Paddington: a bear crossing borders

Alex Randall

Alex is programme manager of the Climate & Migration Coalition

Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

The author of the original Paddington Bear stories died this week, aged 91.

The Paddington Bear stories and film are modern fables about the treatment of refugees. The Paddington film raises important questions about the legal status of people fleeing disasters, and makes a powerful case for the humane treatment of all migrants.

Paddington: a refugee?

Before Paddington leaves Peru his aunt is convinced that as an unaccompanied refugee minor he will be loved and cared for in London. But Paddington is actually in a very difficult legal position.

The primary cause of Paddington’s displacement was a natural disaster (an earthquake) which destroyed his family’s livelihood (producing marmalade). He is therefore not technically fleeing persecution, but rather the impacts of a natural disaster. Without the element of persecution he has no case for refugee status. In fact, he falls into something of legal limbo. There is currently no international binding agreement like the Refugee Convention that protects people who cross borders due to natural disasters.

There is currently no international binding agreement like the refugee convention that protects people who cross borders due to natural disasters.

Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

There is currently no international binding agreement like the refugee convention that protects people who cross borders due to natural disasters. Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

New legal protection

The film therefore raises the question: how should law and policy be changed to take account for such cases? As the planet warms it is likely that patterns of migration and displacement will alter. While much of the migration and displacement will be internal, it is also possible that many people will need to cross borders to escape the impacts of climate change.

It is still the case that there is nothing akin to the Refugee Convention that grants such people the right to stay in their new location.

Over the past few years a number of solutions have been proposed, and some have enjoyed a degree of success. The Nansen Initiative set out to create exactly the kind of agreement between countries that someone (bear?) like Paddington would need. The Initiative concluded with over 100 countries agreeing a new “protection agenda” that sets out broad principles for the treatment of people fleeing climate change impacts and other natural disasters.

The work of the initiative now continues under the new title of the Platform on Disaster Displacement – which seeks to strengthen the consensus between governments on the rights of people displaced across borders by disasters.    

The Nansen Initiative set out to create exactly the kind of agreement between countries that someone (bear?) like Paddington would need.

“As the planet warms it is likely that patterns of migration and displacement will alter. While much of the migration and displacement will be internal, it is also possible that many people will need to cross border to escape the impacts of climate change.”

Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

Humane treatment

But the Paddington film also makes much broader case for the humane treatment of refugees and migrants.

Paddington is a modern fable. The film uses a overarching metaphor to make the case a humane and welcoming refugee policy. The film’s villains are set on capturing or deporting Paddington. They include the creepy neighbor who wants Paddington deported and the evil director the Natural History Museum who wants to imprison and stuff him.

The constant threat is that Paddington will be sent to an institution (a detention centre) by the mysterious “authorities”. The film’s heroes are Paddington’s protectors who want him to stay – mainly the children of the Brown family who adopt him.

The nosey neighbor played by Peter Capaldi constantly spies on Paddington and his family with the hope of having Paddington deported.

“The film’s villains are set on capturing or deporting Paddington. They include the creepy neighbor who wants Paddington repatriated to “darkest Peru” and the director the Natural History Museum who wants to imprison and stuff him.”

Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

The nosey neighbor played by Peter Capaldi constantly spies on Paddington and his family with the hope of having Paddington deported. Images: © Paddington and Company Limited/Studiocanal S.A. 2014

The films pro-refugee message is revealed most clearly in the character of Mr Brown – the dad of Paddington’s adoptive family. He begins the film with a typically Daily Mail view of refugees (bears) warning his children to keep clear of Paddington when they first see him. By the end of the film Mr Brown has risked his life and freedom several times to protect Paddington.

Michael Bond – the author of the origional Paddington stories was born in 1926. He died this week aged 91. His most recent Paddington Story was published this April. The second Paddington film will be released in November 2017.

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