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Can the world agree on how to handle 'climate migrants'?

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 19 December 2017 10:45 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Calls grow for new global compacts on migration and refugees to recognise people uprooted by the effects of climate change

If you leave your country after a hurricane sweeps away your home or drought forces you to abandon your farmland, could that make you a refugee?

Not in the eyes of international law, which limits refugee status to those fleeing across borders due to persecution, war and conflict, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

But climate-driven migration is increasingly common, with more than 24 million people displaced in 2016 due to weather hazards such as storms, extreme heat and floods. That's three times more than people fleeing conflict, says a recent report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

"We certainly know that the 10 largest displacement events of 2016 were climate-related," UNDP's Jan Kellett told a discussion hosted by resilience network Zilient on International Migrants Day.

In China, Yangtze River floods displaced almost 2 million people, while Hurricane Matthew in the United States uprooted 875,000 and a further 1.67 million left their homes due to floods in Bihar, India, according to Kellett.

Where are these millions of people going?

Contrary to popular belief, many move locally - either staying in their own country or heading to the nearest one, said Kellett.

The same is true for longer-term migration. For example, the Polynesian island of Tuvalu has bought land in nearby Fiji to prepare for rising sea levels that could make it uninhabitable.

Although it's very difficult to attribute climate change as the primary driver of any individual's movement - factors such as jobs, healthcare and social ties are often also part of the decision-making process - this doesn’t mean climate is not a major motivation, Kellett told the online event on Monday.

Countries must, therefore, invest more heavily in adaptation measures to keep vulnerable communities safe, while engaging in global policy processes to ensure those hit hardest do not fall between the cracks, he added.


Last year, following intense political pressure sparked by refugees fleeing Syria's war to Europe, world leaders came together to kickstart the first global approach to managing human mobility.

They agreed to negotiate two new compacts, which they aim to adopt in 2018.

One focuses on refugees, led by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), and the other is on migration, to be crafted by U.N. member states. 

Jessica Hagen-Zanker, research fellow on migration at the ODI, noted that "the separation is quite artificial". Both compacts are expected to touch on climate-driven movement, she said, although mentions in the talks so far have been vague.

“Those who are forced to flee, or are displaced across borders in the context of sudden or slow-onset disasters, or the effects of climate change more broadly, are not defined as refugees - and therefore are not formally included in the refugees compact,” she added.

However, the frameworks are still to be hammered out, so experts on disaster and climate-change displacement remain optimistic.

“It’s hoped that the global compact (on migration) puts forward new and increased legal pathways for migration… in order to give people more choice,” Hagen-Zanker said.

Controversially, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn from negotiations on the global migration compact, stating the approach is “simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty”.

Hagen-Zanker said this decision would not necessarily be negative as it garnered fresh attention for the process, and other governments can now take the lead and shape the international conversation.

“The countries participating have nothing to lose - they have only something to gain,” she said.

For Atle Solberg of the Platform on Disaster Displacement, a state-led initiative, the twin compacts are “a unique opportunity to address the needs of people displaced across international borders” - and must not be wasted.

Solberg called for explicit recognition that climate change and disasters will drive international migration in the future.

“The global compact for migration needs to be comprehensive and integrated," addressing both the reasons and the consequences of people crossing borders, he said.


International law and policy are playing catch-up with reality, said Fiona Percy of aid agency CARE International, noting climate-related migration is already well underway in parts of Africa including Ghana and Niger.

Herding communities in the arid Sahel region have already begun crossing borders with their livestock, while people are moving from rural areas to cities for casual work due to a shortage of traditional farming and agricultural opportunities, she said.

In some cases, these social shifts are exposing women and other vulnerable groups to exploitation and harm, she added.

“The way in which people are moving, and the reasons they’re moving are becoming more complex and less predictable," she said during the webinar.

But it isn't all doom and gloom.

"Vulnerable people are agents of change," said Percy. They often find their own solutions, offering lessons for other countries facing similar migration problems, she explained.

The experts agreed much can be done using existing frameworks, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement, helping pave the way for a new classification of climate migrants.

More than 50 states have already used their own domestic legislation to welcome people displaced by disasters, noted Solberg.

For example, some have issued temporary visas or allowed individuals to seek humanitarian asylum, as in the United States after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and more recently in New Zealand, which has proposed a special visa for Pacific islanders forced to migrate because of rising sea levels.

Countries should scale up these processes regionally and globally to foster co-operation, said Solberg.

While the two global compacts will be voluntary and non-binding, they are pushing the discussion forward, he added.

The hope is that next year will see concrete action to recognise the plight of those made homeless by climate-linked disasters.

"If these compacts are adopted towards the end of next year, and do not include the issue of natural hazards and adverse effects of climate change as drivers of human mobility, they will probably be outdated the day they are adopted,” Solberg said.

Interested to learn more on how language is used by different people in different ways to refer to "migrants" and "refugees"? Visit meaningofmigrants.org 

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