Internally-displaced Somalis carry their belongings as they flee from drought-stricken regions toward makeshift camps. Photo by: REUTERS / Feisal Omar

UNITED NATIONS — The number of climate refugees is expected to grow in the decades to come, but there is no one international body specifically devoted to their protection and needs. That might be for the best, experts say.

Currently, “If someone moved from a rural area and that area had been hit by drought, there is not necessarily any official mechanism there to help them. There is certainly no global mechanism there that is providing them with assistance and they may or may not be helped by their own government,” said Alex Randall, climate change, migration, and conflict expert at the U.K.-based Climate & Migration Coalition.

Disasters, mainly associated with storms and floods, triggered a record 7 million new displacements in the first part of 2019, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. These numbers are expected to triple by the end of the year to 22 million, making 2019 one of the worst years for this kind of displacement.

“We can say without a doubt that climate change will affect migration, but we do not know to what degree, and we do not know how to disentangle impacts of other reasons why people move,” said Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for climate displacement at Refugees International.

There are political ramifications for opening up the box of the convention, and a lot of refugee advocates would say there is a real danger of endangering the convention that is already under attack.”

— Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for climate displacement, Refugees International

The complexity of the issue makes assigning climate migration to a certain agency or body exceedingly difficult, those working on these issues tell Devex. Instead, supporting people impacted by climate change will likely require a diverse preventative and responsive approach, spanning from new regional frameworks to global compacts.

A new urgency

A sense of urgency in tackling climate change-induced migration is growing in the public sphere and the development sector. This is partly due to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5  degrees Celsius report, according to Randall. The 2018 special report warned that global temperatures would likely rise to 1.5  C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052.

“That report has galvanized a lot of conversations … in the last six to nine months we have been pushing an open door. A lot of international aid and development organizations are certainly interested in having this conversation in a way they were not before,” Randall continued.

People displaced by climate change largely move within their countries. But those who do cross country borders do not have the international protection guaranteed to refugees. They lie outside the scope of the nearly 70-year-old international definition of a refugee — someone who has fled their country because of fears of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social group or political opinion.

There are no prominent calls for a revamping of the UN Refugee Agency’s mandate. That could backfire, given the rise of anti-refugee political rhetoric, according to Ober.

“You see a push and pull. There are political ramifications for opening up the box of the convention, and a lot of refugee advocates would say there is a real danger of endangering the convention that is already under attack,” Ober said. “You do not want to give ammunition to people who are opponents of the convention or refugee resettlement.”

Nor is there a push for a “super framework” to address climate migration, according to Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a migration, environment, and climate change specialist at the International Organization of Migration.

“There is not a super framework that is looking at that and I do not think there would be one soon. It would be extremely difficult to have some super global agreement on what you do with people who migrate because of climate change,” said Traore Chazalnoel, describing the present work on climate migration as “fragmented.”  

On the other hand, one new international agreement — the Global Compact for Migration — could be a “game changer,” Solberg said. The 2018 international agreement is the first to comprehensively cover migration. The review process for the compact will start in 2021, and it is not yet clear what form that will take.

Still, the split between the Global Compact for Refugees — which only briefly mentions climate-related migration — and the migration compact could complicate work, he added.

“One problem is you have two compacts, one on migrants and one on refugees, as if these are clearly distinguishable categories. Like, ‘OK, refugees go left and migrants go right’ kind of thinking, but there is much in between there and I think that is going to be a challenge. These compacts need to talk to each other and not create gaps,” Solberg said.

“ It’s not like there are hot spots. The whole world is a hot spot.”

— Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a migration, environment, and climate change specialist, IOM

‘Strengthening the capacity for implementation’

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is one entity that has specific groups working on the issue. Its Task Force on Displacement issued recommendations last year on how countries can handle displacement linked to climate change and the issue is expected to be addressed at the upcoming COP25 in Chile this December.

There has been progress in discussions for a regional framework addressing migration in Latin America, according to Atle Solberg, head of the secretariat of the Platform on Disaster Displacement. The platform is a state-led initiative — the European Union is among the members — addressing protection of people displaced because of climate change.

Fiji and El Salvador are also two countries that have recently developed national guidelines and new legislation on migration, Solberg said.

“We feel we have recognition in the sense of frameworks and it is all about strengthening the capacity for implementation at the national level. That is really where we can make traction now,” Solberg said.  

IOM, meanwhile, has been boosting its work on climate-linked migration — increasing the number of staff focused on climate change, and fielding more requests from governments for research and operational assistance, according to IOM’s Traore Chazalnoel.

“You have whole new groups of people who did not appear as particularly vulnerable a few years ago and are now in need of assistance,” Traore Chazalnoel said. “We see that there are different forms of migration movements, and it happens absolutely anywhere. It can be people displaced by a cyclone or storms, but also people who are forced into relocation with their entire villages. It’s not like there are hot spots. The whole world is a hot spot.”

That trend is unlikely to abate anytime soon, Traore Chazalnoel explained.

“It has been growing exponentially and I think it will continue to grow. We have not seen any sign of this slowing down so far. What I think we are anticipating is the needs are becoming greater and greater, and we are getting ready to try to respond to that,” she said.  

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.