Global Compact for Migration not the answer for climate refugees: UN representative

Louise Arbour, United Nations special representative for international migration. Photo by: Michael Nagle / ODI / CC BY-NC

BRUSSELS — This year’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is not the right tool to protect climate refugees, the United Nations’ special representative said Monday.

Louise Arbour told members of the European Parliament in Brussels that despite calls for the compact to recognize “a category of climate migrants that would be akin to refugees,” U.N. members were not ready to give “specific legal international protection to climate-induced migrants.”

Millions of people are believed to be displaced by extreme weather events each year, but there is currently no common definition of climate refugees, and they are not covered by existing refugee treaties.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Arbour said of a possible treaty or protocol on climate refugees, although she added there is “no question” the compact will recognize the environmental factors increasingly pushing people from their homes. “At this point, I think the better course of action is to treat migrants in vulnerable situations as sort of a basket, which would include climate or environmental migrants and many others seeking international assistance.”

A preliminary “zero draft” of the compact, which is intended to provide the first framework for managing the world’s estimated 258 million migrants, was released in February. Arbour said two of the six negotiation rounds are complete, with the text scheduled to be adopted in July.

Arbour, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights who was appointed special representative for international migration in March last year, reiterated that the compact is not a treaty and thus non-binding. “In that sense I think it gives considerable flexibility for member states to forge a true cooperative agreement in a very limited time-frame, without the anxiety that comes from a commitment to a particular casting of language,” she said.

Discussions on forced displacement are “very complex,” she added, even without climate considerations. Evoking the slow onset of climate change and desertification, Arbour said one issue was “when has it reached the point where the migration will be seen as forced rather than optional or voluntary?”

Resolving this would be beyond the scope of the global compact, she suggested. Rather, she hoped the agreement would play the same role for climate migration that the 1992 Earth Summit played for the environment, pointing out that this eventually led to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. “I think we’re at the very early stage in this process,” she said.  

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.