How to Protect People Fleeing Climate Change? Governments Agree on a Way Forward

As record numbers of people around the globe continue to flee war and persecution, there has been growing public concern about whether the world is ready to protect millions more who, in the decades to come, may be uprooted by floods, storms, sea level rise, and other climate change effects. While the issue of what to do about “climate refugees” is by no means new, groundbreaking progress was made last week when more than 110 governments met in Geneva to endorse an "Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change." While the event received little fanfare, its importance should not be underestimated. Many times more people displaced each year by floods, storms and other extreme weather events than are uprooted by conflict, and climate change is expected only to increase these numbers.

When I began working on the issue of disaster- and climate change-induced displacement at Refugees International (RI) over five years ago, a great deal of literature already had been published and proposals put forth by experts and policymakers (largely from developed countries) on how to address the problem. Some called for the creation of a new international agreement that would protect people fleeing climate change effects. Others argued that the 1951 Refugees Convention, which affords international protection to those fleeing a “well-founded fear of persecution … for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” be revised to include those uprooted by disasters and climate change. These proposals fell flat for numerous reasons, including reluctance by governments to agree to provide refuge to potentially millions of people who may lose their homes – some with no hope of return – in the decades to come as the full effects of climate change unfold.

From that incoherence emerged the Nansen Initiative on Disaster Induced Cross-Border Displacement. Launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway, the Nansen Initiative’s goal was to build consensus among countries on how to protect people forced to flee abroad in the context of disasters and climate change, who are not included within the 1951 Refugees Convention, and for whom no one institution or international body has the obligation to assist or protect.

With evidence mounting every day that climate and disaster risk are accelerating faster than expected, governments will need to move quickly to ensure we are ready for the human consequences.

The Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda agreed to by governments last week is the culmination of a two year process of regional consultations and extensive research (Note: RI has been contributing as a member of the Nansen Initiative Consultative Committee). Rather than propose new arrangements, the Protection Agenda builds upon a broad set of existing displacement, migration, and refugee policies and practices that have been employed by governments to protect people in such crises (e.g., humanitarian visas, temporary protection status) which can serve as a “tool box” for countries to build upon on a bilateral or regional basis. In addition, the Agenda identifies priority areas for action, including scaling up investments in reducing disaster risk and building resilience of vulnerable population to climate stress as strategies for mitigating displacement risk, and working on a bilateral or regional basis to put in place temporary or permanent humanitarian protection measures for those who flee abroad due to disasters or climate change effects at home.

What’s important about the Protection Agenda? First is its holistic approach. Rather than focusing exclusively on protecting people already on the move, it recognizes the substantial opportunities to avoid or mitigate displacement. While it is arguable whether more could have been done to prevent the displacement of the record numbers of people across the globe fleeing war and persecution, there is little dispute that robust and targeted investments today in reducing disaster risk and increasing resilience will go a long way toward mitigating future displacement.

Second, because it was developed based on consultations with countries themselves – rather than by policymakers or experts in Geneva or New York – it is politically viable. For example, the Agenda embraces approaches that are supported by low-lying small-island nations by emphasizing a priority on prevention measures and specifying that the relocation of communities be pursued only as a last resort, a point the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands clearly made when endorsing it. Where adaptation is no longer sufficient to protect people in place, and planned movement of populations becomes necessary, the Protection Agenda calls for “migration with dignity” to avoid the particular risks that migration presents such as discrimination, exploitation, and trafficking.

Third, the Protection Agenda recognizes the need for a regional approach. Of the many things the consultation process brought to light is the fact that when it comes to addressing the issue of cross-border, disaster- and climate change-related displacement, one size doesn’t fit all. Rather, the nature of the problem and how to address it will vary from region to region. Solutions will need to be practically adapted to the hazard-related and political realities on the ground and build upon existing bilateral and regional tools and policies related to cross-border population movements.

The Nansen Protection Agenda is by no means a silver bullet, however. Left unanswered are important questions regarding how to ensure that migration or relocation programs are sufficiently funded and whether countries have an obligation to assist and protect those whose homelands are rendered uninhabitable. It also has yet to be determined which bodies or institutions will be responsible for supporting the Agenda’s implementation now that the Nansen Initiative’s two-year mandate has wrapped up. No announcement was made at the launch event regarding arrangements for a “Nansen II” or similar successor body, although the Nansen Initiative Chairs did indicate that something was being planned. The Agenda also does not go far enough in providing affected and at-risk communities with opportunities to proactively engage in the Agenda’s implementation and to define and shape solutions.

While we await further news on the Protection Agenda’s implementation, the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris provide a vital opportunity to ensure that climate displacement be made a priority. Unfortunately, language regarding climate change’s impact on displacement and migration was left out of the most recent draft of the Paris text. It must be reinserted, as RI along with other organizations are calling for. With evidence mounting every day that climate and disaster risk are accelerating faster than expected, governments will need to move quickly to ensure we are ready for the human consequences.