The gathering storm of climate migration

By Michael Igoe 25 March 2016

A man drives a rickshaw in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, where villagers have lost their homes to river erosion and shifting coastlines. Photo by: Amir Jina / CC BY-NC-ND

Visceral, heart-rending images of war lend urgency to policy debates about whether and how to accommodate — or not — people driven from their homes, communities and countries. But more people are displaced by climate-related events than conflict, and international agreements have so far said little about the likely surge of people who will uproot themselves and their families as climate change impacts intensify.

As global average temperatures creep higher, and as storms, droughts, floods, and heat waves grow more severe, the international community is poised to face a future characterized by even more climate-related migration.

Some people will move in anticipation of climate change impacts; some will move in response to changes they have already experienced. If the status quo persists, many of these “climate migrants” will likely wonder why their rights are not better protected by international laws and norms. A number of efforts are currently underway to change that status quo.

Since 2008, 22.5 million people have been forced from their homes due to floods and hurricanes, twice as many as the record 11 million displaced by conflict in 2014. That amounts to one person every second, according to Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who spoke at a briefing during the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris last year. Ninety percent of climate migrants move to or within developing countries, Egeland noted. And climate-related mobility is trending upwards. We are living in “the era of forced displacement,” Egeland said.

Some of the drivers, such as drought and desertification, are “creeping” disasters, which can take years or decades to make a place unlivable. Faced with deteriorating landscapes, people seek better opportunities elsewhere, and many of these migrants go uncounted.

“Many times I ask myself, how come everybody knows how bad Syria and all of these wars are for displacement, and few people understand twice as many are displaced by climate and weather,” Egeland said in Paris.

And yet while refugees fleeing conflict or persecution find legal protection in the 1951 United Nations convention that established their right to seek asylum, there is no international framework to protect the rights of people displaced by climate change-related weather events, or those who choose to migrate because climate change is staring at them in the face and promising a more difficult future.

Firmly on the agenda

For those who think such a framework ought to exist, the Paris climate agreement forged at COP21 last year offers some reason for optimism. The agreement includes two references to human mobility. In its preamble the Paris agreement implores states to “respect, promote and consider” the rights of migrants, among other vulnerable groups, when taking action to address climate change.

And the agreement calls for the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism — a body created in 2013 to address “loss and damage” caused by climate change impacts — to establish a new task force “to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

The Paris agreement is not the first United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change document to discuss the link between climate change and displacement, but it is the first agreement with so much international buy-in to do so, said Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, an environmental migration expert with the International Organization for Migration.

In February the Warsaw International Mechanism Executive Committee — or ExComm — met and worked over four days to create the displacement task force and advance discussions on human mobility and climate change, as directed by the Paris agreement.

The takeaway from Paris and from this most recent ExComm meeting, Chazalnoel said, is that “this is a very bureaucratic process.” But, she added, “the issue is firmly on their radar. They will work on it over the next few years, and this is a big difference from what happened a few years ago where we had to fight to bring the question of climate displaced persons to the negotiations.”

Parties to the COP21 treaty understand that they must do something to prepare for and address climate-displacement, “but what that something is, is not exactly clear,” Chazalnoel said.

The legal protection gap is not unique to climate migrants. Migrants, in general, lack an integrated convention or internationally negotiated document that spells out their rights. Instead, these rights appear in “a disparate system of different norms,” some of them established by labor bodies, others by human rights groups, according to Laura Thompson, the IOM’s deputy director general.

Devex speaks with Ambassador Laura Thompson, deputy director general of the International Organization for Migration, about efforts underway to integrate a "disparate" assortment of migrants' rights protections.

But climate-related migration and displacement, which will almost surely accelerate, presents a particular international policy challenge, because the people who relocate because of climate change impacts are usually not the same people whose activities contribute to those impacts. There are sticky issues of liability and compensation at play in these discussions, which the Paris agreement largely avoided in order to stay alive.

The Syrian refugee crisis has revealed the political sensitivity and difficulty of building consensus around coordinated migration policy. But that does not mean national governments and international bodies are without options to improve current policy and implementation, the IOM experts pointed out.

Legal frameworks already on the books — the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, for example — could be invoked more purposefully as a baseline for climate migrants’ protections. There is also a critical and immediate need for better data on climate and environmental displacement, a gap the IOM has sought to fill with a new Atlas of Environmental Migration.

And in 2013, 109 countries endorsed the Nansen Initiative to develop a protection agenda for people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and the effects of climate change.

The upside of mobility

The term “climate refugee,” while occasionally invoked, is actually a legal impossibility. “Refugees” flee persecution, often perpetrated by their own countries’ governments, and they seek asylum abroad.

Considering the extent of human migration, it’s hard to keep track of the definitions prescribed for different subgroups — like migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker. Devex breaks down what each term means, as well as why it matters to distinguish among them.

Perhaps more important than the legal distinction between refugees and climate migrants is the notion that for people poised to experience climate change, mobility can be a positive, adaptive strategy to improve their prospects and opportunities.

“We want to look at this human mobility and migration and climate in a different way, not only the despair, the tragedy, not only when you lose everything … but also to prevent, to think in advance, to prepare, to move in a positive way,” said Dina Ionesco head of the IOM’s division on migration, environment and climate change.

In the same way 2015 witnessed a coordinated effort to build commitment around broad global development goals, 2016 presents several high-profile opportunities to consider how a new rights framework for climate migrants might emerge. Numerous groups are looking forward to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May as an opportunity to link climate change, mobility and rights through international commitments.

And on the day before the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September, U.S. President Barack Obama will host a high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants.

With so many parallel discussions and initiatives underway — in frequently overlapping and intersecting development, humanitarian, security, and climate change circles — climate migration policy will have to avoid the twin evils of duplication and neglect.

In a busy, critical year for achieving clarity on a coordinated plan to protect climate migrants’ rights, policymakers will have to avoid what Ionesco described as, a situation where “everyone’s business becomes no one’s business.”

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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