Vulnerable nations urged to craft climate migration policy

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 12 December 2014 10:16 GMT

Binata Pinata scales a fish her husband Kaibakia caught, as she sits in the sea just off Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati on May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

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"There is so much focus on helping people stay; sometimes helping people to move is important to save their lives"

By Megan Rowling

LIMA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries vulnerable to extreme weather and rising seas should follow the example of small Pacific island states like Kiribati, and work out how to relocate threatened communities if there is no alternative, experts said at U.N. climate talks in Lima.

"We now know that climate change is a driver of migration, and is expected to increase the displacement of populations," said Mary Robinson, U.N. special envoy for climate change.

"This is an issue that doesn't get enough discussion," the former Irish president told an event alongside the negotiations. It is a problem that needs new solutions, she added.

Since 2008, an average of 27 million people each year have been forced by disasters to leave their homes, with the risk of this kind of displacement estimated to have doubled in the past 40 years, according to the Nansen Initiative, which is helping states figure out how to protect those who cross borders.

Walter Kaelin, a human rights lawyer and envoy for the Nansen Initiative, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the issues of displacement and human mobility must be reflected in a new global climate change pact, due to be agreed in a year's time in Paris.

"It has to be there - because only then will human mobility be integrated into climate change adaptation plans, only then will access to funding that is necessary for some countries be enshrined in the (agreement)," he said.

Migration experts stressed that countries should first strive to improve living conditions for at-risk groups, by helping them secure better access to water and food, making homes and infrastructure more resilient to climate hazards, and providing early warning of disasters.

But in some circumstances, when a place becomes so inhospitable people can no longer survive there, the only option will be to move - a situation many governments have been reluctant to accept and plan for, the experts added.

Few national plans for adaptation, which developing countries are producing as part of the U.N. climate talks process, have looked at planned relocation as a strategy.

For people working on disaster risk and climate change adaptation, "there is so much focus on helping people to stay that they don't see that sometimes helping people to move is important to save their lives, to protect them," Kaelin said.

LAST RESORT

But there are a few positive examples. Low-lying island nation Kiribati has a policy to improve its citizens' educational qualifications and cultivate expatriate communities, so that if people must move abroad due to eroding land and salty soil and water, they can do so "with dignity".

Colombia is the first South American nation to include migration in its national climate change policy, according to Diego Beltrand of the International Organization for Migration.

And Fiji - a Pacific island state where at least 646 communities are in need of assistance to deal with climate impacts - is finalising guidelines for planned relocation, said Marine Franck, climate change officer with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Relocating communities should be "a last resort when all other adaptation means have failed," she said. But governments need to start planning for it now in their adaptation strategies, she added.

The experts said good planning can help ease the pain of having to move, but communities must be consulted on how it will be done and where they will go.

For example, the authorities of Choiseul, a province in the Solomon Islands, talked to people in the capital on Taro Island before deciding to relocate it to a new town to be built on the adjacent mainland. Residents will be moved there in stages.

WOMEN LEFT BEHIND

"It's really important that any kinds of movement happen in a smooth, dignified, safe way," said Koko Warner, lead scientist with the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

"We want to make sure that ... very vulnerable people have a framework if they have to move or if they choose to move (so) that movement doesn't erode their development gains," she added.

There is a need to think too about those left behind in rural areas when family members seek work in urban centres, said Zakia Naznin of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.

In Bangladesh's coastal settlements - hit by storms and encroaching sea water - men are increasingly leaving for seasonal work in cities, meaning women assume all the household chores while trying to earn extra money themselves through whatever means they can find.

Although these women endure hardships, the phenomenon can actually boost their mobility and decision-making abilities because they have to take on tasks such as going to the market to shop. But when the men return home and try to take back control, it can cause difficulties, Naznin added.

"Climate change-induced migration is not gender-neutral," she said. "It impacts on women even if they don't migrate."

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)