Turning the Tide in Paris (COP21): Seeking Justice for Climate Change Induced Migrants

Climate change and migration have been two keywords featured in media headlines in the past few weeks. However, the related news items fail to explain that climate change and migration are two closely connected phenomena, with significant implications for causing or triggering violent conflict, that can and should be addressed in the climate agreement to be negotiated at the upcoming COP21. This commentary addresses the phenomenon of climate change induced migration, covering refugees, migrants, and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and its implications for justice.

Droughts in Syria and floods in Bangladesh illustrate how climate change and migration are linked. Reports by the International Food Policy Research Institute and UNISDR show that from 2006 to 2011, 60 percent of the Syrian population had to deal with the worst prolonged drought and the heaviest crop failures for thousands of years as a result of climate change. The consequences included at least two million people living in extreme poverty, farmers forced to relocate to cities, and youth more susceptible to joining extremist groups. The first protests against the Syrian government in early 2011 evolved into the current civil war, which has had far-reaching regional and international consequences, including the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Bangladesh, a low-lying country with the majority of its population living close to sea level, is subject to frequent natural disasters such as cyclones, river floods and sea water intrusion due to a rise in sea levels. Climate change has the potential to displace 20 million people both within and beyond Bangladesh, most of whom will reside in urban slums with lack of access to basic services.

Two broad categories of events associated with climate change impact on migration in different ways. Rapid onset events such as storms and floods impact on migration directly and tangibly. These events have become a primary cause of forced migration, particularly internal displacement, and the effects of climate change are expected to intensify such disasters and accelerate displacement rates in upcoming decades. The number of storms, droughts, and floods has increased threefold over the last thirty years.  Since 2008, an average of nearly twenty-seven million people have been displaced annually by natural hazard-related disasters. This is the equivalent to one person being displaced every second.

The relationship between slow onset events (such as droughts, water scarcity, sea level rise, desertification, and coastal erosion) and migration is more complicated, although ecological responses due to recent climate change are already clearly visible. Slow onset events place the most stress on vulnerable groups, including the poor and indigenous peoples, women, and children. These groups may be more dependent on natural resources for their survival and lack access to coping mechanisms such as land ownership and emergency funds. As a result, they may become migrants or IDPs in order to survive. Hence, slow onset events may act as threat multipliers that exacerbate existing political and social tensions and undermine coping capacities. These may in turn lead to (violent) conflict between or within states, which can further increase the forced movement of people.

Climate change induced migration has grave implications for the human rights of those forced to migrate, the most relevant of which are economic, social, and cultural rights. The lack of citizen status and sometimes the inability to speak the host area’s language imply that many refugees have limited access to basic services, are deprived of many abovementioned rights, and cannot effectively participate in vital decision-making processes.

Legal frameworks as well as institutional roles and responsibilities to respond to climate change induced migration remain poorly developed and defined. There is no legally binding international agreement for climate change induced migration, although there is a UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons. Those forced to move across borders because of climate change are not granted refugee status, which requires political persecution as a precondition. One case exemplifies this gap: a request for refugee status by a Kiribati national, whose land and livelihoods are eroded by climate change, was rejected by the High Court of New Zealand based on a lack of legal basis.

There is also no clear provision for internal displacement occurring due to climate change. Currently, these movements are subject to domestic laws and should normally be governed by the freedom of movement and settlement. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide a normative framework for national authorities to protect IDPs in the context of conflict, human rights violations, natural disasters and development projects and can in theory cover internal displacements due to climate change impacts. Nevertheless, these are not legally binding.

Without an official definition of what constitutes a ‘climate-change-induced migrant’, and the lack of official recognition under international law, humanitarian assistance offered to refugees, migrants, and IDPs can only be based on the creative use of existing instruments, if there is political willingness to act. Protection for those displaced by the impacts of climate change must include clarifying and expanding normative and organizational frameworks; crafting comprehensive national protection policies; raising awareness of human rights protection; and pioneering more effective approaches for dealing with states that fail to protect their citizens. Even though climate change induced migration has been recognized in the Cancun Adaptation Framework, it is crucial that the high-level policy-makers in Paris adopt at least some of above mentioned options.

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