Krish O’Mara Vignarajah advocates for climate-displaced people as moral, faith imperative

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, speaks Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff writer

Some people don’t have the choice to stay or leave their homes. Every day, refugees and immigrants across the globe are forced to flee. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah works to find humane solutions to challenges these refugees face in the U.S. immigration system.

Vignarajah — president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service — delivered her lecture at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Realizing Our One World: Strengthening Interconnection.”

“In just one minute of that (lecture) introduction, 20 people were forced to flee their homes,” she said at the outset. “What that means is 1,200 in an hour, and nearly 30,000 people were forced to flee their homes in just one day.”

She asked the audience to imagine the “sheer terror” of leaving behind everything they know and everyone who made them who they are, because their home had become the site of a climate disaster.

“The sad reality is that this isn’t a scene from a dystopian novel you might pick up from the bookstore,” Vignarajah said. “It is the tragic reality of what tens of millions face worldwide. Those tens of millions are mothers, fathers, children.”

She said she and her husband were discussing before the lecture the fact that coastal Louisiana is losing a football field of land every hour, and people who live there are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

“We believe that we have a divine calling to protect this planet and the people who inhabit it,” Vignarajah said. “In fact, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is the largest faith-based national nonprofit dedicated to serving immigrants and refugees.”

LIRS has served over half a million immigrants, she said. After nearly 85 years of operation, the nonprofit’s history reflects the deeply connected roots between Lutherans and aid to immigrants.

As part of ethnic and religious minorities, Vignarajah and her family were forced to flee Sri Lanka on the brink of civil war when she was an infant.

“(My family) came with no jobs, just $200 in their pockets and two very young kids in their arms,” she said. “It was the churches and temples who put clothes on our backs. It was a community in Baltimore that welcomed my parents as educators.”

While sometimes “sheepish” to hear generous introductions of herself, Vignarajah said it’s important to highlight what America allows and gives to people fleeing from desperate circumstances.

“There are an estimated 20 million people internally displaced every year due to climate disasters,” she said. “Our belief is that this is the future. We know the causes of weather and climate disaster-related displacement. We also know that issues like lack of access to water and losing land are becoming reasons for why people are fleeing more and more every day.”

In 2021, the World Bank estimated by 2050, 216 million people will be displaced due to climate disasters. Vignarajah said global warming is only getting worse, with this summer experiencing the hottest weeks on record. She noted the commendable efforts of the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative and the Jefferson Project.

“It’s not unique when I describe these incidences to this region alone,” she said. “Last year, natural disasters displaced 3 million people in the U.S. alone. This crisis is having a devastating impact on communities, cultures and economies all over the world.”

When the LIRS heard news of Hurricane Ian in Florida last year, they knew how many people were going to be in need, and they were worried.

“Power outages and unstable internet made it extremely difficult for us to actually communicate with our clients,” Vignarajah said. “We mobilized portable internet hotspots … and launched a relief appeal fund. We were able to raise over $20,000 for emergency funds, temporary housing, food, clean water and other critical resources.”

Since 1982, climate disasters have cost the United States close to $2.5 trillion, with 40% of this cost accrued in the last seven years. However, Vignarajah said the human costs of the climate crisis far outweigh the financial ones.

Experts, she said, describe the climate crisis as a “vulnerability multiplier” and not always the sole driver of climate displacement.

“The technical term ‘vulnerability multiplier’ means, for the clients that we work with, utter chaos,” Vignarajah said. “It means there are mothers and fathers around the world who spend their days and nights worrying about whether their children will have land to live on.”

To fully understand who is affected by the climate crisis, she said people need to look at the intersection of the crisis and reasons for traditional immigration. Unfortunately, she said, the affected regions are more impacted by inequity.

“Environmental equity and the climate crisis are inextricably intertwined,” Vignarajah said. “Climate change disproportionately affects low-income and marginalized communities. These communities are more likely to experience lower air, water and soil quality.”

Environmental justice needs to be a focus, she said, because solutions can only be tangible when applied to everyone, not just the affluent.

“America’s refugee system was built to protect the survivors of violent conflicts, religious (and) political persecution,” Vignarajah said. “This system was not built to protect victims of cascading natural disasters, environmental degradation and rising sea levels.”

As a result, she said, the existing protection pathways are “incomplete or woefully inadequate,” compared to the scale of the problem. The “sad reality” is there’s no country in the world that has created a legal pathway for climate-displaced people.

“Without legal pathways for migration, people fleeing climate disasters face many risks,” Vignarajah said. “They could be exposed to dangerous conditions at their places of work or homes, they could face discrimination or violence, or become victims of human trafficking.”

LIRS has been “working tirelessly” to propose policies that recognize the effects of climate displacement. The United States, she said, can and should lead the way in creating protection pathways.

“We advocate for legislation that will support regenerative farming practices,” Vignarajah said. “These practices include sequestering carbon, prioritizing soil health and increasing resilience from drought. We also advocate for legislation that supports small farmers.”

The United States not only can and should lead the movement, she said; it has the ability and responsibility to do so.

“Our nation is equipped to be a global leader for climate resiliency,” she said. “As far as large-scale legal and policy solutions, we have seen more recent efforts, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Vignarajah listed several things people can do to help build a sustainable future. First, establish a definition of what it means to be climate-displaced, so everyone is on the same page.

“Second, we must use this definition to designate and protect vulnerable populations — beyond the current pathways we have right now — when such a small percentage of people are actually receiving protection,” she said.

The third thing, she said, is to utilize humanitarian pathways to help said vulnerable populations. 

“We need to call upon Congress to reconsider a bill establishing a global climate change resilience strategy,” Vignarajah said. “This would also authorize the admission of climate displaced people here to the U.S.”

At the scale needed, she said, the federal government should be required to act, but citizens can’t solely rely on Washington, D.C. Local and state governments need to be involved in adopting and expanding current practices.

The fifth and final task at hand is to aggressively pursue measures to bend the global emissions curve and limit global temperature increases. The LIRS, she said, believes the United States can take a better stance for climate justice.

The LIRS opened a Guatemala office where they’ll be assisting unaccompanied children who have returned to the country after either being deported or voluntarily returned.

“Our goal is to promote the reintegration of these young children to reduce circular migration of youth in the region,” she said. “Knowing that only such a narrow number of children are able to seek safety in the U.S., this is just one small approach.”

Her message of hope, she said, is that as children of God, people are being called back to their roles as protectors of creation.

“This crisis is more than just an environmental issue,” Vignarajah said. “It’s a human issue, it’s an issue of faith, life and death. It’s not just damaging and destabilizing our planet.”

Faith and love, she said, calls people to act, to extend their stewardship to immigrants.

“In the face of this daunting crisis, let us remember that with God, nothing is impossible,” Vignarajah said. “Around the world, interfaith climate organizations are uniting to combat climate change.”

She asked Chautauquans to consider what they can do in the face of these challenges, then provided a few solutions. First, reduce individual carbon footprints. Second, advocate for climate reforms. Third, take support to the next level by volunteering.

“Let’s rely on our faith,” she said. “Most importantly, let’s have hope for the world we’re living in right now and for the world we’ll be leaving behind to our children and grandchildren.”

Hope alone, she said, isn’t a strategy, but she trusts people will join her in this climate mission.

“I believe that working together, we can and will turn this around,” Vignarajah said.


The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.