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OPINION: It’s time for answers for Africa’s ‘climate refugees’

Friday, 7 May 2021 10:25 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: Kenyans with plastic containers search for water along a road, some 56 km (35 miles) from Wajir in northeastern Kenya January 12, 2006. For centuries Kenya's pastoralists have criss-crossed the arid plains of eastern Africa, moving with their families and herds in search of water and grazing pastures. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

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

Experts are joining forces to figure out law and policy answers to deal with rising climate-driven migration in Africa

Tamara Wood is a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales’ Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and Edwin Abuya is a professor of law at the University of Nairobi. 

It’s been 10 years since the United Nations-declared famine and drought in the Horn of Africa forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis from their homes, in search of safety, food and livelihoods.

Yet, the legal rights and status of those who move in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degradation remain unclear.

The term ‘climate refugee’, which some have floated, has been widely rejected as refugee law does not readily apply to most people who move for environmental reasons.

A lack of lawful migration opportunities forces many of those moving for climate-related reasons to do so without authorisation and at risk of exploitation and abuse. But solutions are within our grasp. 


Now academics, policy experts, judges and government representatives across Africa and beyond are joining forces to focus on effective law and policy responses and, together, determine a research agenda that can help to develop those solutions.

It is a challenge that cannot wait. The World Bank predicts up to 86 million internal climate migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.

Precarious legal status and limited livelihoods make it difficult for people to re-establish and support themselves when they move, and to lead fulfilling lives.

Discussions about law and policy responses to displacement and migration in the context of disasters and climate change often focus on what we do not have – we do not have an international treaty for protecting those who move for environmental or climate-related reasons.

But through a new workshop series, researchers and others are taking a different starting point, and looking more closely at what we do have.

A better understanding of existing law and policy frameworks in Africa – including climate change, migration, free movement and human rights frameworks – could mean better opportunities for people who migrate or are displaced due to disasters and climate change.

This is a broad collaboration, involving more than 200 researchers, practitioners and government officials. The aim is to promote solutions to climate change-related displacement and migration that better utilise existing legal frameworks, are evidence-based, and respond to the particular challenges faced by African countries.

‘Let us focus on the opportunities to address these challenges, because solutions exist,’ said Fathia Alwan, Director of Health and Social Development, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) during the opening session of the series .



In fact, Africa is already one step ahead when it comes to law and policy responses to human movement resulting from disasters and climate change, incorporating environmental consideration into many key migration and displacement frameworks.

The continent’s Kampala Convention for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is the world’s first, and to date only, binding agreement for protecting people displaced within their own countries by natural disasters.

It obliges governments to prevent displacement – for example, by adopting disaster risk reduction and climate mitigation measures for vulnerable communities – and to protect those forced to flee their homes to elsewhere within their countries.

In East Africa, in 2020, Member States of the IGAD region adopted a pioneering new free movement protocol, which specifically allows those at risk of disasters and climate change to enter neighbouring states following, or in order to avoid, the impacts of a disaster.

In West Africa, a dedicated framework for nomadic groups authorizes cross-border movements of pastoralists and their livestock in need of water and pasture.

At the continental level, addressing the adverse effects of climate change is one of the priority areas of the African Union.

Yet limited awareness of the laws and policies that apply to climate change-related human mobility, and a lack of coordination between relevant stakeholders, mean that opportunities to address disaster and climate change-related human mobility are not being realised in practice.

At the opening session, Justice John M. Mativo of the High Court of Kenya emphasised the role that courts can play in ensuring the validity and implementation of relevant laws in practice.

‘Litigation pushes legislators and policymakers to be more ambitious and thorough in their approaches to climate change. We need more academic research and collaboration to support climate change and disaster displacement litigation in Africa,’ Justice Mativo said.

The window for African countries to prepare for future displacement in a changing climate is closing. Action now could help more people to stay safely at home – and ensure safety and protection for those who move.