SIPA Magazine

Fighting for the Climate Diaspora

By Aastha Uprety MPA ’21
Posted Oct 05 2023
Amali Tower MIA ’09
Photo by Ian DiSalvo

Amali Tower MIA ’09 is building expertise on how the greatest threat to human existence is already uprooting human lives.

“I myself am no stranger to a bit of displacement and insecurity in my own life,” says Amali Tower MIA ’09. 

A humanitarian and migration expert, Tower grew up traveling across borders. Born in London to a Sri Lankan family, she and her family moved nearly every four years, bouncing around between the United Kingdom, North America, and Sri Lanka, bringing her into contact with the South Asian nation’s nearly 30-year civil war that began in 1983.

By the time she was eight years old, Tower had come to a realization: “In the time it took to take a plane from the UK to Sri Lanka, I was very familiar with how something didn’t seem right,” she says. “Why did the landscape of how people live in South Asia vastly differ from how people live in London? In the space of a flight, there seemed to have been a massive change.”

It was this experience of war and displacement combined with an acute awareness of inequality that led Tower to later study international development. “My background hasn’t just informed me, it’s made me into the person that I am,” she says. “You can’t unsee that level of injustice.”

‘There’s Political Responsibility’ 

Tower is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network and is frequently consulted for her expertise in human rights and humanitarian crises. Throughout her career she has worked in more than 20 countries with multiple refugee-focused organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Rescue Committee, and Amnesty International.

Eight years ago, Tower became founder and executive director of Climate Refugees, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and advocating for people who are forcibly displaced by climate change.

International law, including the UN Refugee Convention, does not give protected status to climate refugees, but the new reality of climate-driven dis- placement has advocates demanding that climate migration be taken more seriously. In 2020 climate-related problems displaced three times as many people as war and violence, and projections indicate that anywhere from 200 million to 1.2 billion people could be forcibly displaced by climate change by 2050.

“I use the term climate refugee to bring attention to the fact that there’s political responsibility behind why someone might be displaced by climate events,” Tower says. “The poorest, most marginalized, Indigenous, disenfranchised communities in the world— in some cases, entire countries— are frontline to the climate crisis.”

Climate-related displacement is happening incrementally, Tower says. While sudden-onset events, like major storms or wildfires, are increasing in frequency and intensity, slow-onset events — which are much harder to distinguish and measure — can be just as deadly. Many envision the consequences of rising sea levels, for example, to be entire island nations submerged overnight, but Tower offers some nuance: encroaching waters can increase the salinity of soil, leading to failed crops, food insecurity, and crumbling export economies. “Climate change doesn’t begin and end with disaster,” she says.

In Bangladesh, one nation deeply feeling the impacts of encroaching seas, some coastal residents are adapting by putting their homes on stilts or transitioning from rice farming to raising saltwater shrimp. Others are displaced and moving to slums in Dhaka or relocating to cities like Mongla, where the government has invested in climate- resilient infrastructure.

While the Global North reaps the benefits, countries in the Global South are dealing with the most severe impacts of burning fossil fuels. And although limited data tells us the vast majority of people forcibly moved by climate change are internally displaced, many must cross international borders. 

“Is it any wonder that we see what we see at the US border?” Tower says,explaining that conditions in the Central American Dry Corridor, a region extremely vulnerable to drought, are causing Indigenous farmers to seek refuge in the US. “How immoral is it,” she says, “for polluting countries to put more money into securing borders and strengthening militaries than to help countries on the frontlines of an unending barrage of climate impacts?”

Doing the Work with Climate Refugees

The origin of Climate Refugees can be traced to the years Tower spent inter- viewing displaced people. She heard multiple accounts of climate impacts and environmental degradation, she says, but it took time to piece together the enormity and the power of what refugees were saying. Tower came to realize that those seemingly fleeing because of conflict and persecution may say the reason they left their home was because crops had failed and they couldn’t feed their families. “While we weren’t paying attention,” she says, “they were feeling the ravages of climate change.”

After Tower recognized this gap in the migration landscape, Climate Refugees was born in 2015. But for years, there has been a severe lack of funding for the organization’s work. “In order for policy to be created, the work has to be funded to identify what the problem is,” Tower says. “But what happens when you’re ahead of the policy conversation, almost no national-level policy exists, and therefore no philanthropy is keen to address the issue.”

Still, through the organization, Tower has conducted field research on displaced populations, including inter- viewing more than 100 refugees and internally displaced people in the Lake Chad Basin and 130 people in Kenya and Somalia. She has served as a subject matter expert to members of Congress and the media, and in June 2022, her work was cited by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change.

‘I Needed to Keep Learning’

Because her family moved around so much as a child, Tower couldn’t finish traditional high school. She took a special UK O-level exam in Sri Lanka meant for students whose education had been disrupted and then returned to the US and enrolled in community college night classes while working full- time throughout her 20s. Eventually, Tower transferred to UCLA and studied international development, building on her lived experience.

A few months into a job working with refugees, she says, “I just knew that I needed to keep learning.”

Tower applied to SIPA two weeks before the deadline — without re- searching any other graduate programs — and a year later, she moved across the country to New York. “It was incredibly unusual for me. I usu- ally need to know all my options!” she says. “But it seemed so clear that SIPA was a school where people like me, who are misfits and don’t check a box, could find a place and contribute.”

Climate Refugees’ effort to educate and advocate is overwhelmingly a one- woman endeavor. Until recently Tower had been leading the work on a volunteer basis for eight years, along with a few contributors. “It takes a team of very spirited, courageous, giving, and philanthropic individuals to do this kind of work,” Tower says.

When asked what keeps her motivated, she says, “It’s the refugees them- selves. That’s how I draw my strength, vision, and any sense of moral compass that I bring to this work.”