canada only for my health.”

Parvin is among a growing number of so-called environmental migrants whose stories are being documented by Wilfrid Laurier University professor Robert McLeman and other Canadian academics in this emerging research field.

While the subject is not new in other parts of the world, Environmental Migration to Canada, a joint project between Laurier and the University of Ottawa, is the first in Canada to examine the impact of global climate change and environment pollution on Canadian immigration.

Unlike Europe and the United States, Canada has been somewhat buffered from the direct results of environmental migration driven by natural disasters because of its geographical boundaries.

While research on climate change and migration has historically focused on so-called environmental refugees from developing countries seeking asylum abroad, researchers in the West are now paying more attention to the impact of climate change on regular, legal immigration streams in a system geared toward attracting those with wealth or skills.

“Twenty million people worldwide are displaced by natural disasters. These disasters are becoming more frequent and more damaging,” said McLeman. “We’d like to document what’s happening in Canada and provide the public and decision-makers with information to figure out what to do about it.”

In the project’s latest study, researchers partnered with the Bangladeshi Canadian community in Greater Toronto to investigate how environmental changes and man-made pollution in their homeland influenced their decision to come to Canada. (The project also looked at the impact of climate change on Haitians, Somalis and Filipinos in Ottawa and Montreal.)

Focus groups were held with 44 members of Toronto’s Bangladesh community, all of whom came to Canada within the last 10 years and arrived under the skilled worker immigration program or as dependants of someone who came under the program.

Seventy per cent of participants cited “urban ecological decline” — cumulative effects of severe air and water pollution, soil and groundwater contamination, food insecurity and lack of green space — as one of the factors that motivated them to leave Dhaka, a city ranked among the world’s worst for air pollution.

Sixteen per cent of them also told researchers environmental degradation was the main reason for leaving because family members had suffered respiratory or other illnesses linked to air pollution or poor sanitation systems.

“The environmental impact on this group was more noticeable and larger than I’d expected. It’s also more complicated. There’re a lot of things. The air quality is noxious. The water is unsafe, causing concerns over childhood illnesses. They don’t trust their food because they are adulterated by chemicals,” said McLeman.

“When people migrate from point A to point B, it’s because they want a better life, (to) get wealthier and get a better education. This is a group of educated people who had a very comfortable life in Bangladesh. They were willing to give up their wealth and privilege because the environment there was so awful.”

One participant told researchers she had always had servants at home to brew her coffee, but now she makes coffee at a Tim Hortons for a living — because her family could no longer tolerate living conditions in Dhaka.

Nasima Akter, executive director of Toronto’s Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services, said pollution is always at the back of mind of the community though people may not always cite it as the main reason for moving — because no country, including Canada, has an “environmental immigration class.”

“Bangladesh may be far away from Canada, but these problems are closer to us than you would think,” said Akter. “Its impact is beyond the developing countries. Hopefully, research like this can create more local awareness so people understand how we are all closely connected and why we need to act now.”

‘The whole world needs to think about this’:

Something strange happened to Irene Parvin every time she travelled outside Bangladesh — her asthma disappeared.

“I studied in Australia and New Zealand. I was a visiting professor at the University of Manitoba. Even in Winnipeg . . . I didn’t have to use my inhaler once,” said Parvin, who, after a six-month stay in Manitoba in 2008, went home and asked her husband to think about moving to Canada.

“People (in Bangladesh) wouldn’t know how bad their air is because they have not been outside the country,” said Parvin, who moved to Toronto from Dhaka in 2010. Since then, she hasn’t been troubled with asthma, except for a visit to her homeland in December when it flared up again.

Dhaka is one of the world’s most polluted cities, where car exhaust fills the air with round-the-clock traffic congestion and people wear masks to protect themselves from harmful airborne particles.

“Whether you are rich or not, climate and environmental changes affect everyone,” she said. “The whole world needs to think about this and think about how we should live our lives.”

‘Living in a good environment can save your life’:

Nurul Islam grew up in a small Bangladeshi village near Sylhet where his parents were fish vendors.

Today, the village and market — as well as the fresh water fish such as rayer and gonia — have vanished due to erosion and pollution.

“We have a small country with too many people. We didn’t realize how polluted the water and the air is in Bangladesh until we came here,” said Islam, 71, who ran a food export company before his retirement six years ago.

Like his compatriots with the wealth and skills to qualify for immigration to Canada, Islam didn’t recognize how big a part the pursuit of a better quality of life played in his family’s decision to move to Toronto in 1989.

A study funded by the Bangladesh government and the World Bank estimated that some 15,000 people die prematurely as a result of the poor air quality, with a million others suffering pulmonary, respiratory and neurological illnesses.

“People would not say they came because of environmental degradation in Bangladesh, but those concerns are always at the back of our mind,” he explains. “Living in a good environment can save your life.”

Toronto Star

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